What’s at the Root of Homelessness? A Lack of Affordable Housing

Despite the common belief that drug abuse and mental illness are some of the main factors that cause people to become unhoused, a new book concludes that high housing costs and low availability, more than anything else, push people into homelessness.

2 minute read

July 13, 2022, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

As Gary Warth reports in the Los Angeles Times, a new book by Clayton Page Aldern and Gregg Colburn analyzes the contributing causes of homelessness, with results contrary to popular notions about why people fall into homelessness. “By looking at the rate of homeless per 1,000 people, they found communities with the highest housing costs had some of the highest rates of homelessness, something that might be overlooked when looking at just the overall raw number of homeless people.” What the places with the highest rates of homelessness had in common, Warth writes, “was a lack of affordable housing.”

“Aldern, a data scientist and policy analyst in Seattle, and Colburn, an assistant professor of real estate at the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments, said they are not suggesting that mental illness, addictions and other issues are not contributing factors to homelessness.” However, Aldern continues, “I firmly believe that we can’t treat our way out of this problem. You could fix all the addiction in San Diego right now and you’d still have a problem with homelessness because there just aren’t places for people to go who have lower levels of income.” By contrast, “The researchers looked at homelessness in West Virginia and Arkansas, which were hit hard by the opioid epidemic, and found the homeless rate was low. Housing prices in those states also are lower than in many cities with higher homeless rates, Colburn said.”

Lisa Jones, executive vice president of strategic initiatives at the San Diego Housing Commission, agrees, adding, “We also know that the longer a household experiences homelessness, the more likely other key quality-of-life factors will be affected, such as physical and mental well-being.” According to Colburn, “it is true that people who are poor, addicted or mentally ill are more likely to experience homelessness, but a disproportionate number of people with those conditions is not the cause of higher rates of homelessness in some areas.”

The study also debunked a number of other common myths about homelessness, such as that states with greater public assistance have higher rates of homelessness (they don’t), or that homelessness is higher in cities with Democrat mayors (“In reality, most major cities have Democrats as mayor, but that also includes cities such as Detroit with smaller homeless populations”).

Monday, July 11, 2022 in Los Angeles Times

Aerial view of snowy single-family homes in suburban Long Island, New York

New York Governor Advances Housing Plan Amid Stiff Suburban Opposition

Governor Kathy Hochul’s ambitious proposal to create more housing has once again run into a brick wall of opposition in New York’s enormous suburbs, especially on Long Island. This year, however, the wall may have some cracks.

March 20, 2023 - Mark H. McNulty

Empty parking garage at night with yellow lines marking spots and fluorescent lighting

Rethinking the Role of Parking in the American City

In cities big and small, the tide is turning against sprawling parking lots, car-centric development, and minimum parking mandates.

March 16, 2023 - The New York Times

A futuristic version of New York City, with plants growing neatly on top of modern skycrapers.

Friday Eye Candy: 20 AI-Generated Cityscapes

AI-generated images are creating new landscapes and cityscapes, capable of inspiring awe or fear.

March 17, 2023 - Chris Steins via Medium

A group of wetsuit-clad swimmers gathers to talk in shallow water near the shore of the San Francisco Bay.

Proposed Pool Would Make an Olympic-Sized Play Area in the San Francisco Bay

The San Francisco Bay is usually an undesirable place to swim, except for a hearty few. A development proposal seeking assistance at the state level would add a pool to the Bay’s waters to make the idea of going for a swim more appealing.

March 24 - The Mercury News

Chicago elevated train over busy city street surrounded by high-rise buildings

Chicagoland Transit Agencies Call for State Funding as Budget Shortfall Looms

Illinois transit agencies want to see changes to a law requiring them to collect half of their revenue from transit fares, arguing that low ridership and staffing shortages will lead to a massive budget gap without intervention.

March 24 - Crain's Chicago Business

Minneapolis Stone Arch Bridge

Panel: Minneapolis Zoning Updates Should Reflect Mixed-Use Future

A discussion of post-pandemic changes in work and commuting concluded that the city’s overhaul of its zoning code should be less restrictive with land uses.

March 24 - MinnPost

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

HUD’s 2023 Innovative Housing Showcase

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.