© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

National expert says housing shortage, not other factors, causes homelessness

Mark Humphrey

The Cape Fear Housing Coalition hosted a national expert on homelessness for its housing breakfast this year. WHQR’s Kelly Kenoyer and Ben Schachtman attended, and have the highlights.

You can find more about Dr. Gregg Colburn's work on housing and homelessness here.

Kelly Kenoyer: So Ben, we heard from Dr. Gregg Colburn, the author of Homelessness is a Housing Problem. And he kicked it off with some important context: that criminalizing the homeless just moves them around, it doesn’t actually solve the problem.

Ben Schachtman: That’s right. He saw that happening in the 1990s under Mayor Rudy Giuliani when they “cleaned up New York”— he was working in finance at the time, not studying homelessness and housing, but he said it struck him as a pretty brutal crackdown – and also noted the homeless people arrested at the time were just moved out of sight. He said he’s concerned to see that criminalization approach making a resurgence — Kelly, you’ve covered that.

KK: Yeah, I saw a lot of people arrested for minor crimes – and not only did it not solve their homelessness, it also cost taxpayers $100 a night – not the most efficient way to house someone.

BS: Okay – the real meat of Colburn’s talk was debunking some myths about what causes homelessness, based on data analysis from the annual point-in-time count, which is the federally mandated survey of homelessness.

KK: Yeah, and his findings were fascinating. His first point was that, even if it’s the cause you might hear from an unhoused person in the streets, things like domestic violence, drug addiction, and mental illness — those aren’t actually driving homelessness.

BS: And those things are important, Colburn said — but he calls them precipitating events. The root cause, he says, is the housing shortage and the high cost of housing.

KK: It’s like musical chairs. If 10 people have 10 chairs, then everyone gets a chair. But if one chair is taken away, then the person who broke his ankle and can’t rush to the chair fast enough is out. It’s the broken ankle that made him lose the game, but it’s the game that left him chairless.

BS: And this cruel game of musical chairs is all about our lack of housing.

KK: Right, right. I mean, national estimates put our housing shortage at 3 to 10 million units across the country. The shortage is worst in the rich coastal cities, but it’s starting to apply in smaller cities, like Wilmington.

BS: Actually, he pointed out that wealth is one of the driving factors of homelessness. Here’s Dr. Colburn:

Dr. Greg Colburn: “So homelessness thrives amidst affluence, not amongst poverty, which is a head-scratcher. It doesn't mean poverty is not important. The implication of this is that being poor in a wealthy city has different consequences than in a poor city. And we would argue that's because of the housing market.

KK: And he actually pointed out that cities like Austin, Texas, or like Wilmington, are seeing a gentrification problem. It’s wealthy people moving to these cities who displace poorer people who’ve lived here for generations. That’s the opposite of the assumption you hear from public officials, who suggest that homeless people are moving here from outside the community or the state.

BS: We did get to ask him some questions directly. Like which interventions we should invest in, in this community that has so much money sloshing around that could go to helping address this problem.

KK: He essentially said the top priority should be prevention, things like rental assistance and other emergency interventions to prevent evictions or housing loss.

Dr. Greg Colburn: "As soon as you're into the system, that gets really expensive, and it's hard to get out. So anything you can do to keep people from entering is valuable.”

BS: And to fix the housing market?

KK: Well it’s easier in Wilmington than in his town of Seattle, because our homelessness problem isn’t yet a crisis. Big interventions right now can go a long way, whereas it’ll take decades for Seattle to dig itself out of its hole. But his suggestion for us and other mid-sized cities is deregulation of small-scale, slightly denser development. Things like duplexes and triplexes being permitted in every part of the city, instead of only in specific neighborhoods.

BS: That’s not currently in our zoning plans, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I mean, Minneapolis did it.

KK: they did it five years ago, alongside other reforms that allowed more apartments to be built. The combination of both policies made Minneapolis much more flexible — and its kept their rent much flatter than other parts of the country. Since 2020, their average rent has risen 6%. Wilmington saw a 25% increase in that time frame.

BS: And we’re still not keeping up with housing demand, even with all the construction we’ve seen in recent years. But we know the solution to the root causes now: to build more housing.

KK: That’s right. Well Ben, thanks for the rundown.

BS: No problem.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.
Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.