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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.

What does "a crappy area of Osaka" entail, exactly? Presumably the low crime rate means you don't hear gunshots, can leave things outside without them being stolen, etc.

One of the stronger anti-YIMBY arguments is that cheaper housing in your area, specifically, means the people who cause crime, theft, and generally unpleasant things will move in. A subtler argument is that, sure, you can prevent that by enforcing the law and maintaining strict standards of behavior - but politics doesn't support that, maybe it'd be racist, etc.

I'm not sure how true this is. I'm pretty sure marginally cheaper housing - the kind where there are (exaggerated numbers) now 2x as many top-tier apartments, and people love those so their price only goes down 10%, but and that daisy chains all the way to rent being 20% cheaper in less desirable areas - doesn't cause that. And you'd expect new development to, mostly, be that, because developers want to maximize profit so they'll only go as far down the demand curve as competition forces them to. Do mandated affordable units mess with this? My vague sense is no, but idk.

But it might be a stronger argument against zoning that allows a new building full of cheap apartments a tiny bit bigger than a college dorm, the kind that'd cost whatever the equivalent of that $150/month here is.

Even without that, I have a strong sense that the general reaction to the permitting and construction of a bunch of dorm room-size apartments would be negative. Building codes don't really allow it, anyway. Are there any other good reasons to oppose it?