Every issue can be analyzed into one factor. But living on densely populated NJ, how do we easily build more housing. (And please don't list Finland or Tokyo without at least comparing the legal systems). But Mississippi is poor and housing prices are low. There is also more land left to be developed. New Jersey has much less land that can be developed. So what do we do?

We also have a distinctly different way to develop than they do in Europe. When they build suburban housing it is often attached housing - so blocks of 4 or 5 houses with small front and back yards. But in the US when we develop open land we have fairly large yards - a waste of space but also future development can only happen by destroying existing stock.

No suggestion here, but we need an entirely different way of developing.

Expand full comment

I think you should also take a look at the research In The Spirit Level - which indicates that the greatest driver of most social ills is the gap between the richest & the poorest.


Expand full comment

It's common knowledge that unreliability, not just poverty, contributes to homelessness. People with impairments that make them tough to live with and tough to employ, like drug abuse or illness (and not just mental illness! physical illness can leave you pretty unreliable and tough to live with, too!) are more likely to "enjoy" homelessness than the merely-poor-but-otherwise-reliable are. As Rob Baxter and "Uncle Abe's Revenge" mentioned in these comments, we now have drugs of abuse and barriers to employment (like drug testing!) that didn't historically exist. (On the other hand, as Sherm pointed out, opium used to be available without a prescription: that drugs of previous eras were more "natural" and less controlled doesn't mean that addiction to them wasn't a widespread problem.)

But since some significant portion of tough-to-live-with, unreliable people is always with us, we should ask, "How might restricting housing supply, and driving up its cost, create incentives to turf these unreliable people, in particular, out onto the street?"

The higher housing costs are, and the more the middle class relies on housing appreciation to build wealth, the more threatening it becomes for ordinary families to share living space with anyone who might threaten home values. Similarly, the riskier it becomes for landlords, many of whom are themselves of modest means, to tolerate less-than-perfect tenants. While some people hafta get kicked out because, say, they can't stop shooting up or masturbating in front of the kids, it seems likely that many more are kicked out just because they can't contribute enough to the maintenance that keeps property values high. In an environment where housing values are low and even depreciating (as they do in Japan), it would be easier to tolerate the weird household member who makes more of a mess or has less to contribute.

Additionally, the more regulations there are prohibiting boarders (either in a family's spare room or in a boarding house), the less space there is for misfits to simply have a roof over their heads. But homevoters are afraid of having boarders in the neighborhood for fear that boarders are exactly the kind of weirdos who threaten property values. In NYC, for example, boarding used to be a normal way for individuals and even families to live. Some boarding conditions were quite squalid, of course, but simply living around other people could also help the dysfunctional function (other boarders might take it upon themselves to shoo a ne'er-do-well off to his job in time just to get a break from him, and so on). NYC's campaign against SROs (single room occupancy – boarding) seems to have greatly exacerbated NYC's homeless problem:


There are many degrees of squalor, ranging from horrendous pestilence and abuse to "those people let their lawn get shaggy for a few months". The more normal it is to be overinvested in housing, the less people will tolerate even minor squalor, and the greater the pressure on households to kick out anyone who's the least bit squalid. Japan is a country famous for its un-squalid aesthetics, but is also a country where people expect housing to depreciate, rather than appreciate, in value, and which – perhaps not coincidentally – has low rates of homelessness:


"Weirdly, this is presented as a chronic problem — something Japan should have fixed long ago, but hasn’t. But in reality, depreciating real estate is one of Japan’s biggest strengths. Because Japanese people don’t use their houses as their nest eggs, as they do in much of the West, there is not nearly as much NIMBYism in Japan — people don’t fight tooth and nail to prevent any local development that they worry might reduce their property values, because their property values are going to zero anyway.

"As a result, Japanese cities like Tokyo have managed to build enough housing to make housing costs fall, even as people continued to stream from the countryside into the city."

To make this possible, "Japan has a relatively simple and unambiguous zoning code, one which the national government has repeatedly adjusted in order to allow for more housing growth in Tokyo."


I've previously wondered why the famously industrious Japanese tolerate hikikomori – children who become recluses not contributing to their household. But if housing depreciates in Japan, tolerating hikikomori, rather than bunging them out onto the street to become everyone's problem, makes more sense.

Expand full comment

Hey JVL, did you see that Dreher lost the patron for his column for being too weird?

Expand full comment

We don't necessarily need to build more housing. We already have more vacant homes than there are homeless people.

We need to stop treating real estate like a speculative commodity. That's the real issue. Speculative commodities require returns, which means the value must keep going up, hence the prices must keep going up.

So while building more homes will help, it won't solve the issue or real estate being a speculative vessel for the wealthy and the way that distorts markets.

Expand full comment

Affordable housing. When people hit the streets is very hard to get a job, show up for work on a regular basis, find a toilet that works, get a shower etc. As for Mississippi, the state has only 3 million people-even of it has a lot of shacks. And homeless people know they will get more help in more prosperous states-if they can catch a ride.

Expand full comment

The housing unit bar chart in YIMBY is misleading. Up until 2010, housing units are charted every five years. After that it is annually. By jamming them in annually, the eye is tricked into seeing a very slow to flat inrease. The truth is, as always, in the middle. Unit growth slowed, but not the the level your eyes would tell you from looking at the chart. I am not arguing the premise - but as a statistician, I am arguing for clarity in data presentation rather than using a misleading data representation to reinforce the story.

Expand full comment

The issue I have with this plan is if you drive around any town or city that is plenty of vacant housing. Don’t build more and create more waste. Use and renovate what is already there.

Expand full comment

Homelessness is not an just an economic problem, building low cost housing for people with drug addiction and mental health issues creates a whole set of other problems. These people have no hope, their families have abandoned them. Start with figuring out how to have sustainable community, that will give them hope - build housing around that. A solution involving NGO with passionate volunteers (with some govt subsidy) has worked (eg. Union Gospel Mission). Throwing govt jobs and money at this will be a waste and fail.

Expand full comment

I've worked in the nonprofit homeless space for 12+ years. This article is spot on. The only addition that I will offer is that the baby boomer migration (leaving rural areas and smaller town when they went to college, and not returning home) created almost a tidal wave of demand in cities that were not managing the influx and making sure that there was enough housing. We also had the "white flight" to suburbia. Facts are needed for evaluation to plan for the future. I'll be interested in seeing what Mayor Karen Bass is able to accomplish in LA. She has both government policy/administration experience, hold an MSW, and worked with the homeless population in LA before getting into Congress.

Expand full comment

This British youtuber britmonkey has given us an offering "The housing crisis is the everything crisis". I think it is a pretty good take on the whole deal:


He goes on the issue hard. Inter alia he lays into Clement Attlee and the Labour postwar administration, which among the nice thinking British is a controversial thing to do.

Expand full comment

An excellent column on another factor, the bureaucratic process(es) which can delay/impede housing projects. The key point here is that in the city by the bay, every permit is "discretionary," which means that any individual may challenge it, even if the challenge is completely frivolous. https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/sf-housing-development-red-tape-17815725.php?utm_campaign=CMS%20Sharing%20Tools%20(Premium)&utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=referral

Expand full comment

Thank you, JVL. I was never taught in high school civics the VITAL and fundamental role that affordable housing plays in maintaining a stable society in which households can achieve upward mobility. It was only when I started learning more about systemic racism and city planning and zoning decisions, as well as the history of how Black farmers lost their generational wealth through losing their land and homes in various ways, that I started to connect home ownership with *everything else*. Then I did some communications work for an org in the Twin Cities that does RESEARCH and focuses on housing and I really learned how a little investment in affordable housing can prevent far greater costs to society down the road once a family loses its housing for any reason. The latter causes a downward spiral that has devastating effects all around. Giving struggling families a little support to KEEP their housing costs far less as a "safety net" versus dealing with a shelterless family once the housing is lost.

Expand full comment

In the days of rapidly increased population, ie unregulated immigration in the 20s, 30s and 40s, there were boardinghouses, multi-family homes (flats) and women's or men's hostels where people rented efficiency apartments that had a small kitchenette, a washstand, and a Murphy bed, showers/bathroom were communal at the end of the hall. Family's often rented small apartments--2-3 bedrooms in the flats.(I live in one of those flats as a student with roommates and then later my family moved into a ground floor of one of those apartment buildings; it had 3 bedrooms, one full bath, very little closet space, an eat-in kitchen, dining room, living room and front and back porches. It is up for sale again (the building) for about $155K. I was tempted... It has renters for the first two floors but I don't really want to be a landlord. I was thinking owning one of those would be handy for when my inlaws end up needing to move near us. In that neighborhood it was not uncommon for a couple generations of family to occupy those homes.

Expand full comment

So...agreed it would be good if housing were cheaper. And it's definitely a part of the homelessness problem. But I looked at Carr's post and have some critiques:

-are we getting our understanding of what percentage of homeless people are mentally ill or on drugs from asking them if they are? An awful lot of mentally ill people genuinely don't think they're crazy, aside from the stigma factor of admitting to either condition. I read one article where a homeless advocate argued very strongly the homeless weren't mentally ill or on drugs because she'd gone to their encampment and asked them. Not sure I take the answers at face value.

-I do not know the average cost of housing in Maine, Arkansas, New Mexico, or Missouri compared to Mississippi, but I have a hard time believing it's vastly higher. Yet the homelessness rates in those states are per capita 2 to almost 4 times higher than in Mississippi. Meanwhile, the rate in New Jersey is about 50% less than in Maine, and on par with Oklahoma. I'm spitballing, but I'm assuming housing costs are higher in New Jersey than either of those places. With almost 4x the per capita rate of homelessness, is the average housing cost in Oregon 4x that in Pennsylvania? I think these numbers create some problems for the idea that housing costs are the primary causal variable, and it suggests there's another variable at play that's more significant.

-Carr asks why there wasn't more homelessness in the olden days and says housing costs are the answer. But I can think of a couple of other variables. First, widespread drug use really didn't exist. There was alcohol, but being a functional alcoholic is a lot easier than being a functional heroin addict. Second, there were a lot more agricultural jobs, jobs in general required less skill, and there were less service jobs that required interacting with people. I suspect it was a lot easier for someone with moderate mental illness or substance abuse, someone who can a lot of the time seem quite normal, to hold down a job. Schedules could also be more flexible in the agricultural field. Today jobs, especially menial or low-wage jobs, tend to be rigidly scheduled and have a lot of human interaction, and also tend to test most stringently for substance abuse. For a marginally functional individual, it's harder to hold a job. I have relatives who I would put into this category, and they worked into middle age, but then took a turn, lost their jobs, and I'm sure would be homeless if they weren't getting family help. They wouldn't tell you they're mentally ill, but they are. But in many ways they're at least somewhat functional and at first glance you wouldn't necessarily know. My suspicion is that a lot of our homeless population falls into this "marginally functional" category. They're not raving mad or drugged out of their minds, but they're unhinged or on drugs enough that it makes it hard to keep a job.

Expand full comment

I expect that the word woke started replacing liberal as the preferred cuss word for Democrats because the word liberal was regaining its status and once again being embraced by Democrats as something to be proud of.

Expand full comment