Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Housing, Homelessness, and the Elephant in the NIMBY Room

Anxieties about having to deal with interlopers from a lower economic class are common even in the most socially insulated places.
August 1, 2022
Housing, Homelessness, and the Elephant in the NIMBY Room
A man walks past tents housing the homeless on the streets in the Skid Row community of Los Angeles, California on April 26, 2021. - A federal judge overseeing a lawsuit that seeks to end the city's Skid Row homelessness crisis isn't backing down from his order requiring that all indigent persons in the area be offered shelter within six months. US District Judge David O. Carter is opening the door for more discussions by setting additional hearing dates and clarifying some portions of his ruling. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

I had an interesting conversation with my best friend as we floated in his backyard pool on a recent New Jersey evening, behind what was practically my second childhood house.

He was telling me about a road trip to California, which was supposed to involve a few days in L.A. When he and his girlfriend got to the city, he wanted to see if Skid Row was really real. This was at the height of the pandemic, and, as my friend discovered, it was realer than ever.

Every city has homeless people, he said; that didn’t bother him. But this was “tents as far as the eye could see,” a phrase he used twice to emphasize the extent of the desperation—which he saw expressed there in homelessness, of course, but also in petty crime and prostitution.

Two things really stood out, he said. One was that it felt as though the law had broken down there, like it was a parallel society where the normal rules didn’t reach or apply. The other thing was how separated it was from the obscene wealth concentrated just next door. He would see a stylish woman dressed in designer brands and a homeless man walking past each other on the sidewalk as if the other didn’t exist. The homeless man wasn’t soliciting; the woman didn’t conspicuously avoid him. They were just living in separate universes on the same little stretch of street.

I asked my friend if he’d been reading commentary about California from right-wing sources, which tend to exaggerate how severe these problems are in the state. He said he hadn’t read anything; these were just his unfiltered observations and impressions. He and his girlfriend left L.A. the same afternoon they arrived.

I think some people see these problems or read these dispatches and suddenly lose the ability to take seriously the idea that “homelessness is a housing problem,” as many urbanists and housing advocates argue. In fact, I know many who would scoff at the idea. Of course, homelessness must have something to do with housing; it’s right there in the name.

I accept that there may be people for whom the “housing first” approach doesn’t work, or doesn’t work independently of other measures; I am not an expert in those policies. But it’s a statement of plain fact that doing more to keep people in their homes—i.e., advancing housing subsidies, rent control, affordability, housing policy—will prevent people from ending up on the streets. If that doesn’t strike you as true, it’s difficult for me to avoid thinking you care more about punishing the perceived moral failings of people without homes than actually solving the problem of homelessness.

I recently came across a comment on a Facebook post from a local news site on the D.C. area’s nearly complete Metrorail subway train extension to Dulles International Airport. We should not have a train to the airport at all, the commenter argued, because homeless people will take it and camp out at the terminal.

Some people really believe this—they really think, whether they understand it in these explicit terms or not, that America’s awful lack of public conveniences and public amenities amounts to an insurance scheme against having to inhabit any space with the poor. It isn’t that we like driving everywhere and living in oversized houses and not being able to find a bathroom in a city. Maybe nobody designed that to be a good way to live. Maybe it’s instead the result of optimizing everything in our built environment against the most desperate, and the cost of maintaining the insulation that keeps the chill of someone else’s poverty out of our lives.

I made this argument last year in the The New Atlantis:

Aside from these philosophical critiques, suburban car drivers sometimes reject transit for more troublesome reasons, worrying that the expansion of urban transit will also mean an expansion of (by their reckoning) the wrong kinds of people into their neighborhoods—the homeless, criminals, or simply minorities. As a 2015 Slate piece reported, a largely white suburb near Dayton, Ohio long resisted a bus route implemented to help many minority workers reach their jobs at a mall. To accommodate the bus route, the suburb’s city council asked to add police call boxes and surveillance cameras at bus stops. By this logic, limited freedom of movement for those without cars is a kind of insurance against them having access to suburban neighborhoods (emphasis added).

I still don’t want to think this is true, but you can’t always get what you want.

In Slate the other week, Henry Grabar had a great piece on residential hotels, boarding houses, and single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs), a once-ubiquitous genre of housing options that offered lease-free long-term and short-term room rentals with communal kitchens and shared bathrooms. Celebrities and creatives often lived in nicer hotels, but new arrivals and people in tough situations often got back on their feet in the lower-end boarding houses. None of this was perfect, and I certainly don’t believe that poor people should have to live in SROs for the rest of their lives, an outcome YIMBYs are sometimes alleged to condone—but these dwellings filled a need.

Writes Grabar of the usefulness of this housing segment:

Similar benefits accrued to long-term hotel guests further down the income ladder, whether they were unmarried clerks and saleswomen or sailors and transient workers just passing through. At a rooming house, for example, tenants didn’t need to buy sheets and towels, dishes, or furniture. The arrangement permitted young Americans to live downtown and to win early independence from their families.

He goes on to argue that the moral panic against boarding houses, and the late-twentieth-century destruction of most of that housing stock that panic brought about, greatly aggravated America’s homelessness crisis. Look at this bit:

In Homeless, Gerald Daly writes that New York lost 109,000 SRO units between 1971 and 1987. Roughly half the SRO stocks of Los Angeles and Seattle vanished in the same time frame. Chicago lost 23,000 units in the decade between 1973 and 1984—the equivalent of demolishing 100 public housing towers. . . . A form of housing was deemed uncivilized, and erased.

The removal of residential hotels, boarding houses, and SROs—and the frequent prohibition of such arrangements by zoning codes—offers a lesson in the unintended consequences of technocratic tinkering: Politicians, city planners, and civic officials thought they were making the “problem” of transient, downscale people go away. Instead, they helped birth the modern homelessness crisis.

This is where conservatives’ common, almost instinctual skepticism of policy—an inchoate belief that it somehow represents an attempt to pluck the heart out of the mystery of human life—fails. The appeal to mystery can obscure ugly beliefs. For instance, some conservatives appear to believe that if a person in a marginal position makes a series of bad financial choices or becomes addicted to drugs or abuses alcohol, it’s just desserts for that person to go on to experience homelessness; further, to fix the problem by guaranteeing that person housing in some way is tantamount to absolving them of any responsibility for their bad choices. I do not see it that way, but many do.

The important point, however, is that with the old status quo—where SROs were a final, bottom rung on the housing ladder between the cheapest apartments and the street—this did not happen anywhere near so often. People could mess up back then—or simply become victims of misfortune—and still not fall completely out of the housing system. How can you argue against that gentler outcome, except through recourse to the “just desserts” argument? This was not a utopian policy engineered by anybody, either; it was mostly a mix of markets (viable until they were strangled by laws and ordinances targeting them) and charity. In some form, in most places, housing options of this type have probably always existed. The disruptive social engineering, the hubristic policymaking, was to remove it. Yes, people do sometimes make catastrophic choices that can lead to homelessness. But that endpoint demonstrates the artificial absence of what used to be the naturally occurring bottom of the market. The last rung in the ladder has been sawed away.

I remember reading an article online about living in the city as a family with kids, and then scrolling down to find, predictably, hostile comments. One commenter stood out to me: They said something to the effect of If you don’t move to the suburbs, you’re a bad parent. You have a duty to buy in the safest neighborhood, and send your kid to the best school.

It was a brazen sentiment, but I suspect a fair number of suburbanites believe something similar. It’s not that they prefer to live in suburbia, but that they can’t really imagine any alternative. (It’s worth pointing out that this point of view also assumes that crime is the sole important risk to a child, and the only relevant factor in choosing a place to live—never mind that cars are one of the leading killers of American children.)

I wonder how much of this attitude—which has a strong Boomer connotation—can be linked to the psychology of living through the crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s. My parents lived through that era; my mother experienced it up close while growing up in Manhattan. The things she saw and heard about sound to me like dispatches from another planet. It’s hard to imagine living through a time like that as a kid without it doing something to you.

But I’ve also, grudgingly, begun to wonder whether there’s simply something about owning a detached house in suburbia—and the corollary of seeing your car as a practical extension of yourself—that actually isolates you and can induce a certain paranoia. I’ve read that driving amps up our aggression, at an actual physiological or biochemical level. That feels true to me.

Whether the psychological consequences of earlier social unrest or present suburban isolation, anxieties about having to deal with interlopers from a lower economic class are common even in the most socially insulated places. Here I am in Northern Virginia: By any account, it’s one of the safest regions in the United States, with some of the best public services and amenities in the country. And still, local commentary posted on Facebook and NextDoor portrays living here as being under siege. You see this mindset with folks who twisted Barack Obama’s affordable housing plan—very nearly embraced by Donald Trump!—into Obama wants to destroy the suburbs by seeding them with low-income people. You see it in arguments that new housing is a plot, an attack, a conspiracy by somebody. You see it with people whose only question about any public amenity is, “Will a homeless person use it?”

Making a problem invisible—or simply looking away from it—isn’t the same as solving it.

People will counter my criticisms by saying that they don’t hate or fear the poor or the homeless; they just observe that public amenities are often “misused” or vandalized. Until the underclass behaves properly, they suggest, we can’t have nice things.

To the extent that people of any class or background damage or vandalize public amenities, that’s not a good thing. But there’s a civic poverty in this view. It is taken almost as a given that public amenities—from parks to benches to pools to bathrooms—are only really for people who cannot afford their own private versions. What might look like indifference to or contempt for the poor is actually contempt for the idea of the public realm itself.

This is sensitive stuff, easy to get wrong in every direction. But it’s something urbanists have to talk about because it’s often the elephant in the room. It’s better to have a frank, potentially discomfiting conversation about the underlying attitudes and assumptions at play when it comes to housing and public amenities than to allow those assumptions to continue to silently shape both our discourse and our outcomes. For a lot of people, these ideas never even rise to the level of conscious beliefs or preferences; they are simply invisible, part of the air we breathe. But we all know what it’s like to see a used air filter when the time comes to replace it.

As noted, I don’t like saying any of this. On the other hand, I’m relaying much of what I absorbed by osmosis living in a low-density, high-income, mostly white suburb. I like my car, I live in the suburbs, I don’t like crime, I want my kids to go to good schools. But I think it’s important to try to probe what all of that really means, for the sake of intellectual and moral honesty if nothing else. Perhaps you agree.

Addison Del Mastro

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. Find him on Substack (The Deleted Scenes) and Twitter (@ad_mastro).