Commentary: Houston, We Have a Solution – Why the City Might Be the Model for Dealing with Homelessness

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By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

If California and local communities therein want to address their homelessness problem, they need to look toward Houston, of all places.  A decade ago, Houston had an out-of-control homelessness problem—sixth worst in the nation—and now according to a recent report in Smart Cities Dive, the area has seen the homeless population decrease by 63%.

“Since 2012, the Houston model has housed over 26,000 people, with 90% of them remaining housed for two or more years,” the publication reports.  This is occurring at the same time “the homeless population in the city and county of Los Angeles grew by 84%, New York City by 52%, and Dallas by 26%.

“Many cities have seen increases in their homeless populations in recent years, sparking fierce debates, political backlash and lawsuits over how best to address the issue,” the report continues.  “Houston’s strategy has quickly become a model for other cities trying to address the growing issue.”

There are three factors key to that success.

First, “housing comes first.”  The article notes, “The city employs a housing-first model that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness as quickly as possible with no barriers to entry. The city then provides wraparound support services to ensure they remain housed.”

Second, “The region operates as a single continuum of care with a steering committee that distributes all funding.”

Third, “The steering committee uses data to drive its decision-making.”

But, according to Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, success in other cities will depend on communitywide buy-in.

“What ultimately makes the difference is the will to faithfully execute Housing First strategies over time, and the aligned leadership to make it a priority between providers; systems; and city, county, and other local elected officials,” said Oliva in an email to the Smart Cities Dive.

But while the Smart Cities Dive focuses on local policies, an article this week by Ned Resnikoff, Policy Director of California YIMBY, writes in the Nation, notes, “Houston, like California, follows the Housing First model, but Texas’s most populous city has a vast supply of low-cost homes.”

The Nation notes that while California has plugged $14 BILLION into addressing homelessness and much of that money has gone to “Housing First” programs, and despite “ample research demonstrating the efficacy of this model” nevertheless, “homelessness in the state continues to rise.”

This had led to cynicism toward Housing First policies and some cities, Los Angeles and Sacramento notable among them, “have returned to a policing-first strategy, trying to fight homelessness by making it illegal to camp in certain areas. Various reactionary elements have attempted to capitalize on the change in mood, arguing that Housing First is ineffective or even harmful.”

Ned Resnikoff, writing in The Nation, thus looks toward Houston which has become a national model for addressing homelessness and the subject of a lengthy New York Times profile.

What Resnikoff finds, published in a new report called “Housing Abundance as a Condition for Ending Homelessness: Lessons From Houston, Texas,” is that “Houston’s success was predicated on a vast supply of low-cost housing.”

He writes, “As in much of California, Houston’s homeless services system follows the Housing First model. But because housing in Houston is cheaper and more plentiful, the city’s Housing First efforts are far more successful.”

Basically he argues, “Houston’s liberal land use policies and rapid housing construction have kept prices much lower than in much of California, even as the city’s population has grown significantly faster. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Houston, for example, is about one-third the median rent in San Francisco.”

Basically, it is housing unaffordability that is the primary driver of homelessness,

Resnikoff argues that “because Houston is cheaper than San Francisco, low-income residents are less likely to fall into homelessness. In contrast, in San Francisco, residents become homeless at four times the rate that the city can place them back into housing.”

There is an added advantage: “Houston’s homeless services system has a much easier time developing and acquiring housing. The Housing First model can only work when homeless services agencies actually have enough units to meet their clients’ needs.”

He notes, “This is a perennial issue in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where the housing shortage has made it harder for homeless services agencies to recruit eligible landlords, and anti-development rules have made it significantly harder and costlier to develop permanent supportive housing.”

Some of this people won’t like.  For instance, he notes that “low-cost housing in Houston is no accident. Besides lacking a traditional zoning code, the city allows most development through “by-right” instead of “discretionary” permitting—meaning that local officials don’t get veto power over individual projects that otherwise meet all the prerequisites for approval. California should follow Houston’s example and continue to legalize more housing development.”

He grants that “much of Houston’s development hasn’t been exactly climate friendly. A lot of the city is sprawl, locking in car dependence for too many residents.”

But he adds, “But California doesn’t need to follow Houston’s precise development path in order to build more housing. Our cities can accommodate millions more residents without doubling down on car dependency.”

Resnikoff concludes: “California’s homelessness crisis has been festering for decades, and it will take years to bring the crisis to an end. But Houston’s example teaches us that progress is possible, and that Housing First works. California just needs housing abundance in order to make it work at the necessary scale. We won’t get there overnight, but we can get there; first, we need to make it legal to build enough housing for everyone.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Ron Oertel

    Basically he argues, “Houston’s liberal land use policies and rapid housing construction have kept prices much lower than in much of California, even as the city’s population has grown significantly faster. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Houston, for example, is about one-third the median rent in San Francisco.

    He grants that “much of Houston’s development hasn’t been exactly climate friendly. A lot of the city is sprawl, locking in car dependence for too many residents.”

    And yet, Houston (the home of “cheap housing” and “no zoning”) had an enormous homeless problem, while places like Atherton and Tiburon do not.

    If you’re going to look at data-driven “evidence”, you might want to look at all of the applicable data.

      1. Ron Oertel

        The underlying cause that you and some others claim is not supported by data.

        The “homeless” housing in Houston is subsidized – despite Houston being the home of “cheap housing” in the first place.

        Also, much of it is not permanently-funded, on an individual basis.  (Some have to leave such housing after one year.)

        But it certainly does make sense to launch such a program where housing is “cheap” in the first place. (That’s what allows subsidies to go farther.) And given how spread-out Houston is, there’s probably fewer problems with immediate neighbors, as well.

        I wonder if a place like Bismarck, North Dakota has a homeless problem, or if the weather prevents it.

  2. Don Shor

    Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless has placed more than 25,000 unhoused people into permanent housing….

    In a city with 879,000 households per the census bureau, that’s about 3% of the housing units. For Davis, with about 25,000 households, 3% would be about 750 units. I know there are many variables and confounding factors, but figure this is a reasonable starting point.

    Would 750 housing units in Davis provide sufficient housing for our unhoused population?

    Seems to me as a non-expert that it would need to be a mix of:

    • drug treatment facilities
    • transitional housing
    • temporary shelters
    • permanent low-income rental housing

    Where would these projects go?

      1. Don Shor

        750 is right around the total Yolo PIT population. FYI.

        So it might be a reasonable goal for each of the three major cities in Yolo County to try to provide 250 housing units? Important to note that we’re talking about housing for the homeless, not affordable housing overall. So the need is for specific types of housing, not just low-cost housing.
        50 housing units in each council district.

    1. Ron Oertel

      In the following, long-winded NY Times article, it’s not clear if Houston built “new” subsidized housing, or if they just subsidized “existing” housing.

      As a side note, I’m not sure when major newspapers switched to this essay-type writing style, but I find it annoying when you just want the “news”. And though it’s not as blatant as some other sources, these types of articles are long on advocacy, but short on basic facts – such as funding sources and amounts.

      Davis (and cities throughout the state) already have a mandated Affordable housing requirement in the form of RHNA. And cities are already having difficulty meeting that goal, in the absence of sufficient government subsidies. (This is the reason that the state’s mandates will ultimately fail.)

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