The Magazine

Give 'em Shelter

Good news for the homeless.

Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By WILLIAM TUCKER
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"Housing First" has now returned to the original idea--that housing is the problem--with a twist. The problem is not that the federal government is not building public housing. The real problem is that cities have been very efficient in eliminating bottom-rung housing through building code enforcement, zoning restrictions, and (in cites such as New York and San Francisco) rent control. All these "reforms" were supposed to upgrade "substandard" housing and improve opportunities for the poor. In fact they worsened conditions for the very poor.

The principal victim of "reform" has been SROs--the single-room occupancy hotels that were the last resort of winos and stumblebums in bygone days. Entrepreneurs used to take old factory floors and other buildings and turn them into "partition hotels" where people could sleep behind thin walls for as little as $2 a night. It might have looked like blight, but it was functional housing for transients. "In Chicago, SRO units declined 80 percent between 1960 and 1980," reported veteran social worker Richard White in Rude Awakenings: What the Homeless Crisis Tells Us (1991). "In the past twenty years, there has been a net loss of 22,000 low-rent units in downtown Seattle. . . . [A]n increase in the number of homeless singles there in the past five years has corresponded directly to the loss of these SROs."

Mangano witnessed the same pattern in Boston. "Governor William Weld commissioned a study, and we found that almost 96 percent of these bottom-rung units had gone out of business during the 1970s and 1980s," he says. "SROs, lodging houses, mom-and-pop rooming houses, all had fallen before campaigns that were supposed to improve housing. At the same time, there was a mirror-image rise in emergency shelters. By taking away bottom-rung housing, we left the poor with nothing."

The Interagency Council is now encouraging cities to reverse this trend and adjust building and zoning codes to tolerate housing once labeled "substandard." Seattle has created 50 new units with a shared kitchen and a bathroom down the hall and 25 more that are nothing but a partitioned room with a bed and a dresser. Indianapolis found it had 20,000 vacant units ripe for rehabilitation. San Francisco is restoring 1,500 apartments in the Tenderloin district through private ownership.

Street people often have to be persuaded to enter such housing. Some bring their shopping carts. Once established, however, they tend to stay. "Our retention rates are about 85 percent," says Mangano. With a home base, the residents can enter drug or alcohol programs or even train for jobs. Eventually they must pay rent. "The whole program costs about $13,000 per person," he says. "It's a lot cheaper than what we were doing before."

Critics argue that the program is skewed toward winos and shopping-bag ladies and will not serve homeless families. That may be true for now, but it's hard to argue with success, and the formula can easily be extended to families as well. The important thing is that somebody has finally found something that works.

"We made progress that is visible, measurable, and quantifiable," says Mangano, anticipating that Ph.D. students will soon be lining up to study this rare public policy success story. Now if only the press will pay a little attention.

William Tucker is author of The Excluded Americans: Homelessness and Housing Policies.