This week’s ill-conceived appropriation of the “X lives matter” formula comes to us from the leafy districts of Northwest Washington, D.C. On Thursday, residents protesting the construction of short-term apartments for the homeless passed out flyers saying, “Homeless lives matter; the lives of community homeowners matter too.”
Homeowner lives matter. It’s not quite a slogan to chant at the barricades, but it makes its point.
The background to this conflict, as David Alpert explains at Greater Greater Washington, is that District Mayor Muriel Bowser has embarked on an ambitious and progressive program of distributing new homeless shelters throughout the capital. (The execution of that plan, for what it’s worth, has been fraught with problems.)
What’s going on in Northwest is, on the one hand, a classic example of old-style NIMBYism. Everybody knows a city needs landfills, power plants, highways, and homeless shelters, but nobody wants one of these facilities around the corner. Understandably so, when home values typically account for half a family’s net worth.
But this specific problem has its roots in new-style NIMBYism: the type of dogged opposition to basic neighborhood development that has been gaining steam in the American city for half a century. The boom in urban shelters is the final result of a shortage-induced high-rent crisis that has hit the poorest Americans hardest. Drawing on the American Housing Survey, Matthew Desmond notes in Evicted that the number of renter households spending 70 percent or more of their income on housing costs virtually doubled between 1991 and 2013, from 2.4 to 4.7 million. When such a large share of your income goes to your landlord, missing one paycheck can leave you out on the street.
There’s a direct line between the surging numbers of homeless people in high-cost cities, the lack of affordable housing, and metropolitan development constraints (though they are far from the only cause). According to a December report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, city officials identified the leading cause of homelessness among families as a lack of affordable housing—rather than poverty or unemployment.
In part, that’s because the federal government and the states have dropped the ball on building low-income housing and helping low-income renters find and stay in apartments. (Cities are doing better, or being forced to pick up the slack. In D.C., the homeless population has grown by 30 percent since 2006.) But most Americans on the verge of homelessness are hunting in the same, unregulated housing market as the rest of us: According to an analysis of 2011 AHS data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, fewer than one in four eligible low-income renters received housing assistance of any kind.
In other words, the low-income housing market isn’t distinct from the housing market at large. It’s all one thing. Low-level NIMBY gains against rental housing have helped produce a general shortage. And that general shortage winds up pushing even working families into shelters, which are among the most expensive and least effective ways to address homelessness.
Cranky homeowners are not, of course, the only factor contributing to the affordable housing crisis. But decades of limits on the growth of the urban housing stock have taken their toll. Yesterday’s NIMBY victory over rental apartments is today’s NIMBY battle over a homeless shelter.