If Biden Really Wants to End Homelessness, He Needs to Support Public Housing

The Biden administration promised a humane and proactive approach to the nation’s housing and homelessness crises. Instead, we’ve gotten technocratic tinkering and homeless encampment sweeps. We need investment in public housing.

A woman pulls a luggage bag as the National Park Service clear the homeless encampment at McPherson Square on February 15, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

The Biden administration drew the ire of housing advocates this past February when the National Park Service (NPS) swept a homeless encampment at McPherson Square, located just a block away from the White House. The original plan was to evict camp residents in April so that social workers would have time to connect them with housing and other services. But citing illegal drug use and overdoses as well as general public safety concerns, Washington DC’s local Health and Human Services Department called for the sweep to be moved up to February 15.

Given two weeks’ notice of the truncated timeline for eviction, social workers and service providers scrambled to find housing options for the approximately seventy people who remained at the camp by the deadline. By the time NPS workers clad in white jumpsuits began tossing people’s belongings into trash trucks, only two people had been placed in permanent housing. Twenty people accepted temporary bridge housing, and a few more went to shelters. Two-thirds remained on the street.

The clearing of McPherson Square follows similar sweeps of encampments in Houston and Portland. Portland recently paused camp evictions, but only because it ran out of money to conduct them. Despite the Biden administration publicly embracing a housing-first strategy, the primary goal of homelessness policy in America — including the federal government, as NPS’s participation makes clear — remains to keep the unhoused out of the view of wealthy property owners and shopping district consumers. A particularly odious op-ed coauthored by NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton made this clear by asserting that the only viable solution to homelessness in his city of San Diego is to move them away from the “civilized taxpayers of our society.”

The government has a responsibility to all its constituents, not just those whose lives are characterized by stability and who participate productively in the capitalist economy. The purpose of homelessness policy should not be to sweep the problem under the rug and remove inconveniences for the well-off. It should be to improve the lives and restore the dignity of people who are forced to live on the street. Far from an intractable problem, there are actually solutions at our fingertips — they just require viewing homeless people as equally deserving members of society.

A Not-So-Simple Plan

The homelessness crisis in America is not strictly an issue of supply. There are more empty apartments, homes, and condos in America than there are unhoused people. It is the availability of affordable housing that is the real problem. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines affordable as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a person’s income. Currently, the federal government’s method of creating and maintaining affordable and low-cost housing is through a mixed-finance approach: using tax credits and other incentives to entice private investors to develop housing that contains a certain proportion of low-income units alongside market-rate units.

The primary mechanism for this mixed-finance method of low-income housing development is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). The LIHTC program gives private developers tax credits for funding the construction and maintenance of low-income housing. These credits are typically sold to investors for the funding of construction. Since its start in 1986, the program has created or maintained 3.44 million housing units and has enjoyed bipartisan support.

But LIHTC has some significant flaws. It’s a complicated program whose ability to function is very much tied to the state of the market. The 2008 crash caused a drop in demand for the credits and the aftershocks of Donald Trump’s corporate tax cut could do the same. The process of accumulating funding can take years before ground is broken. It’s also highly dependent on federal housing subsidization, meaning that despite development being financed mostly privately, public funds are still required to fully fund construction.

Since federal funds for housing development are an arcane footnote rather than a clear-cut and highly visible public program, those funds are easy to slash under the radar, and therefore tend to fluctuate depending on who’s in office. And even though these units are meant to be rented for no more than 30 percent of the income of families living below 60 percent of the area median income, many living in extreme poverty still need housing vouchers to cover their rent. LIHTC also has a thirty-year window, after which property owners can apply to convert units to market rate. This is a particular risk for properties currently located in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Right now these kinds of low-income housing development programs are vital to a housing-first strategy for addressing homelessness. But their flaws make them truly insufficient for solving the problem. There is a massive waitlist for Housing Choice vouchers, and getting them doesn’t even guarantee housing. Landlords discriminate against people using vouchers, who are disproportionately black women. These vouchers also typically come with a sixty-day expiration date, and many are unable to find a place to live before they expire.

Some argue that these flaws can be addressed with more funding for programs like LIHTC and expanding access to the voucher program. This is a core feature of Joe Biden’s plan to end homelessness. He announced this strategic plan in December of last year, with support from many housing advocacy groups. The plan promises a housing-first strategy based on “equity, evidence and collaboration,” which left many of those same advocacy groups upset when a federal agency cleared out McPherson Square contrary to the evidence that encampment sweeps are expensive and ineffective. To properly address the lack of housing needed the government simply needs to take on the responsibility of building more houses.

Build Back Public Housing

Public housing conjures a negative image in the minds of most Americans, like the treacherous and dilapidated high-rise towers featured in The Wire. There is an $80 billion backlog of maintenance for public housing in America, something that Biden is currently pushing Congress to address. While America’s public housing projects are infamous for purely negative reasons, countries like Vienna show that it’s possible for public housing to be successful. Public housing can work here — but first, we need to learn from a few mistakes.

The first public housing project in America was the Techwood Homes in Atlanta. Techwood was a whites-only public housing complex that was built on land previously home to an integrated community of low-income residents. The New Deal–era Housing Act of 1937, originally a jobs program meant to revitalize neighborhoods, was expanded in 1949 to provide low-income housing to those that needed it. However, the program left the authority of where and how those homes were constructed up to the individual states, who built these housing projects to segregate black populations and concentrate poverty.

This concentrated poverty, associated crime, and a lack of federal funding for maintenance created a negative image of public housing, which conservative politicians were all too eager to exploit. Of course, it was Bill Clinton who signed the 1998 Faircloth Amendment into law, which capped the number of public housing units the federal government could legally build.

Even if the Faircloth Amendment were repealed, America is still some two hundred thousand units under the limit for public housing. This is mostly due to disrepair and natural disasters, but also because of the Hope IV program. First created in 1993, Hope IV used the mixed-finance model to fund the demolition and rebuilding of dilapidated public housing, often as mixed-income apartments. However, it resulted in less public housing than before, as developers were not required to build new low-income units for each one that was torn down.

The problematic past of public housing is not a reason to avoid it — it’s a map toward getting it right. Vienna’s model of mixed-income social housing is a good example: cities can provide ample lost-cost housing with a combination of fully public housing and some highly regulated public-private development. Tenants are never forced to move out, even if their income rises during their occupancy.

There are other ways the federal government can increase the number of homes. HUD could purchase existing homes and apartment buildings and convert them to nonmarket co-op housing, where each tenant owns a piece of the building and rent is set to cover finance costs, utilities, and maintenance. Making sure that these nonmarket housing options are available in desirable areas with high economic activity will also serve to bring market rates down with competition. Local zoning ordinances also must be addressed so that more high-density housing can be built.

Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal included funding for revitalizing existing public housing, creating new social housing, as well as repealing the Faircloth Amendment. Others have introduced plans similar to Vienna’s approach that simplify the LIHTC public-private model, allowing private developers to make a moderate profit but guaranteeing that low-income housing stays affordable. The clear lesson to be learned is that complicated financing schemes for private development are not sufficient to address the shortage of affordable housing. Addressing homelessness is going to take massive federal spending and the political will to take the issue seriously.