We are often asked whether it is possible for communities to reduce or end homelessness for a population without substantially increasing the local supply of dedicated affordable housing units.
People often assume that the answer is no. A combination of rising housing costs, tight housing markets, and stagnant wages have narrowed the paths to affordable housing for many Americans. Meanwhile, the current system for delivering new affordable housing units is expensive, inflexible, and often too slow to meet the needs of rapidly growing communities.
These are real problems that demand solutions — affordable housing stock is and will always be a critical component of a community’s ability to end and sustain and end to homelessness . (For communities with housing supply challenges, Community Solutions is working on a social impact investment model that delivers affordable housing more quickly.)
So what explains the surprising reality that many communities are driving reductions in homelessness — some even getting all the way to zero — without new units or other housing supply increases?
“We were definitely the community that thought we didn’t have resources [to end veteran homelessness], but it turns out it wasn’t true at all,” said Emma Beers, who helped the Chattanooga and Southeast Tennessee community functionally end veteran homelessness in her previous role. “Change started happening without it.”
To date, 93% of Built for Zero communities that have reached functional zero chronic or veteran homelessness did so by optimizing these subsidies, rather than adding large amounts of new physical housing supply.
In the United States, we are very lucky to have a federally funded system of affordable and permanent supportive housing. While this system isn’t perfect, and it’s not always enough, it does mean that every community in the country starts with a supply of portable rental and social service subsidies to optimize. Over the last 20 years, Congress has expanded the supply of such portable subsidies for use on the open market— think of it as an expansion of people’s ability to pay rent, rather than an expansion of actual units.
To date, 93% of Built for Zero communities that have reached functional zero chronic or veteran homelessness did so by optimizing these subsidies, rather than adding large amounts of new physical housing supply. Even large cities that eventually need new housing supply to get all the way to zero have driven significant reductions in homelessness without it. Five large cities have achieved reductions of 20% or more in chronic or veteran homelessness.
So, if Built for Zero communities have been able to get these results, why isn’t every community seeing similar success?
Fixing the housing system
At Community Solutions, we think a lot about the eradication of smallpox.
The vaccine for the disease was introduced in 1796. But smallpox was not eradicated until 1980 — more than 180 years later. Getting to zero required more than the vaccine. It required a global system capable of targeting and delivering the vaccine to everyone who needed it.
Homes, like vaccines, are essential, but insufficient on their own. Without an effective delivery system, the problem persists despite the availability of a cure.
So, what are the prerequisite features of an operating system that can move from managing homelessness to reducing and ending it?
A coordinated system is required to match a community’s prioritized by-name list of those experiencing homelessness with new housing investments.
So what does this all mean?
An adequate supply of safe, affordable housing is essential to a healthy, equitable society. But context matters, and many communities are proving they can reduce and even end homelessness — the most extreme form of housing need — through the coordinated and disciplined use of their existing assets and by using their data to target new investments. What we’re seeing:
1. Not all communities need new physical affordable housing supply to end homelessness.
2. Even communities that do need new affordable housing can make dramatic progress in reducing homelessness without it.
As noted, large cities across the country are steadily reducing homelessness through disciplined coordination of their resources even as they work to expand their housing supply.
3. Without quality, real-time data, a community doesn’t know what they’re dealing with.
Having a clear picture of the constantly changing dynamics of homelessness and who is experiencing it is essential to a community’s ability to know what housing solutions they should invest in to achieve the greatest impact in reducing homelessness.
4. Communities require an operating system to link housing investments of all types with their efforts to end homelessness.
Simply creating new affordable housing does not automatically reduce homelessness. A coordinated system is required to match a community’s prioritized by-name list of those experiencing homelessness with new housing investments. Community Solutions is helping communities leverage a four-part social impact housing model, which ensures that new housing units are connected to the housing system, ensuring that they contribute to reductions in homelessness.
To sum up, should we invest more deeply as a country in expanding access to affordable housing? Unequivocally, yes! But is affordable housing supply alone a solution to homelessness? Unequivocally no! Built for Zero communities are proving that a well resourced and well coordinated housing system is the pathway to sustainable reductions and ultimately an end to homelessness for all.