Breaking Records: American Homelessness

The United States passed an ignominious milestone this year, with more than 650,000 homeless people. This figure — a record, according to Axios, and almost certainly a lowball — is inextricably linked to the nation’s chronic, insufficient production of new housing units. Of course, in this musical-chairs game of a housing market, the most vulnerable groups have been hit hardest. Per Axios, some of the numbers are staggering:

  • Homeless families with children increased by 16% in 2023, comprising 28% of the US homeless population — roughly 186,000 people.
  • Despite being just 13 percent of the US population, African-Americans made up 37% of the US homeless population, and 50% (!) of homeless people in families with children — roughly 90,000 people.
  • 61 percent of homeless adults were men, including 90 percent of homeless veterans.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported separately in September that homelessness among seniors is reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression.

This is a slow-motion disaster. It is also an epic failure of the nation’s moral priorities, as enshrined in law. While it is true, of course, that addiction, mental illness, and poverty all contribute to people becoming homeless, I think it is important that the role of high housing costs, made worse by limits on missing-middle housing and SROs, not be ignored. There was a time when American cities (and towns, and suburbs) could grow creatively and quickly to house a rising population. Then, it became the law’s priority, in too many places, to oppose any change. Homelessness is a visible human consequence.

Community and Microcosm in NoVa

An LT reader and fellow urban writer based in the DC area, Bryce Tolpen, has launched a new Substack called Political Devotions. One of his first podcasts, “Stories & objects”, explores a global community that has coalesced around Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia; and how an arts space in a strip mall, StudioPause, came to serve as a neighborhood focal-point in the post-2020 American anomie that may never quite end. Such an interesting piece — check it out, along with the rest of Bryce’s writing and podcasts. He is a great storyteller, and writes with a perspective that incorporates a thoughtful and eclectic range of influences.

Status Check

I haven’t written much here lately — other obligations have taken priority. Also:

I have been trying to come up with a new organizing principle for this page. One reason is positive: when I began writing here, 13 years ago (!), I was about to begin my last year of graduate school. At the time, the spirit of New Urbanism had captured many imaginations (including, to an extent, my own), and I was especially interested in Andrés Duany’s assertions about the need to legalize traditional building patterns (an obvious factor in the title of this blog); but I wasn’t convinced that master-planning was the right approach, and I had also found little discussion on the Web or in the press about the role that land use law might be playing in housing markets, or how market-rate housing was becoming less affordable in many regions. I wanted to explore those issues and see what I could learn.

Since the mid-2010s, there has been a sea change: a widespread mainstream awakening to the role of land-use policy in shaping regional housing markets. I think it’s fair to say this was helped by the growing visibility of the scarcity of housing units, and the fact that it began to impact more people in the professional class. California and Oregon, two housing-expensive states, recently enacted laws that presume this dynamic to be at work — and seek to create many new legal units by relaxing zoning. Major cities across the country, including Minneapolis and New York, have largely accepted the same premise. Development opponents are now routinely expected to engage with impacts on housing; and articles skewering the obstructionary role of local zoning have become commonplace. For these reasons, I don’t feel the same urgency about raising attention anymore. It has become conventional wisdom that zoning contributes to housing shortages; and that these impacts deserve scrutiny. This change is a major win, and I hope my contributions here, and in publications, have helped to bring this discussion forward since 2010. Based on the engagement I’ve gotten from readers, I think they have.

But there is also a less positive side to my questioning of purpose here: it is clear to me that none of what has changed has been nearly enough. Not yet. Today we see and discuss the role of zoning in housing markets more easily, and this represents progress toward a goal I believe many share, namely, to create a more responsive legal framework for urban growth. But actual reforms, so far, have been far too modest; market pressures remain high; a NIMBY mindset continues to prevent enough building to match demand (particularly in the suburbs); and inequality continues to be amplified by past circumstances and present inertia. The current gridlock in the housing market (due, they say, to high interest rates) has pushed the cost of a home to record highs. And if existing pressures weren’t enough, American cities, with high levels of homelessness, now face a migration crisis that will require homes for perhaps millions of additional people — a Sisyphean challenge whose high-water mark remains unknown.

To be candid, I have a bad feeling about where this is all going. Healthy social institutions need to be able to adapt to changing demands, and, right now — despite some key recent victories — America’s model for urban growth is not capable of being sufficiently responsive. We need better results. With tent cities, shelters at capacity, and impossibly high rents, I fear that some US cities are at a turning point, and may be moving in the direction of those global cities where a mismatch between the population and available housing creates a permanent class of homeless or barely-housed people. To head that off, we would need elected officials and municipal planning officials to get serious about authorizing much more housing construction. We would also require a more coherent policy on migration, one that acknowledges the centrality of affordable homes to successful resettlement. From what I can see, I am not optimistic.

Whether a niche law-and-planning blog can do much to move the needle on these kinds of policy goals is debatable. Over the past few years, I’ve shifted to wrtiting articles that have had wider exposure. I have also been working on some primary-source research into the factors that shaped the more responsive American urbanism of the pre-zoning era, because I think we can learn a lot from the past; I know that I have, simply by examining it. In the meantime, I do still plan to write here on occasion, and will share links to any pieces I publish elsewhere. As always, I am happy to receive feedback. One of the best things about writing is the opportunity it provides to hear from others. That said, please forgive me for having posts that appear like rare birds.

Edward Glaeser on the Housing Shortage

In his recent City Journal article, “Free to Build,” Edward Glaeser begins to reframe the zoning-driven housing crisis as a national phenomenon, requiring national solutions, rather than a merely local or coastal problem. Advocating for the use of federal policy to unwind the cumulative, national effects of zoning overreach strikes me as a stark milestone in the right-leaning policy world. That said, I think this may represent one facet of a pent-up, multipartisan response to the NIMBYism that, for generations, has damaged the US economy and environment through land-use policies that promote rent-seeking behavior and de facto segregation at the expense of traditional, participatory, incremental urban growth.

Photo by the author of some traditional apartment houses located in Cape May, New Jersey, illustrating how traditional urban housing is an artfcat of more liberal historical building laws.
Traditional urban housing is an artifact of more liberal historical building laws. (TMP)

A Top Ten List for Urban Code Reform

R. John Anderson has an article at CNU’s Public Square identifying ten code-reform priorities that would help to address the endemic shortage of housing units in the United States. Several of these principles align with recommendations I’ve touched on here at LT, or in other articles, including: provisions to reduce parking requirements for new units; zoning that allows accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be built, as-of-right; amendments to state and local building codes to allow small multifamily (Missing Middle) buildings to be built in accordance with the International Residential Code (IRC), rather than the more compliance-costly International Building Code (IBC); and a general liberalization of structural massing requirements and lot-size minimums, to facilitate more efficient uses of scarce metropolitan land parcels. This top-ten approach strikes me as a practical summary of salient points for code reformers to keep in mind. David Letterman would be proud.

To this list, I would add: amending state subdivision statutes (or municipal ordinances, in some places) to actively encourage the creation of new, tiny, privately-owned lots. I have in mind parcels less than 30 feet wide at the street line, with no side yard requirements. This would allow traditional attached buildings to be built in diverse designs, as part of a coherent overall pattern. Over time, this would foster the growth of a variety of small housing options, along with the richness and equity of a broad base of participatory property ownership. Ultimately, it would allow the kinds of tight urban blocks to be generated today, in plausible settings, that already characterize our favored old neighborhoods.

Salutations, and Some Readings

I’ve been writing less here over the past year because, to be candid, my writing capacity has been soaked up by other commitments. That said, we’ve been seeing a flurry of articles in the MSM over the past few months that confirm a growing recognition of one of the key premises that this blog has emphasized for more than a decade: the role of excessive, cumulative land use regulations in the chronic shortage of metropolitan affordable housing.

Thought I’d check in to post a round-up of some of the more interesting ones:

You heard it here, first.

The Decline of Chinatown’s Bilingual Street-Name Signs

I’ve always liked New York’s Chinatown, and its unique, bilingual riff on standard street-naming has highlighted the special qualities of this neighborhood for as long as I can remember — distinguishing its corners from those in the surrounding blocks of the Lower East Side and the so-called Civic Center (that cluster of neoclassical courthouses and public buildings centered on Foley Square). So this article at the Times gave me a pang of sadness — zeroing in, as it does, on a small but meaningful detail that I’d also noticed, showing how cities can change slowly, then all at once.

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to work in the Municipal Building, on Centre Street, for some time. Being there daily afforded me frequent opportunities to cover the blocks of Chinatown on foot (as well as the various subparts of the Lower East Side and SoHo), block by block, during lunch hours. I noticed then that the center of gravity was moving eastward, with a commercial nexus increasingly focused on East Broadway, far from the old core along Canal, Mott, and Mulberry Streets.

I also noticed that the new street-name signs were rarely subtitled, like the older ones had been:

Bilingual street signs in New York’s Chinatown, circa 2017. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

The Times essay, linked above, covers the history of these signs in the context of the history of the neighborhood. I do hope their decline is not a harbinger of rapid change. There have been rumors that Chinatown could soon be made a target for more intense gentrification; and some has already begun. But because it has not gone full-scale (yet), Chinatown is one of the few places in Lower Manhattan that retains some of the character of an older New York City — a messy, discordant, multilayered urban universe (photos by your webmaster) whose spirit has largely been tamed and curated into submission, elsewhere in the tangle of narrow downtown blocks that once teemed with so much human variety.

That is to say, Chinatown is still New York City, as it was meant to be. And I, for one, hope it will stay that way for a while longer.

Gated, But Without Gates

That’s basically how Binyamin Appelbaum, at the Times, is describing the housing situation today in suburban Long Island, and he’s right. Four decades is an awfully long time to have to beg the good people of an ostensibly enlightened New York suburb to approve fewer than 150 new apartments:

Housing Help, a local civil rights group, first proposed the 146-unit development, known as Matinecock Court, in the late 1970s to provide some of the less expensive housing that the town so desperately needs. Huntington fought the project all the way to the Supreme Court, and even after losing the case, officials continued to find ways to delay development.

It’s not even a rental property. It’s a limited-equity cooperative. More:

For others, the issue has been transformed because now, rather than strangers, it is their children who are in need of more affordable homes. Hunter Gross, 26, grew up in Huntington and returned to the town after college in Ohio and a few years in Brooklyn. Mr. Gross, the head of a group called the Huntington Township Housing Coalition, which supports more development, makes about $60,000 a year as a political consultant, but he said he slept in a spare bedroom at his aunt’s house because he hasn’t been able to find an apartment.

None of this is new. In The Poor Side of Town, Howard Husock reported that in the late 1940s William Levitt resorted to packing a Hempstead zoning board meeting with a sympathetic crowd of returning World War II veterans (and their young families) to win approval from a skeptical board for a proposal that would become Levittown. Keeping certain groups of people out of town — and making others beg for permission to develop private property — has been par for the course since the advent of American zoning. (In earlier eras, subdivisions could achieve exclusion through similar devices in private covenants, but municipalities had less direct power to do so.) The biggest change is how much further up the socioeconomic hierarchy the exclusion now goes.

Still, one can be sure there’s no shortage of, “In this home, we believe …” lawn signs in Huntington. Across the New York suburbs, the cost of a single-family home with modest curb-appeal is creeping ever closer to a million dollars, and property taxes often rate in thousands-per-month. Here, “no human is illegal” — just the apartment that he or she could afford live in.

A Quick Status Check on Zoning Reform

I have an article at Strong Towns that looks at recent zoning-reform developments from around the US, including — primarily — efforts to reduce the footprints of exclusively single-family residential zones. The goal of such efforts is allow for legal two-family homes, mother-in-law houses, studio apartments, and similar lower-impact arrangements on privately owned land. Check it out for a snapshot of reforms, and early results, in Minneapolis, Oregon, and California.

The Intrinsic Value of Poor (or Adaptable) Neighborhoods

Howard Husock’s The Poor Side of Town: and Why We Need It looks at the history of American housing policy since Jacob Riis. Exploring the social and economic value of poor neighborhoods, Husock examines how urban processes are intertwined with civil society, and their traditional role in allowing Americans (especially migrants) to shape their lives and obtain an initial foothold in a commercial society. Husock also explores how a century of American public policy — in particular, the growth of prescriptive land use regulations and the failures of large-scale public housing — has interrupted or distorted the participatory, resourceful urban adaptations that once fostered new communities and small-scale property wealth. My review of this timely and thoughtful book is now up at National Review.

Pace Jacob Riis, many working-class neighborhoods of the industrial age, like this street in Philadelphia circa 1910, comprised small rowhouses or other human-scaled housing options. Source: Helen Parrish, National Housing Association (1911).