Questions to debate/discuss as California considers a right to shelter

I am having some depression today, so this may not be as cogent as it deserves to be.  But I want to start some conversations. 

State Senator Scott Wiener has proposed a vision in SB48 on a “right to shelter.” Right now, it’s in trial balloon phase: Wiener and his team seem to like doing proposals like this to gauge reactions and get feedback. (I now no longer feel any guilt whatsoever on criticizing SB827.  This way, Wiener gets some free consulting from yoinks like me, and he can gauge how people are reacting.) 

The thing about somewhat vague proposals is that devil is *always* in the details with policies, and some of the nonsense critics of 827 had to put up with during the deliberation as people who love the idea of upzoning screamed and yelled at us as called us names for not being sold on a generic policy concept and wanting to know upfront what protections are on the table to protect existing renters. 

Here is a nice discussion of New York’s conflicts about implementing a right to shelter over the years. 

The right to shelter is a similar big concept that would benefit from more discussion to flesh out what we are really thinking. 

Some important policy points: 

1.  Can we link the right shelter to a stable, long-term funding source?  I hate that merely asking this question puts you in the realm of shithead online debaters who are all like HOW YA GONNNA PAY FOR THAT HUH HUH UHUH whenever they see a social welfare policy like single-payer discussed. There are many ways to pay for things. It doesn’t hurt to ask the question now. 

To actualize a right to shelter, we’d need to work with cities, and the last thing California cities need is an unfunded mandate to house people. That is a recipe for *bad* shelters, fiddled numbers, etc. 

It would be helpful to start locating possible funding streams, such as homeless program bond funds, to link to new legislation. (These bonds are big pots for now, but bonds are time-limited, and a right to shelter would not be.)  

Who has figured this out already? 

2. Accessibility to services versus service eligibility requirements.  The current language suggests “ability to access services.” 

That’s a big and I’d argue,  good statement, but it could mean several things, ranging from: 

A) shelters should be in transit-accessible locations, as should social service agencies;

B) shelter staff help development treatment plans and enable comprehensive service sign-up and provision (this is a hard one; shelters usually do have staff to help with service access, but granted the large range of services people need and the consolidation of those services, most clients do have to travel, see (a). 

And more importantly: does the right to shelter hinge on developing and sticking to a housing transition and/or treatment plan, or is a right to shelter a right to shelter regardless of client compliance?  

There are pros and cons of both.  Trying to program individuals into treatment or housing plans undermines the notion of a right.  Our current policing notwithstanding, you don’t get disqualified from the right to a jury trial unless you waive it.  It’s not conditional on how nice you are, whether you’ve done what the cops and social workers have told you to do so far, etc. Sentencing, however, does tend to include those things. 

That said, the right to shelter surely should not be envisioned as a means of housing people who could be transitioned into longer term housing if they got the medical care they need. The point should probably be helping people in the short term and in the long-term wherever possible, and the idea is to incentivize people to make and stick to long-term plans. 

 The question becomes what exactly we want to emphasize about the right to shelter: the “rights” language or the “shelter” language. Pretty much any qualifiers or strings you attach to a right undermine its status as a right in practice, even though rights are hardly unconditional. Thus far, New York courts seem to have agreed with advocates that the right to shelter precludes denying shelters based on compliance.  

You really can’t force people to accept treatment, but you can deny them access to other things if they refuse to comply.  I don’t like it, but I do see the point of it. 

C) What is going to be the spatial model for shelter locations? Cities may be tempted into “warehousing”— fewer, bigger shelters with lots of beds, instead of more, smaller facilities because neighborhoods oppose shelters and you have to optimize what you build when you see any daylight at all. (This is why infrastructure projects get big: conflict negotiation has scale economies, and you have to negotiate no matter what the project size.) 

There are pros and cons here again. It’s easier to make sure service is accessible if people are in one location.  It can also turn a place into a stigmatized dead zone that acts as a rationale that opponents use to drub you with when you propose new shelters. 

D) What does the demand created for new shelter beds by a right to housing mean vis-a-vis single-family zoning that says no shelters? Does the right to shelter trump single-family zoning, or do zoning rules mean we likely consolidate shelters in the scant, already-mixed zones we have?  I prefer the former, but I can see some reasons for the latter, too, mostly having to do with the ability to get construction done and services offered faster. 

E) How do we keep families together? The language Wiener used says that partners will remain together. How do we work with families experiencing homelessness?  I do think this is something that NYC’s experience could help with. 

These are some things I’ve been thinking about.  I don’t have any answers yet, and FFS don’t use this post as a “god that Schweitzer woman hates any new housing” blather because that’s not true. Wanting to see actual policy proposals on the table is not a sin, nor is it evidence that I hate everything YIMBY. 

#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #13: Ella Howard

This week’s entry is definitely in the “urban” rather than in the “planning” component of my challenge, as Ella Howard is a historian at Armstrong Atlantic State University. I read and used her book in my class on the Urban Context this year:

Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

and I am thinking about using it in my class on urban social policy and planning in the spring. It’s framing in Chapter 1 helps illustrate the social welfare approach to housing: “The institutions that address poverty embody the values of their creators.” For my students thinking about how to state a strong argument you can spend the rest of the book supporting, here it is.

Dr. Howard’s book centers mostly on the Bowery, and I particularly like how the book uses that perspective–i.e., looking at the Bowery–as the place where federal, state, and city institutions attempted to reform and regulate homelessness. Her time period focuses predominately on the Depression onward, though she starts us at around the turn of the city in New York–1890s onward–in their attempts to figure out what to do with homeless men and women. The history deepens from the Depression era onward, and then goes decade by decade as there are important shifts in public policy that, nevertheless, always seem to be motivated by two internal tensions: 1) the desire to be humane to those in need, but not too humane, because, you know, dependency, and 2) the need to deliver services in place with the pressures to make sure the homeless move on, not be there, move somewhere else. Chapter 2 explores the treatment of the transient homeless during the Great Depression. The Depression was a game changer in multiple ways. First, economic hardship meant that more people than ever before struggled to maintain housing, and second, it saw the shift of policy response to homelessness to federal housing programs rather than, simply, local relief.

One major factor in serving those without homes concerned changing perspectives on alcoholism and mental illness, with religious and secular approaches to problem coming more into conflict as the century progressed. Organizations like the Salvation Army downplayed therapy or other, secular solutions, at the same time that homelessness became the object of social scientific study.

In the 1960s, the focus became increasingly spatial with urban renewal and ‘slum clearance.’ Most of my students can recite urban renewal history (more mindlessly than I care for) about how communities of color were destroyed to make way for highway projects, but few people ever think about the homeless men and women targeted by the program. Here is where the federal involvement in urban policy gets even more dicey, as local officials came to the conclusion that while homeless men and women may have to exist ‘somewhere’, skid rows were both unsightly and unhygienic. The feds put $5.4 billion into urban renewal programs from 1949 until 1966. As Howard points out, Eisenhower epitomized the federal problems: many people, like Eisenhower, favored urban renewal projects, believing them tickets to urban growth that would ‘lift all boats’ and yet viewed public housing with extreme suspicion. The result is a whipsaw we still live in: the desire for urban growth and population increase without the commitment to increased supply of affordable shelter, and by the 1980s, more affordable units were being destroyed than created in urban centers. Homelessness became viewed as something to be fixed:

Throughout the twentieth century, urban residents by and large did not want homeless people living in their neighborhood ,nor did they wish to fund residential programs to offer continued housing assistance. The homeless were to be returned to “normal” life rather than being placed in supported living conditions.

p. 122.

The Bowery escaped urban renewal due to widespread resistance to it in New York, including Jane Jacobs and others, who viewed urban renewal for what it was: a state-sponsored real estate development strategy that selected easy political targets for private commercial gain with specious public interest rationales. The plan for Cooper Square would have removed 4,000 beds; the plan failed, but eventually, efforts to redevelop the Bowery will win out. It will just take real estate markets a few more decades to make this happen.

Before we get there, however, Howard treats us to yet another means of dressing up old wine in new bottles in the neotraditional, punitive ways in which social science and media constructed narratives around men and women without homes and the neighborhoods that served homeless populations, like the Bowery. Here you get a strong flavor of American studies in Howard’s background as she connects older, more overly judging frames for impoverished people with the lurid, exoticed narratives constructed in particular media outlets. These are old ideas about danger and lack of hygiene dressed up for the spectator world of mediated imagery. Social science approaches were little better, framing individuals according to mainstream values of functionality and–a shocker–always finding their homeless subjects wanting. Nonetheless, good research conducted out of Columbia also began spending real time and energy with people living in the Bowery to understand how social life functions in homeless districts.

The later chapters of the book, like the earlier ones, are excellent, but they felt like less of a revelation to me as I had lived through many of the policy changes and conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s. I remember the federal and state withdrawal from homeless programs, particularly the deinstutionalization of those with serious mental illnesses. That policy move prompted the very public conflict between New York Mayor Koch and New York Governor Hugh Carey, whereby Koch viewed his city’s increasing number of homeless people as a direct result of the state making homelessness into a city problem. As Howard notes:

The Koch and Reagen administrations and the advocates for the homeless agreed on a single point: each supported the expansion of the private, religious-affiliated homeless shelters. p. 208

And thus nearly a century later, theories about serving homelessness return back to its religious, voluntarist roots. By then, the Bowery had become, like many places where poverty exists, the spatial exemplar of ‘edginess’ that nightclubs, musicians, and other artists exploited as a means to commercial success. In the end, New York’s real estate boom will erase the Bowery, and Mayor Guiliani will capitalize on security narratives as a means to simply regulate homelessness out of New York so that, as in most contemporary cities, homeless people are simply expected to slide through the shadows of the city, in perpetual motion.

I highly recommend this book both for its subject matter and as an exemplar of just how good a dissertation book can be.


My brilliant colleague Jenny Schuetz being brilliant about foreclosures on Marketplace

Do you listen to Marketplace on NPR? If not, you should. In general, the show is quite good, for a quick into to the issues. This week my colleague Jenny Schuetz is on talking about foreclosures. It’s a worthy listen the whole way through because it’s interesting to learn about the new businesses that have cropped up to help banks deal with their foreclosures, and it’s REALLY interesting to see what some of the non-experts think should happen to the derelict properties.

Here’s the link. Go listen.

Visualizing the Bubble

Decision Science News has a wonderful graphic on visualizing the housing bubble, using the Standard and Poor numbers. This is a really data-rich graphic, one of those that is both simple yet complex, and you can spend a lot of time thinking about what the different trajectories mean in terms of the extent and timing of the bubble. This is their first graphic–go to the website and read the rest of the presentation. A second, cleaner graphic calls out the ‘exceptional’ stories–a good way to build a narrative with graphics: first show the whole picture, then select what people should take away.

I’d like to know more about the bounce at the end of those numbers; every city gets higher, then crashes, then (for most, not all), there’s a bounce, then another fall.

Voila Capture11

The graphic was made with ggplot2, one of my favorite new toys for R.

Blame California! Thomas Sowell on the Housing Boom and Bust

The thing I love about Thomas Sowell is that I get six new research ideas every time I listen to him talk. He’s primarily a theorist: he’s not interested in testing the libertarian stories he’s strung together to conclude “Government is bad.” I am, however. It seems to me that there would be some interesting empirical work testing his assertions about California land values here.

So unlike my armchair theorizing earlier this week, the spatial origins of the foreclosure crisis are, according to Sowell, in California.

He makes me furious, and he makes me think. And he’s an amazingly productive scholar.

Megan McCardle, the new home buyers’ lot, and the shadow inventory

Megan McCardle is doing a bit of whining over at the Atlantic about her search for a house, which–trust me, I get it, as I’m looking for a house in West Adams, which is no picnic. She writes:

The only way to break a lease is to be a single-family owner who wants to take occupancy. The bank has to let the tenant’s lease run before they are evicted, as well as give them ninety days notice of the intent to vacate the property. Given the difficulties of selling a house that cannot be shown, a lot of banks are choosing to do just that. Others are putting it on the market and then finding that, surprise! they somehow never can schedule a showing. Yet the banks are understandably unwilling to drag the tenants into court, which is very time consuming, and a huge burden on already overwhelmed administration.

link: Why Are There No Houses for Sale in DC? – Business – The Atlantic

This tone is one of the reasons I refer to “whining.” Yeah, I face the same problem. Of the few places that are for sale in West Adams, many are tied up in leases. But I actually think that protecting tenants from the financial irresponsibilities of landlords is a good thing, and while it’s not convenient, it does keep people from losing their housing, and even though you can’t tell it from US housing policy very often, one of the goals of housing policy should be to help people be sheltered rather than to help them be homeowners.

And as one of those renters who didn’t exercise my rights to refuse to have the place shown, let me tell you: we regretted our cooperation with our very nice and generally wonderful landlord as her entitled, lying scumbag of a realtor wanted in the place night and day and threw a tantrum when I finally said no because he “had buyers from out of town who couldn’t reschedule” so we gave in at incredible inconvenience to us. Turns out: the buyer from out of town was another realtor, from the Valley. Some realtors are just unethical, period, and the scummier they are, the more likely they are to treat renters like something they scraped off the bottom of their shoes.

Unlike my realtor who is simply awesome in every possible dimension of awesome: Bill Cooper with the Loft Experts.

McCardle’s other point I actually think, is a bigger problem for me:

The broader nationwide problem is that banks have a huge backlog of these bad loans, which means first, that they simply don’t have the adminstrative capacity to put them all on the market at once, and second, that at least in the case of the larger lenders, they are trying to dribble them out over time and avoid crushing the market.

link: Why Are There No Houses for Sale in DC? – Business – The Atlantic

For every real sale in West Adams I can find on Zillow or MLS, there are about 20 foreclosures, I’d say. And you can’t find anything about them. I’m not even talking about pre-foreclosures or places where you have to protect the identity of owner-occupiers still here. I’m talking places in full foreclosure, where banks just want you to hand them cash based on no information, not even a walk-through, and cash equal to the redonkulous mortgage they floated from 2004 to 2007.

So things are supposedly so great for new home buyers now, but in my experience, they really are not, and the same is true for McCardle as well it seems.

I’m trying to figure the economics of the shadow inventory for banks. I need to learn more about this. I’m wondering if banks are really holding on to the inventory to avoid crashing the market. It seems like there would be enough reason for banks to want to let their inventory go–rather than be the bank who winds up getting caught for “too long.” But there are also problems with being the first hold-out to let go. But it’s not like banks can expect to hold onto these houses for as long as it suits them without putting maintenance money into them: that’s a fast way to holding an asset that is worth even less than its compressed market value. I need to read more and think more to understand this problem. My suspicion is that banks are just overwhelmed by the management problem and haven’t figured out how to move the properties. In the case of West Adams, it’s a hot zone for foreclosures, particularly south of Exposition, and so holding on strategically would mean a pretty long hold-out horizon.

Anyway, this should give some backseat advice-givers pause about how “now is a good time to buy.”

HT to Andrew Gellman

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How about you drink a nice cup of mind your own business (MYOB)?

At dinner with lovely friends the other night, one of the lovely friends asked me something that got my back up. “So….you’ve given up on getting a house?”

No, I have tabled the decision until the 1,000,000 items on my “YOU PROMISED TO DELIVER THIS WORK MONTHS AGO” list comes down to a dull roar, and I can sit down to read a book without a crashload of guilt falling on my shoulders.

Is that so wrong? What is it with people and houses? A few years ago, in passing, I mentioned wanting a first edition Hemingway I saw at Barnaby Rudge. Nobody has mentioned it since–not once! I once mentioned investing in a print from De Koonig. Nobody has ever once followed up on that. But a house purchase? THAT’S REALLY REALLY IMPORTANT and we need to ask and ask and ask about it.

Apparently, the lesson from this housing crash hasn’t gotten through people’s brains: just because you buy a house, even a house in a *walkable community*, that action doesn’t make you a better, more stable, more worthy citizen than anybody else. It makes you a person with a mortgage.

In the past few days, I’ve had yet more frenzied conversations. Now, my exposure to real estate related conversations is going to be high anyway since my real estate colleagues are great to hang around and I learn a lot from them.

But no: I’m talking about people having the same bizarre real-estate-obsessed conversations I had to sit through prior to the bust. And in the bust. Because prior to the bust, it was possible to blither on endlessly about real estate, its desirability, and how clever one was for buying. After the bust we could talk endlessly about the bust, and how “now was a good time to buy.” Before the bust, the conversation was exactly the same, but “You’ve got to buy now or you’ll never get in!”

Yes, when I said I was going to “wait to see how Andy and I were feeling about settling in LA”, my friends all gasped and said “Oh no! Prices are going up from here! You’d better buy now.”

Look, people. It’s doesn’t matter if you buy a huge house with a pool in back or a New Urbanist urban-hipster approved condo loft: YOUR SHELTER IS NOT WHO YOU ARE.


On wealthy defaulters

I continue to be very interested in this question about who is defaulting, in the aftermath of fingerpointing at subprime lending. The Atlantic Monthly has a round-up of writing from around the web about the affluent defaulters. My favorite edgy quote:

Media Got It All Wrong Liberal blogger Duncan “Atrios” Black scoffs, “It’s a bit hard to comprehend that this housing/foreclosure crisis stuff has been going on for … years already. As is so often the case, the maintstream media got it completely wrong initially, painting it as a ‘subprime’ crisis due to bad behavior by unworthy brown people.” John Cole adds, “I can’t wait to hear how Republicans try to pin this … on black people and Fannie Mae and Barney Frank.”

link: Why the Rich Are Most Likely to Default on Mortgages | The Atlantic Wire

My colleague, Richard Green, has a commentary on the new round of evidence on who is defaulting as well. Take a look.

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