We need to de-couple the housing crisis and homelessness — for now

While I was canvassing for Andrew Yang a few weeks ago, I witnessed an interesting pattern when my canvassing partner would talk with voters about the impact of Yang’s UBI (universal basic income) proposal on housing.

Whenever he linked UBI to paying for rent, he always included in the same breath a comment about homelessness. This struck me as odd, because the voters would always immediately jump on that aside.

“Homelessness isn’t primarily about not having money to pay for rent; it’s about mental illness,” they would say. And they weren’t wrong! I was confused why my canvassing partner didn’t notice this trap and adjust his pitch accordingly.

Since this experience, I’ve started noticing a similar tendency amongst online articles (such as those from Curbed and CityLab) to mention California’s housing crisis and homelessness crisis together.

This is a bad strategy.

Whereas the housing crisis is essentially an issue of supply and demand, homelessness is the symptom of a variety of our society’s dysfunctions interacting at both structural and personal levels. Housing advocates set themselves up for unnecessary complications by addressing these issues together rather than separately. Any pro-housing discourse which aims for achieving real results needs to de-couple these two phenomena for now.

The temptation to lump these two problems together is palpable. I suspect that they get connected in the minds of housing advocates primarily because the everyday experience of folks who are living in cities which are shaped by the economic and political forces causing the housing crisis also witness homelessness on a daily basis. Since the two coincide in one’s experience, they are easily rationalized together into a coherent whole. But this association between the housing crisis and homelessness in our experience needs to be teased apart, because they obscure one another when they are placed too closely together.

When one is arguing for a position, one must avoid arguing for too much, as well as too little. Make the goal of your argument as tight as possible in order to avoid having to defend positions which you don’t want to, can’t, or are not directly relevant to the topic at hand.

This trap is precisely what happens when the housing crisis and homelessness are addressed together rather than separately. The housing advocate opens themself up to the objection, “giving homeless people houses/money/jobs won’t solve the homelessness problem, because many homeless people suffer from mental illness or addictions.” This statement has enough truth and bewildering complexity to it that the housing advocate suddenly finds themselves at a disadvantage in the conversation.

Now, in order to get a hearing for their contention that more housing needs to be built, the housing advocate must now also articulate and defend a coherent account of the homelessness crisis (a task even experts are struggling to do!). They have forced themselves into the difficult situation where they now need to argue for more than their original point!

Effective strategy disaggregates goals which are separate in reality. More housing can be built without solving the homelessness crisis, and building more housing will not solve the homelessness crisis. Thus, housing advocates should not try to overload their arguments. Instead, they should remain laser focused on the problem at hand — more housing must be built to accommodate demographic and economic change in certain regions.

The housing crisis is astonishingly simple in its diagnosis. The demand for housing has outpaced the increase in the supply of housing, which means that the price for housing will rise.

The solution is either to build more houses or forcibly re-locate people. In our country, most people would not be in favor of forcibly re-locating people who are not here illegally. Thus, the saner of the two options is to build more houses. The complexity of the housing crisis comes in why more houses aren’t being built, and how we could overcome those obstacles to build more.

But if housing advocates have any hope of making headway on that front, they will need to be strategic and pragmatic in their rhetoric. Including homelessness in a broader housing agenda will only throw up unnecessary roadblocks to achieving other actionable items on that agenda.

Let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good.

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