Many cities are facing a similar problem: a severe shortage of affordable housing options coupled with a substantial amount of citizens going unhoused. It’s a complex issue that we’ve been grappling with for decades, during which a variety of different approaches have been tried—yet the problem only seems to be intensifying.
Housing costs have risen sharply while income levels have failed to keep pace. More than half of all renters in the U.S. now face a "housing cost burden"—spending more than thirty-percent of their income on housing. This has resulted in increased demand and competition for the limited number of affordable units that do exist, making conditions even tougher for low-income households.
As housing becomes increasingly un-affordable, federal and state subsidies designed to mitigate this issue continue to be direly underfunded. Since the 1990s,approximately 25% of the existing public housing stock has been either sold off or demolished , with no funding allocated to build new public housing.
Instead, we use a voucher system which low-income households seek subsidized housing in the private market. But unlike social security, medicare, and food stamps, housing assistance does not serve everyone who is eligible.
Today, only 1 in 4 households that qualify for housing assistance actually receives it.
The current approach to building new affordable housing requires developers (both for profit and non-profit) to compete for a very limited supply of public funding and tax credits. This complex approach is extremely inefficient and expensive—typically approaching $200,000 or more per unit of housing. While research shows that providing housing first is still more cost-effective than the indirect costs of leaving people on the streets , reorganizing budgets to address this fact is no easy task.
In the past, an abundance of single-room occupancy (SRO) housing provided low-cost, short-term options to help fill the gap. They consisted of a modest, private room—typically under 100 square feet—supported by a bathroom down the hall and a shared kitchen and dining room on a separate floor.
But barriers to housing development have increased rapidly since the 1970s. This initially came in the form of minimum building standards that offered quality improvements to tenants, but also resulted in increased costs and the near depletion of SRO housing (an estimated one million units were demolished between 1970 and the mid-1980s). In more recent years, local barriers such as zoning regulations and lengthy land use approval processes have intensified—adding further cost and complexity to
Uncontrolled homelessness ensues, and local communities are left to deal with the on-the-ground consequences.
Traditional homeless shelters have proven to be widely insufficient, ineffective, and often times inhumane. With no other alternatives, a sizable population is going to the streets—defined as criminals by a growing number of anti-camping ordinances that make it illegal for these people to exist in space. This leaves our police departments with an expensive, unwinnable battle where they may succeed in evicting people from a specific site, only to watch them move on to the next residual piece of real estate.
As this grim problem continues to dredge on, more and more people are beginning to demand a more practical and productive response.
Next is the Village Emerges.