No, We Don’t Have Homelessness Because There Aren’t Enough Homes

By Peter Dorfman

I have been a consistent opponent of Bloomington’s plan to densify its core neighborhoods for more than two years. This stance has brought me into contact with a lot of people who agree, and a lot of detractors as well. I’ve been called a “clueless, selfish old white dude,” a racist, and even a “liberal segregationist.” I’ve been told it’s obvious that I hate poor people. 

I’ve even been told, “You are prioritizing your comfort levels over others’ actual survival.”

I get most of this in the intellectual dead zones of Facebook and Nextdoor — unfortunately necessary outlets for local political discourse. I can laugh off the gratuitous insults. But there is a running theme that concerns me. You can see it in that last quote. 

For some number of Bloomingtonians, the presence of a sizable number of homeless people in our parks and on our streets is reinforcing the perception that the city has a critical shortage of housing. It’s seen as direct evidence of that shortage, and of the need for the upzoning.

Does Bloomington have a housing shortage? That’s a much more complex and interesting question than a lot of Bloomingtonians imagine. But this post asks a different question: Is there any actual connection between the proposal to open the single family-zoned core neighborhoods to denser housing development and the problems of the city’s homeless population? Is there any practical value in conflating these issues?

To homeless advocates I’ve encountered online, the answer is a self-evident yes. I beg to differ.

If you are on the edge of homelessness, your problem is NOT that you can’t afford a market rate apartment, in a core neighborhood or anywhere else. It’s that you can’t make rent, period. That’s serious, but it’s not a problem that is addressed in any way, directly or indirectly, by the city’s upzoning proposal.

“What the heck do you think happens when you get evicted because you as a tenant have no rights,” I have been asked. “Does a place to stay magically appear? How in the world is there ‘no connection’?”

I want to share my response.

The homeless population in Bloomington is roughly 380. That’s a lot of people, and I am not blind to the seriousness of their situation and not unsympathetic. But they are 0.4% of the city’s population. There are some number of other people who have apartments but whose housing insecurity is such that they’re in danger of falling into homelessness — I don’t know how to quantify that. 

But let’s be clear — not all of the currently unhoused in Bloomington got there because they became unable to pay their rent. Some percentage arrived in Bloomington already homeless. Some percentage are out there because they have mental health or substance abuse issues that make it impossible for them to have normal relationships with a landlord.

One can’t just declare categorically that Bloomington has 380 people who would be in apartments now if there were more apartments. There are other reasons.

Let’s imagine 3.6% of Bloomingtonians are close to being evicted and having nowhere to go but the street. (I have no idea whether that’s the right number, but play along with me here.) So add that to the homeless figure and now 4% of Bloomingtonians have immediate or imminent homelessness issues. OK?

Bloomington’s local government needs a coherent policy to deal with that problem. Currently, it either doesn’t have that policy or it’s doing a terrible job of articulating and implementing it — popular anger at the administration over its treatment of the homeless has become a substantial obstacle to the Mayor’s agenda.

But policy toward homelessness is NOT the same policy that local government applies to housing generally. Governments first and foremost embrace their responsibility to the 96% of their citizens (to stay with our fictitious numbers) who are housed, reasonably secure and basically making it. That’s who mayors and councils make policy for.

If it’s a humane policy, it will be set up so that the local economy (again, run by and for people who are doing OK) generates enough tax revenue so that funds can be earmarked for programs that help the people who aren’t making it (programs generally run by not-for-profits who have the right expertise to deal with homelessness and its underlying causes). But that’s the only practical overlap. 

The housing policy the city maintains for people who are housed includes nothing that’s of any use to the people who are unhoused. They need an entirely different set of policies and services.

If you are on the edge of homelessness, your problem is NOT that you can’t afford a market rate apartment, in a core neighborhood or anywhere else. It’s that you can’t make rent, period. That’s serious, but it’s not a problem that is addressed in any way, directly or indirectly, by the city’s upzoning proposal.

The city’s upzoning proposal is not “a step” toward addressing your problem. It just doesn’t belong in the same conversation as the one homeless advocates need to be having with the mayor and council.

I’m convinced that we would be having a completely different conversation about upzoning if the city had a viable program in place to subsidize rents so that low-income people could rent these new apartments in the foreseeable future.

But NO ONE is talking about rent subsidies. It’s not on anyone’s agenda. Bloomington should address subsidies first — then we could have a friendlier conversation about cannibalizing houses in the core.

THAT’s how there’s no connection.

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