Flexibility won’t go far enough

August 18, 2016 Benjamin Holtzman
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Americans seeking the most dynamic and inventive policy initiatives of the past few decades will find them in cities and metropolitan areas, as Bruce Katz astutely notes in his essay, Go Local. Katz argues that the next president should help to encourage metropolitan dynamism by making the scope of available federal resources more transparent, giving cities more flexibility to utilize them, and increasing cities’ abilities to leverage private and civic capital.

Yet, while cities are able to tackle many issues, federal devolution may not help improve some of the most pressing problems of metropolitan America today: homelessness and low-income housing. Giving cities more flexibility may only encourage municipal leaders to ignore issues affecting cities’ most vulnerable populations, given the unclear economic incentive to do so.

Homelessness and affordable housing cut across metropolitan areas; these are national crises that require substantial nationwide policy initiatives to alleviate. Devolution is unlikely to encourage cities to substantially address these crises.

Take homelessness, which was the plight of more than 1.5 million Americans in 2014. Many cities are reticent to enact comprehensive solutions to homelessness in part because of concern that doing so will make their city a magnet for those without homes.

This concern has shaped municipal responses since homelessness first began rapidly growing in the late 1970s. For instance, in 1980s New York—which had (and has) the largest numbers of homeless individuals and families in the country—Mayor Ed Koch believed that if the city provided housing or significant social services, it would merely attract more homeless to the city. “The more service you provide, the more people see it as an attraction, and will enter the system voluntarily,” as Tony Gliedman, Koch’s Housing commissioner, put it. This widespread mentality is one reason for the failure of municipalities to adequately address homelessness over the past four decades.

Recently, cities have gone even further than a general reticence to enacting policies that might “attract” the homeless. They have increasingly passed measures that criminalize actions that are often unavoidable for those without a home. Santa Cruz, for example, has criminalized sitting on public sidewalks, sleeping in vehicles, or camping in public. Cities like Orlando have gone further by also criminalizing begging and even sharing food.

These cities are hardly unique. A recent survey of 187 cities found significant increases in homeless criminalization laws since 2011. Rather than addressing the root causes of homelessness—the lack of housing and income—elected officials have attempted to make being homeless so unpleasant that homeless people will pack up and leave (indeed, many cities—including “progressive” cities such as San Francisco and Portland—will even pay for your bus ticket out of town if you’re homeless).

This race to be the least welcoming city for the homeless will likely continue with devolution. Without explicit federal policy directives, many municipal leaders may choose to devote even fewer resources for homelessness—or at least restrict resources that do not make living without a home a criminal act.

The next administration should end this municipal-level competition to repel the homeless by finally devoting the resources needed to adequately address homelessness in all cities. It could, for example, significantly increase housing vouchers (and potentially limit federal funds to municipalities that enact criminalization measures). Of course, federal policy should be guided by the most successful policies developed at the municipal level—the very kinds of bottom-up initiatives Katz praises. For example, the next administration could enthusiastically support the adoption of programs such as Salt Lake City’s “Housing First Model,” which has reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent since 2005.

The next administration should also increase federal resources to address the principal cause of homelessness nationwide: the lack of affordable housing. Since the 1970s, the federal government has significantly lessened its commitment to improving low and moderate-income housing, contributing to the present affordability crisis that affects cities across the country. In the face of federal retrenchment, most cities have done little to improve housing affordability. Not only is doing so costly, but, like homelessness, many cities envision few gains from—and potential risks in—making housing more affordable to low and moderate-income people

New York, in contrast, has been hailed as national leader in municipal efforts to improve affordable housing. Here too, however, history can provide important lessons. In the 1980s, Mayor Koch consistently lambasted federal-level housing cutbacks, but after years of struggling with an affordability crisis that made it difficult for even moderate-income populations to live in New York, Koch decided to act. In 1985, Koch announced an extraordinary municipal housing plan, which committed $5.1 billion over ten years to build or rehabilitate more than 175,000 moderate and low-income housing units, mostly via the city’s capital budget.

No city has devoted such significant levels of municipal resources to housing since Koch launched his housing plan. The two subsequent mayoral administrations largely continued Koch’s initiative, while the most recent mayors—Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio—each launched their own housing programs that built on Koch’s legacy by preserving or creating hundreds of thousands of moderate and low-income units.

New York’s history, however, reflects both the kinds of municipal-level policy dynamism Katz applauds, while also revealing its limitations. Indeed, New York’s impressive housing initiatives have struggled to gain ground against an environment in which the country has lost 10,000 units of federally subsidized housing each year since the 1970s. Municipal initiatives cannot do the job alone.

The burdens of New York’s continued affordability crisis are widely evident, from its population of more than 60,000 homeless people (over a third of which are children), to its hundreds of thousands of residents who skirt homelessness by living “doubled up,” to its median rent climbing above $3,000 an apartment.

These conditions are hardly unique to New York. Indeed, over 25 percent of all renting families in America spend more than half their income on housing—an extraordinary figure. According to a recent poll, nearly 50 percent of Americans have struggled to pay their rent or mortgage over the past year or know someone who has, and more than 60 percent cite housing affordability as a “key issue.” Like homelessness, the crisis of housing affordability is unlikely to be tackled nationwide under devolution; it requires nationwide policies and a substantial federal commitment of resources.

Homelessness and, especially, housing affordability are issues that affect an increasing number of Americans, and they are ripe for a bold political platform by the next president. Indeed, 75 percent of Americans said they would be more likely to support a candidate who focused on housing affordability.

There is no shortage of federal solutions to these crises, from substantially increasing National Housing Trust Funds, to rent controls, to providing legal services in housing court, to—as Mathew Desmond has recently argued for in Evicted —providing a universal housing voucher program. These kinds of federal commitments will, no doubt, require bold and extraordinary federal commitments. But they would represent the powerful force of the federal government working with municipalities to address nationwide crises facing American cities.

Benjamin Holtzman is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Brown University, where he also received his Ph.D. His research has appeared in the Journal of Urban History, Space and Culture, Jacobin, and several edited collections. He was a Miller Center National Fellow in 2015-2016.