Review: Geography, zoning, economy play into the 'why' of homelessness - Salish Current
October 5, 2022
Review: Geography, zoning, economy play into the ‘why’ of homelessness
John Dunne

Tiny home communities such as Unity Village on Post Point in Fairhaven provide safe and successful transition out of houselessness for some people. Unity Village had been facing a deadline of next year to leave the site, but a recent action by the Bellingham City Council effectively pushes that out a few more years. A newly published analysis examines why some cities have higher unhoused populations. (Amy Nelson photo © 2022)

October 5, 2022
Review: Geography, zoning, economy play into the ‘why’ of homelessness
John Dunne


Homelessness has stubbornly resisted efforts of cities and nonprofits to solve it. 

In “Homelessness is a Housing Problem, authors Gregg Colburn, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington, and Clayton Aldern, a data scientist and policy analyst based in Seattle, carefully review the available literature and statistics on homelessness. 

While they readily acknowledge that those who are unemployed, disabled, are addicted to substances or have serious mental problems are more likely to become homeless, they wanted to know why the rate of homelessness varied from city to city. They focus their analysis on 10 large metropolitan areas, with Seattle serving as their reference point. They tested whether some of the prevailing beliefs, such as mental illness, drug addiction, poverty, bad luck or generosity of public assistance accounted for the differences.

One of their more striking findings is that homelessness is highest in wealthy coastal cities and lowest in cities in the heartland. 

Cleveland, one of the poorest cities in the U.S. after it was hollowed out by the collapse of its industrial base, has a very low homelessness rate, whereas Seattle ranked third highest among cities in 2019. They point out, not surprisingly, that house prices and rents are astonishingly low in Cleveland ($50,000 median price for a single-family home in 2019). Much better to be very poor in Cleveland than in Seattle where housing is expensive and getting worse.

Chicago, however, a thriving city with a stable population, has been able to add enough housing to keep up with demand, keeping the rate of homelessness even lower than Cleveland’s.

The authors offer an analogy of musical chairs, where the person who loses his seat is the one person on crutches. To apply the analogy to the housing market, if the game starts with 10 players and 10 chairs but an 11th player joins the game and a chair is removed, the person on the crutches as well as another person ends up standing. In Cleveland, however, there are many more “chairs” than the number of players.

The authors very carefully examine each of the prevailing theories about whether individual failings, political leanings of a city, generosity of homelessness policies and services or other factors, such as weather, account for the variation of homelessness rates. They found no significant correlation in cities’ rates of homelessness with any of these factors.

Squeezed out

After excluding other factors that may influence the rate of homelessness in a city, the authors turn to the housing situation. 

Even with a substantial influx of people, usually to take high-paying jobs, there is not always a rise in homelessness. In Charlotte, North Carolina, which has had a large influx because of a boom in financial services companies, home construction has been able to keep pace with the population increase. 

The authors view housing elasticity to be the critical factor correlating with rates of homelessness. 

Elasticity is high in a city like Charlotte, which is located on a broad plain. Some cities like Seattle are constrained by their geography. In Seattle’s case, it is constrained by Puget Sound on one side and Lake Washington on the other. Seattle and other cities are also constrained by zoning codes that set aside large portions of the city for single family homes, limiting the ability to add more housing to meet the demand of a rapidly growing population. In a situation with a relatively inelastic housing supply and an increasing population, an equivalent number of people at the lowest end of the income scale will inevitably be squeezed out of housing. 

This book makes a strong argument, not about who becomes homeless but about why some cities have more homeless people than others. 

In the final chapter, the authors tackle the difficult issue of solving the homelessness problem. They examine the many efforts to address each of the three phases of homelessness:

  • prevention of homelessness
  • crisis intervention, and
  • programs to help people exit homelessness.

Current programs for prevention are largely focused on rent support, particularly for needy families, and, to a lesser extent, efforts to create more affordable housing units. Crisis interventions are largely aimed at sheltering whereas exiting homelessness has many components, such as substance and mental health treatment, job training and rent support. The authors support all these efforts but note that they are all insufficient to meet the needs of the affected communities.

What is lacking are the financial resources and the political will.

This book, despite its extensive notes and references, is quite readable and intended for concerned citizens.

“Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern, University of California Press, 2022, 284 pages

— Reviewed by John Dunne 

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