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Cities Must Open Neighborhoods to Unhoused

America’s homelessness crisis is an affordable housing crisis. It was triggered when low-income residents priced out by late 1970’s urban gentrification failed to get the Section 8 certificates (or other subsidies) necessary for them to afford housing. Reagan’s 1981 budget slashed HUD spending just as a steep increase was most needed to addressing escalating rents; widespread homelessness followed.

Reagan’s actions signaled the federal government’s abandonment of it’s longtime commitment to ensure safe and affordable housing for all Americans. It was such a tectonic shift that Reagan’s Democratic successors— the Clinton and Obama Administrations—failed to even try to end homelessness.

Joe Biden is going in a different direction.

Last week, Biden’s American Jobs Act included $213 billion for affordable housing. This will produce or renovate one million affordable housing units and 500,000 homes for low/middle income home buyers. This money is on top of the $27.5 billion in emergency rental aid included in the American Rescue Plan.

Many of us have long argued that housing is as much part of “infrastructure” as roads and bridges. Now we have a president who agrees.

Thanks to pressure from activists, Biden’s housing platform also called for “providing Section 8 housing vouchers to every eligible family so that no one has to pay more than 30% of their income for rental housing.” Currently, nearly 75% of households eligible for Section 8 rental assistance do not receive it.

We finally have a president committed to ending widespread homelessness. And a grassroots housing movement to provide political support. Biden’s budget plans are not perfect; advocates sought nearly double the $40 billion allocated for public housing renovation– but it’s light years beyond what any prior president has proposed.

Federal funding is essential for ending homelessness. Now the key question is: Will cities open neighborhoods to ensure housing is available for the unhoused?

Cities Must Expand Affordable Housing

In Generation Priced Out I questioned how cities could house their homeless populations given exclusionary zoning that prevented new multi-family housing in most buildable areas. I told the story of a major battle to stop affordable senior housing in New York City’s upscale Nolita neighborhood; local “progressives” fought the project even though it was led by Habitat for Humanity. I also described how progressive cities like San Francisco resisted even trying to build affordable housing in upscale neighborhoods.

If every city allowed 100% affordable housing to be built in all neighborhoods it would still take years waiting for occupancy.

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The NY Timesrecently reported on battles by upscale SoHo residents to stop the rezoning of their overwhelmingly white and elite neighborhood for affordable housing. This opposition is occurring in an overwhelming Democratic neighborhood.

Biden understands that cities have erected barriers to ending homelessness. His American Jobs Act specifically urges cities to “eliminate such needless barriers to producing affordable housing.” He even offers grants to help cities make these changes.

Affordable Housing Overlays

Given the political obstacles in opening neighborhoods to multi-family housing, what policies should those committed to ending homelessness pursue?

Activists can start by working to pass 100% Affordable Housing Overlays. Enacted by Cambridge in October 2020 and recently sponsored by Berkeley Councilmember Terry Taplin , the measure increases allowable building heights and density in virtually all neighborhoods—but only for those low-income residents qualifying for affordable housing.

Some will question this strategy because it does not expand housing for the working and middle-class who earn too much to qualify for affordable units. Nor does it allow inclusionary housing in market rate projects to add to the affordable housing supply. Advocates should continue to push for the increased density that all cities still need to end the overall affordability crisis.

But conditioning upzoning for the unhoused on also including market-rate housing will likely make it harder to end homelessness. A 100% Affordable Housing Overlay frames the upzoning as part of a national campaign backed by President Biden to end homelessness; including market rate housing reignites battles over “gentrification.”

To be clear, new construction alone won��t end homelessness. If every city allowed 100% affordable housing to be built in all neighborhoods it would still take years waiting for occupancy. That’s why cities should also use the new federal funds to purchase or lease existing hotels and apartments that have significant vacancies. Cities can also use the federal funds for local rent subsidy programs that expand the affordable housing supply.

Can Cities Accomplish This?

Many are skeptical that cities will end homelessness. Some cities have not used existing funds well, a reality highlighted by last week’s mass police arrests in Los Angeles’ Echo Park.

But the arrival of federal money changes the debate. Instead of having to deal with national political administrations impervious to grassroots demands, activists can make local candidates’ plans for ending homelessness a key issue in mayoral and council/supervisor elections.

randy shaw

Randy Shaw

Austin, Boston, Los Angeles, New York City and Seattle have mayor’s races in 2021 or 2022. All also have major homelessness problems. Biden’s funding enables activists to demand that candidates’ announce their plans for opening neighborhoods for the unhoused—and should help make affordable housing/homeless policy central to these campaigns.

Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron