Housing solutionism and best versus the good

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this article is part of the Village Buildings book project / article collection.

The general or best solution

The general solution: limiting or ending capitalism.

See XKCD, "The General Solution".

General vs specific solution is a form of best vs good.

Engels - first the revolution

"The Housing Problem" - foundational text for the final-solution school of housing advocacy.

Peter Marcuse - redistribute resources, limit capitalism

Marcuse, P. (2016). After Exposing the Roots of Homelessness – What? Urban Geography, 38(3), 357–359. doi:10.1080/02723638.2016.1247601

"I am deeply impressed by the contributions to this symposium and the debates that have led up to it, and happy that my little essay of more than 25 years ago [Marcuse, Peter. "Neutralizing Homelessness." Socialist Review, 1988. issue 1] fed into them. But at the same time I am saddened by its continued timeliness.

"It is now clear that we know enough about homelessness and its causes and effects to understand how abhorrent it is within an affluent society, and further that we know enough to be aware of what is needed to end it, what can and should be done. I write “‘we’ know enough”: at least no one seriously argues today that homelessness is inevitable as a natural and healthy phenomenon, needed to keep society going, providing an incentive for those too lazy or too stupid to get to work and take care of themselves.

"So why do we still have homelessness in countries like the United States today?" [...]

"But consider the further implications of acting on what we know about homelessness, pursing its implications critically in public policy formation. The money and resources that are needed to provide adequate housing for all must either come from the private profit-motivated sector—we live in a capitalist society—, or from government. In the private sector that means raising wages and incomes substantially at the bottom and the middle; and in the government sector, raising taxes at the top. Clearly controversial. Power to bring about either event does not lie with those pushing to solve homelessness."

"What needs to be done urgently today—yet will be done gradually and, ultimately, tomorrow—is really pretty clear."

Don Mitchell (2020)

homelessness IS capitalism accommodation.

"Without homelessness there will be no capitalism.*" (Preface ix).

"* This is not at all to say that overthrowing capitalism will automatically solve the problem of houselessness among some portion of the population -- it did not in any of the state socialist societies that emerged after the Russian Revolution -- but rather that homelessness plays an inescapable, foundational, and necessary role in capitalism; it is neither contingent nor epiphenomenal, but constitutive."

"Homelessness is not a status of shelterlessness, at least not foundationally, but is rather both an effect and a determinant of the circulation of capital and teh division of labor it requires. Shelterlessness (or houselessness, as many homeless activists and their advocates now call it) is an epiphenomenal form of deeper structural processes, for, as we will see, homeless people have historically, and not infrequently, been sheltered and even housed...In fact, at this epiphenomenal level, homelessness is precisely a form of sheltering in capitalism, just as much as are suburban tract homes, tiny studios and bedsits, or luxury condos in towering skyscrapers. These deeper structural processes are...the dynamics of capital circulation and accumulation that require impoverishment of a significant, and growing, number of people to function well."

--Mitchell, Mean Streets: Homelessness, Public Space, and the Limits of Capital (2020).

Housing is the solution

It's an appealing, intuitive, idea, and often said in the homelessness world: the solution to homelessness is housing. (eg here by National Alliance to End Homelessness https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/what-causes-homelessness/housing/). Who could disagree? What devil would want that they shouldn't have housing?

However, perhaps it is a bit like saying the solution to cancer is to not have cancer. It's true enough, but how? Perhaps, in the case of cancer, first by studying how and doing what helps prevent it, e.g. health practices and environmental protections; then, how soonest to detect it, since sooner remedies are much more effective; then what techniques are best to treat it; then, how to fairly choose what to do, given competing prevention/treatment options to approve or fund. The goal is clear but there are many paths.



The self-evidentness of "Housing ends homelessness" belies the complex history of how it arose, and what work it does in the field. It is associated with the late-1990s categorizing the "chronic homeless" (Culhane & Kahn, 1998, etc), who permanently need and can be effectively treated (Tsemberis 1999 etc) with conventional housing plus services, provided without treatment preconditions ("Housing First"). Increasingly this has been generalized into the officially endorsed concept for all homelessness response, and used to oppose or limit support for 'shelters,' or anything classified as transitional housing, and sometimes also charitable services such as mobile showers (e.g. Parsell & Watts, 2017).

Also, "housing ends homelessness" or Housing First ideas are typically used to argue, explicitly or implicitly, for providing housing that is the same as current, conventional market housing (see e.g. PSU HRAC's 2019 homelessness report); or a variant, "supportive housing," usually defined as that plus on-site medical and social services/facilities. Often, there is an argument that this is not only the best thing to, but saves public money by reducing use of other services -- which, while it helps to seal a slam-dunk case, turns out to be generally doubtful, and anyway unfortunate in arguing that helping the needy must pay for itself.

Or often, now, permanent supportive housing is seen as the /only/ solution. For example, a recent OPB story "Multnomah County Seeing Spike In People Experiencing Chronic Homelessness" quoted Multnomah County / City of Portland Joint Office of Homeless Services: "Jolin said the office already knows what the solution is. 'The fact that we don’t have supporting housing is why we’re seeing a persistent increase in the chronically homeless over time,' he said." The Joint Office "defines supportive housing as housing that is affordable to those with 'very limited to almost no income' and is equipped with onsite mental health treatment and other support services." [though the US Interagency Council on Homelessness doesn't consider on-site required: https://www.usich.gov/solutions/housing/supportive-housing/; and Sam Tsemberis, chief promulgator of the approach, defined it initially as, and prefers, housing that is *not* integrated with on-site services].

So for example, we see, as city response to homelessness, policy like the Portland 2016 Housing Bond, dedicating $258M to create 1,300 units of permanently affordable housing, 600 for households below 30% of AMI, 300 of them Permanent Supportive Housing. Portland Housing Bureau just announced they have hit goal, (via the crucial factor of state law changing to allow funding of private projects), funding 1,424 units, with $213M of the money -- 64% new units, 36% acquisition/rehab. That averages $150k of city funding per unit, probably higher for the new units, and total subsidy per unit much higher due to partner developers bringing other subsidy funds such as LIHTC tax credits, so I'll loosely guess $300k/unit. These projects also have significant rent income from most home recipients, via income or benefits.

One issue with these projects is what housing economists call the "crowding out" effect of subsidized housing. They are generally in good locations which, given the level of housing demand, would likely otherwise have been developed as market-rate housing. While subsidized projects clearly help the city's affordability more, it should be compared to what positive affordability effect the market-rate housing might have had; and also, what alternately could be done with the subsidies.

The basic problem here is that we have a quite costly response, of creating/acquiring housing units at $100k's each, which is helping only a small part of the needy population; and we have both a large needy population existing, but steady inflow of more people into homelessness. Of course, we could say (and advocates often do say) that we just need to greatly scale up the response. But do we even know how much impact the current approach has, that we would know how much it would need scaling? I think we hardly know or agree on that at all.

Official announcements and advocacy often state or imply that 100 units of permanent supportive housing would reduce chronic homelessness by 100 households; but aggregate-effects research, such as reviewed by O'Flaherty in his recent lit review, find dramatically different results, of < 10 household reduction for every 100 new PSH units. (O'Flaherty, Brendan. "Homelessness Research: A Guide for Economists (and Friends)." Journal of Housing Economics (2019), doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhe.2019.01.003. PDF: https://drive.google.com/open...).

In any case, when confronted with a large social project such as ending homelessness, shouldn't we ask how best, cost-effectively, and expeditiously it can be done, and not just accept a "trust us!" from the establishment in charge? Is it undignifying the homeless, to ask what housing is, how it can be done anew? I think it's more undignifying to suggest that the answers are all known, to a monumentally complex and severe problem stretching on for decades and in many places including West Coast cities, getting worse. With deep respect for the many committed, caring, expert people working in this field -- and recognizing that experienced advocates may feel embattled and inclined to circle wagons and use what rhetoric seems to work -- I think, as Giancarlo De Carlo said: architecture is too important to be left to the architects. ("Architecture's Public", 1970).

In my opinion, towards housing for all, governments should focus on first on reducing overall housing scarcity and cost factors, then on the potential for helping the least-served with a housing benefit (i.e. voucher), and then on enabling in the most cost-effective way the largest possible amount of basic housing options, in the way that least crowds out other housing production; and by combining all means, move towards an effective "right to housing." Some obvious candidates for where governments might look for lowest-subsidy-cost, adequate new dwellings are: incenting and facilitating house-sharing, of underutilized e.g. empty-nest homes; and likewise, low-cost accessory dwelling and cottage cluster housing aimed at low-income households.

The seemingly obvious "housing ends homelessness" answer, in my opinion, unfortunately tends to evade necessary analyses, and considering issues broadly and radically. It tends to promote a costly new-housing 'cure' over possibly much more cost-effective preventions or treatments, it tends to occlude the question of what counts or works as 'housing,' and how it might be done differently. Exactly contrary to hopes, it may help tend to frame the problem such that it will never be solved, at least in our time.


thread with Watts et al:  https://twitter.com/tmccormick/status/1189138645866799106

cf: Parsell, Cameron, and Beth Watts. "Charity and Justice: A Reflection on New Forms of Homelessness Provision in Australia." European Journal of Homelessness. Volume 11, No. 2, December 2017.  https://www.feantsaresearch.org/download/think-piece-12032277176126500690.pdf.

Abstract: Charity directed at people who are homeless is invariably portrayed as positive. The good intentions of the provider of charity are not only lauded, but equated with positive outcomes for the receiver. The often severe material deprivation experienced by those who are homeless appears to justify the celebration of an extremely low bar of resource provision. Extending what has been the historic provision of food, drinks, blankets, and other day-to-day means of survival, contemporary charity in Australia also includes the provision of mobile shower, mobile clothes washing, and mobile hair dressing facilities. The emergence of similar ‘novel’ interventions to ‘help the homeless’ are seen in a wide range of other countries. In this paper we examine the consequences of providing charity to people who are homeless; consequences for the giver, receiver, and society more broadly. Drawing on the ideas of Peter Singer and the ‘effective altruist’ movement as a possible corrective to this prevailing view of charity, we suggest that such charitable interventions may not only do little good, but may actually do harm. We further argue that justice is achieved when inequities are disrupted so that people who are homeless can access the material condition required to exercise autonomy over how they live, including the resources required to wash, clothe and feed themselves how and when they choose. 


Parsell, Cameron. "Homelessness, Identity, and our Poverty of Ambition." Keynote address at 14th European Research Conference on Homelessness. 20 September 2019, Helsingborg, Sweden. 

Presentation slides: https://www.feantsaresearch.org/public/user/Observatory/2019/2019_conference/ppts/Plenary_-_Cameron_Parsell_-_Keynote_Europe_September_2019.pdf

Video:  https://www.facebook.com/FEANTSA/videos/515174705720867/ (2:40 - 33:20). 

    "We overserve people who are experiencing homelessness, and this overservicing represents one of the key barriers to actually ending it." (near start).

     "Homelessness exists in Australia and increases because actually we pity them, we pity them 

as someone deficient, as the downtrodden, as a group of people that we want to exercise our compassion towards. Whereas a few years ago we were talking about justice, we were talking about evidence, we were talkingabout ending homelessness, this is what we're doing in Australia now:  we're actually giving brand new vans and washing machines, and driving around washing their clothes."


Culhane, Dennis P. & Stephen Metraux. "Rearranging the Deck Chairs or Reallocating the Lifeboats? Homelessness Assistance and Its Alternatives." Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol 74, Issue 1, 2008, pp111-121. https://doi.org/10.1080/01944360701821618.  [full text].