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Culture War Roundup for the week of August 14, 2023

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Has the Beinoff Homelessness and Housing Initiative Report been discussed yet here? You can read the report here, an executive summary here, and a transcript of the report being discussed on the Ezra Klein Show here.

Released in June, it’s a statewide study on homelessness in California, the largest of its kind in some thirty years. It’s built on “nearly 3,200 participants, selected intentionally to provide a representative sample, and weighted data to provide statewide estimates. To augment survey responses, we recruited 365 participants to participate in in-depth interviews”. No question as to the state of focus: California is just over a tenth of the American population but nearly a third of its homeless population and nearly half of the unsheltered homeless population.

Approximately one in five participants (19%) entered homelessness from an institution (such as a prison or prolonged jail stay); 49% from a housing situation in which participants didn’t have their name on a lease or mortgage (non-leaseholder), and 32% from a housing situation where they had their name on a lease or mortgage (leaseholder)...Leaseholders reported a median of 10 days notice that they were going to lose their housing, while non-leaseholders reported a median of one day.

Other takeaways are that contra claims that homeless populations are traveling to California for warm weather or social services, 90% of interviewed participants said they were from California (and 75% from the same county they were homeless in), and backed it up with various details about their hometowns and whatnot. This also aligns with the finding that only about a third of the homeless even sought out government services, suggesting that most people are not taking advantage of whatever unique government services for the homeless California offers (which aren't good anyway). This overall makes some common sense imo - if you’re so broke you don’t have somewhere to live then your options for travel are likely limited as well.

The paper is interesting as a resource in its own right, but I think it’s most useful combined with the claims made in a book referenced in the Ezra Klein discussion of the report: “Homelessness is a Housing Problem.”

The piece argues that housing costs are the primary driving factor behind homelessness. For those who claim that homelessness is mostly a reflection of insanity and addiction, researchers point out that those things are frequently worse in other states with less severe homeless problems (correlations available in the hyperlink).

For instance, West Virginia has worse poverty, mental health, and substance abuse, but has a homeless problem vastly less bad than California's (0.09% vs 0.4%). The only thing California performs worse than West Virginia on is, predictably, housing costs. Or why does San Francisco, with a poverty rate of 11.4%, have such a worse homelessness problem (0.95%) than much poorer cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans, all of which have poverty rates more than twice as high around 23% and homelessness rates around only 0.27%? The clearest answer is the most straightforward: San Francisco is simply twice as expensive to live in (a studio apartment in SF is little over $2k vs a little over 1k for the other three cities). This also lines up with the survey responses, with 89% of respondents saying housing costs were a barrier to them finding housing.

This doesn’t necessarily mean those mental health and addiction aren’t highly important here are as well, but that there may be a demographic of fairly low functioning people who are able to take care of themselves, just barely, at low costs, but are simply unable to under heavier financial burdens. Jerusalem Demsas compares this to a game of musical chairs: as you take away chairs one by one steadily the slower and weaker kids will find themselves without a place to sit. But if you don’t have enough chairs / are going through a severe housing shortage, of course you’re gonna have a worse chairlessness problem then elsewhere, even if their kids are slower and weaker.

And once you’re out, it can be very hard to get back on your feet. Your credit history is gonna be terrible, as is your appearance. Maybe you live in your car for a while but then it gets impounded because you have nowhere legal to park it and can’t pay for the tickets. Then you’ve lost your shelter as well as your ability to go to a job. From there you’re really in the streets, which is scary - some people may take uppers due to fear of being asleep in public where people can hurt you or steal from you, and thus pick up addictions. Things spiral very fast from bad to worse.

Taken together, these suggest early intervention and a clear policy prescription to build more housing and do what can be done to lower costs - not because every disheveled person on the street is a fresh-faced suburban homeowner waiting to happen, but specifically the opposite - that every poor or unstable person living on the cusp of not being able to afford where they stay bears the risk that it’ll be much harder for them to bounce back from a fall than to sustain where they are.

Interested to hear what other people thought.

As the other replies have said, the vast majority of “homeless” people are unemployed or mostly unemployed people living in their parents’/friend’s/trap house or in their car or couchsurfing. Even the majority of homeless people of no fixed abode aren’t like those living in tents on Venice Beach. These people can indeed be helped by cheaper housing costs or state-subsidized housing schemes. But they also aren’t what is usually meant by the public when talking about the homeless problem.

The problem is with the minority of homeless who are psychotic fent or meth addicted predators. These are the people living on the street in San Francisco or LA and causing problems for everyone else. Demography of the more general “homeless” population isn’t relevant. These are people who deliberately refuse shelters with space because they want to stay on the street to do drugs, offering them housing isn’t going to solve that problem or associated problems with drug-related crime done by people who want a fix.

It seems plausible that the absence of affordable housing for the first type of person creates a pipeline whereby they are more likely to become the second type of person.

This seems likely.

But, in my mind, the biggest thing that turns a type 1 down-on-their luck person into a type 2 pants pooper is the wide availability of fentanyl and heroin on the streets today.

Fixing housing affordability issues seems is a hard problem. Fixing housing affordability has never been done by any country (as far as I know).

Meanwhile, there are lots of countries with essentially zero drug use. Taiwan, China, Singapore, and Japan have don't have drugs. And unlike the Prohibition Al Capone memes, these countries also have very few if any gangs. We could reduce drug use by a ton and it wouldn't be that hard. All it would take is a serious effort to criminalize drugs.

And before anyone says "War on Drugs didn't work", we should take a look at the overdose stats. Overdoses deaths in the U.S. are up 1000% since the 1980s. The correct take, IMO, is that the war on drugs did work. We just didn't do it hard enough and gave up too soon.

Fixing housing affordability issues seems is a hard problem. Fixing housing affordability has never been done by any country (as far as I know).

Making housing perfectly affordable might be a hard problem but making it significantly more affordable than current day california is an easy problem. Just remove the artificial restrictions to building new housing and the market will do the rest.

Fixing housing affordability issues seems is a hard problem. Fixing housing affordability has never been done by any country (as far as I know).

Most places in the US have "fixed" housing affordability, in the sense that someone who works 2000 hours a year at the real local minimum wage (which may be higher than the statutory minimum if the economy is good) can afford a singlewide trailer home and/or a room in a shared house. AFAIK, the only major cities with good jobs where that is true are in Texas.

Japan has "fixed" housing affordability in the sense that an unskilled worker can afford a room in a SRO, even in Tokyo.

In none of these places is homelessness a major problem.

Just remove the artificial restrictions to building new housing and the market will do the rest.

I used to believe that but I'm starting to have second thoughts. Look at square feet of housing per capita in the U.S.. It's never been higher. California is uniquely stupid of course, but there is lots of housing going up all over the country. But prices keep going up too. This despite interest rates which have made housing less affordable than ever.

Population growth? What population growth? California is shrinking and the U.S. has flat-lined. And yet still housing prices go up.

My personal thesis: Housing prices behave like a meme stonk. They go up because they go up. China proves how far this insanity can go before it hits a breaking point.

Housing is hard because no one knows what to do. On the other hand we KNOW how to stop drug use because we have examples from other countries. We don't have those examples.for housing. Until we get examples of what works it's just, like, your opinion man that building more houses will fix affordability.

Population growth? What population growth? California is shrinking and the U.S. has flat-lined. And yet still housing prices go up.

We are allergic to actually counting the number of immigrants in this country. We're probably undercounting the population by around 20 million, which would definitely be enough to put upward pressure on housing costs.

I don't know enough about this area to have any confidence in this, but:

Look at square feet of housing per capita in the U.S.. It's never been higher

One of the effects of something like restrictive zoning and building codes is precisely to increase square feet per capita. Units per capita or something is probably a better measure. Which doesn't look up to me, although that may just be the wrong graph.

Yeah, you're probably right. Although the graph you sent shows their has been no significant reduction in units/capita since the year 2000. So what changed? Why have housing prices outstripped inflation for decades?

My personal answer to this is that inflation has been systematically understated in official figures for political reasons, and that if you use more rigorous and accurate means of calculating inflation things will line up a bit better. An additional factor would be large financial firms having a real estate strategy consisting of buying up huge swathes of housing stocks and then renting them out - Blackstone is the single largest owner of family rental homes in the USA (or at least they were, and there's this vast and purposefully impenetrable web of holding companies designed to obscure this).

Housing is hard because no one knows what to do.

Just be like Houston and don't have zoning or red tape. Housing is affordable and it has an absurdly low homelessness rate, lower than Denmark.

Even Houston isn't immune. Prices have gone up 7.1% per year since 2015 (as far back as I can easily check). Inflation in this period has averaged just 3.1%.

But it gets worse. The average mortgage rate right now is around 7%, while in 2015 it was less than 4%.

For a buyer with 20% down, I calculate that the monthly payment to own a home in Houston has increased by 150% since 2015, or a whopping 12% per year. While I'll concede that Houston prices are still quite reasonable, their zoning is not a panacea.

Stonk-bubble mentality can eat any increase in housing supply. We need speculators to feel actual pain to reduce house price increase expectations.

Start by making depreciation not tax deductible unless you can prove that your property actually went down in value. Currently, you can "write down" the value of your investment over 27.5 years. This lets you take a paper loss and pay no taxes all the while your property is actually going up in value.