“Housing First” Homeless Policy Gets a Critical Look

Vanessa Brown Calder

“Housing First” homeless policy is drawing new critical attention. A NYTimes article reports the predominant homeless policy philosophy is drawing criticism from Republican policymakers, conservative think tanks, as well as groups (like programs that require sobriety) that have been denied funding by the no‐​strings‐​attached permanent housing philosophy.

Meanwhile, a new Politico article details how red and blue state policymakers are desperate to avoid becoming another San Francisco, “with rents and home prices that are unaffordable for many residents and intractable waves of homelessness” and so are proposing or adopting zoning reforms to increase supply and reduce rents.

It is a good thing that Housing First is receiving a closer look by researchers and policymakers, because Housing First has sailed along for the last 20 years or so with minimal scrutiny. As we detail in a recent Housing First study, Housing First locations like California and Utah have been unsuccessful in reducing homeless counts under the policy. On the contrary, chronic homelessness in these states has grown substantially (93 percent and 95 percent) since policy adoption.

Moreover, the most recent reporting indicates that Housing First continues to fail at reducing homelessness in these places. Yesterday, a NYTimes article reported that the homeless population in Los Angeles had grown another 9 percent compared with a year ago, and a new report from Utah’s Department of Workforce Services found that chronic homelessness nearly doubled since 2019.

Comprehensive regulatory reform to increase housing supply is an important part of the answer to homelessness. But although many policymakers are considering pro‐​housing, there is a long way to go. The Washington Post reports that “many ‘progressive cities’ have cracked down on unsheltered homeless adults…without ‘addressing structural issues, like lack of housing.’” Some policymakers, like Colorado Governor Polis, have proposed a variety of excellent regulatory reforms, so far without successful adoption.

Lack of affordable, available housing is an important factor driving homelessness. Though Housing First prioritizes permanent housing subsidies for the homeless, it doesn’t prioritize the policy reforms needed to keep housing accessible and affordable so that people stay in their homes to begin with. From this perspective, “Housing First” is a misnomer and policymakers would do well to rethink it.

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