The Regional Housing Solution

The way America deals with homelessness is kinda broken. We think the answer is to throw more money at it, but that’s rarely how to solve things. In the past 8 years, US spending on homelessness has doubled, yet homelessness itself has only decreased by 10%.

America budgets over 5 billion a year to care for 580,000 homeless individuals ($8,600/person). This figure does not account for all other emergency services (jail, hospitals, etc), which likely trump this figure.

So here’s a new idea, instead of spending billions to manage homelessness on a local level, what if governments tried solving homelessness on a regional level — investing in homeless housing wherever rents are cheapest.

By giving homeless people the opportunity to be housed outside the city, homelessness could decrease rapidly and save America billions in the process. I know I know, that’s just not how it works. But humor me:

Re-Thinking Homeless Solutions

Before I go further, let me start by saying homelessness, gentrification, and welfare are not easy topics for people to discuss. Personal feelings aside, we all have to recognize that our current system is failing and it’s time we focussed on a practical housing solution. If you agree, then join our Change.Org campaign.

Where I live in San Francisco, housing prices are so insane that there is zero chance of ending homelessness within the city. And it’s a similar story around the country. The 30 cities below account for 40% of homelessness in America, as well as the fastest growing rental markets.

The Big Idea

While many factors contribute to homelessness, nothing does more so than the lack of low-income housing and rising rents. The simple solution is to build more low-income housing or Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) for those with special needs.

Knowing this, places like Salt Lake City reduced chronic homelessness by 72% by building 1,000’s of supportive housing units. America cheered and everyone started saying, “why doesn’t every city just do that?”

The reason is that building enough low-income housing in big cities is incredibly expensive, neighbors fight it tooth and nail, and what little land is available to build on is hotly contested. But once cities start thinking outside of the box, and outside their city limits, the situation gets a lot easier. The infographic below shows the Northern California real estate market, where some cities are 80% cheaper to rent in than others.

In Northern California, cities like Merced and Stockton cost 80% less to rent housing in than San Francisco. It is also impossible to afford rent in San Francisco on minimum wage, which only pays $1440/month for a 40 hour week.

The housing model below explores a regional housing solution for San Francisco’s chronically homeless. These individuals need Permanent Supportive Housing, which currently has a 5 year wait for most individuals. In that time people survive on the streets, costing taxpayers an average of $61,000/yr in services. By building PSH outside the city, San Francisco could house people faster, cheaper, and give 100% of it’s chronically homeless the option to have housing.

Building supportive housing outside the city can save San Francisco 380 million dollars year 1 and up to 800 million over the next 20 years.

Data: San Francisco’s 2014 cost analysis of Supportive Housing, Online building quotes, and Trulia.

There are few logical reasons for a city to build permanent supportive housing inside the city where it is 3.5x more expensive and has to go through years of approvals. The majority of people in PSH are unable to work and the cost of living in cities like San Francisco make people more impoverished than they already are. Lastly, PSH in San Francisco takes away from the affordable housing stock reserved for working class individuals.

Permanent Supportive Housing is usually reserved for the disabled who need to be take care of because they are unable to work. A large portion of this community is effected by mental illness, substance abuse, and physical disability.

Permanent Supportive Housing is only needed for people who are unable to care for themselves, but most people who become homeless just need a safe place to live while they get back on their feet. The problem once again is there aren’t enough shelters and affordable housing in big cities.

In the next housing model, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, and San Jose explore a Northern California housing solution, where homeless individuals are given the option of receiving free rent for a year in a more affordable city of their choice. The model shows what would happen if 25% of people chose to relocate instead of being homeless.

For each person housed, an additional $4,200 is put aside for local service providers to assist with case management, life coaching, work programs, meals, and whatever else is needed. Housing is offered in 2, 3, or 4 bedroom options, so that people can re-locate with loved ones. At $8,400 per person, this option is much better than homeless shelters ($12,800/yr) and the ($34,000/yr) cost a city incurs for every homeless individual.

Offering rental subsidies and support services for people to live in cheaper areas in much more cost effective than having people be homeless on the street.

Now you might be wondering: would people really want to live somewhere else? Maybe… maybe not. But it’s an option we should be offering. Currently, the only option we offer people is to stay homeless. Or worse, we put people in jail for being homeless.

A regional housing solution would be a great option for people after going through a 90-day shelter stay, when many homeless people don’t have anything else lined up. Remember, the only option we currently offer people is to stay homeless on the streets. That’s not an option, that’s a recipe for depression, substance abuse, and crimes of survival.

Some early examples of regional housing solutions are the CommunityFirst village outside of Austin, TX and New York’s new Permanent Supportive Housing units in Buffalo, NY. It’s only a matter of time before more cities start implementing regional strategies. We can do it now or later, the only question is how many people have to suffer in the mean-time.

The first step is to bring developers, politicians, and service providers together for a regional housing summit, which can happen with your support on There are a lots of different regional solutions for cities to start exploring — Investing in new buildings, converting old ones, master-leasing rentals, building Tiny House Villages, working with local service providers, and using virtual service providers are all options that provide a starting point from which to experiment and innovate.

But in case you still aren’t convinced, you should know that homelessness is likely to get much, much worse. The leading indicator of homelessness, people living doubled up in houses, has almost doubled since the recession. Doubled! No one wants to think about it, but there is a poverty bubble building all around us and when it pops we better have a good solution on how to help those in need.

Since the Great Recession of 2007, the number of Americans accessing safety net benefits has skyrocketed 500 percent. Showcasing the shaky deck of cards America is balancing on right now.

Roadblocks to Regional Housing

Perhaps the biggest challenge to creating a regional housing solution is that it’s almost completely unheard of for local governments to invest resources in other cities. But just because it’s unusual doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

Governments need to look at a regional housing solution and think, “How can we” instead of “Why can’t we.”

Secondly, there’s a fear of displacing people outside the city. This is a justified concern, but not something that should derail an otherwise good solution. The only way to deal with homelessness on a local level is to build more affordable housing. But with our current level of resources, regional housing solutions may be the only viable option we have. We should always be able to offer people an alternative to living on the streets. Having to move to a new city isn’t perfect, but neither is being homeless.

Also, a 2013 survey showed 39% of San Francisco’s homeless moved to the city after becoming homeless somewhere else. When asked, the individuals believed it would be easier to survive in San Francisco. Unfortunately, no one told them about the lack of affordable housing, understaffed homeless services, and the increasing rate at which San Francisco jails it’s homeless population.

Many homeless people move to big cities as a means of survival

Another hurdle will be working things out with cities where people are housed. But remember, helping the homeless is big business, billions are spent on it every year. Big cities have lots of money to help smaller communities in return for their help. And lots of these smaller communities currently can’t afford to build housing for the homeless in their city.

Lastly, there will be objections from homeless service providers who argue that we should keep the homeless closer to their existing services. This is a concern, but homeless service providers can be found everywhere in the country. Also, a regional housing solution will allow homeless numbers in big cities to decrease to the point where service providers can take care of their clients better. Every service provider I know operates in crisis management mode 100% of the time. They are understaffed, underpaid, and overwhelmed with the lack of options at their disposal.

The reality is, homeless service providers are incapable of solving homelessness without having affordable housing to offer people.

Touching on one last thing, we’ve done a huge disservice to the mentally ill by centralizing their services in urban areas where they are more likely to have a negative altercation with others.

It’s no secret that the majority of the mentally ill have ended up in our prison system. A regional housing solution will allow us to create special housing for our mentally ill in less built up areas, where they can live in lower stress environments and be in the constant care of wellness professionals.

After institutionalization, most of the mentally ill were locked up. Showcasing that we still have no clue ow to properly care for the mentally ill.

No Progress without Compromise

The reality is, we’ve built a homeless system where people need to flock to big cities as a means of survival. People come for services, they complain when it becomes clear we don’t have enough, and year after year, cities are forced to invest more resources into making the streets livable.

But what big cities don’t offer the homeless is what really matters — affordable housing and jobs that allow people to afford rent.

That’s why it’s time to make a change! If you want to support a regional housing solution, sign our campaign below. If 30,000 people sign up, then A Better San Francisco will organize a Regional Housing Summit for California and assist the mayors of the thirty cities below to organize one as well.

No one is winning by keeping people homeless. Not taxpayers, not the homeless, and certainly not society as a whole.

People are homeless because they don’t have any other options. Let’s help make one for them. SIGN THE PETITION. SUPPORT A REGIONAL HOMELESS HOUSING SOLUTION TODAY.