Thoughts on Homelessness in California

“Homelessness in California”, Quigeley, et al.


            In this study, the Cal-Berkeley economists John Quigeley, Stephen Raphael, and Eugene Smolensky set out to explain the rise in homelessness during the 1980s by keying in on growing income inequality and trends in the housing market.  Here, they join other efforts in addressing homelessness as a structural “housing first” issue as opposed to a more individualistic account of personal “disorders” and deinstitutionalization.  After a discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of their approach, they split their study into two parts: one that analyzes the effects of housing market conditions (housing vacancy rates, rent levels, income) upon the incidence of homelessness, and another, which suggests policy responses to these findings.

            What is crucial here is the idea that persons constrained by very low income are forced into homelessness when even the poorest quality housing becomes a no longer viable and affordable option.  This takes place in a housing market where growing income inequality pushes individuals to “reduce their demand for housing quality, enter the lower-quality market, and bid up prices at the low end” (Quigley, 2001: vii).  With this bidding war taking place, housing meant for the most downtrodden become snatched up by higher income households leaving the unfortunate in the cold. 

            To explore the link between housing market conditions and homelessness, Quigeley et al. analyze the following four data sets: the S-night (from the US Bureau of Census), the Burt (looks at the availability of beds in shelters), the Continuum of Care (measures the colloquially homeless i.e. in shelters and in the streets), and AFDC-HAP (program’s monthly caseloads).  A summary of their findings is very telling: they found that (1) areas that are characterized by higher vacancy rates experience a lower incidence of homelessness, (2) where rents for barely “standard quality” housing are higher there is an increased incidence of homelessness, and (3) areas marred by deinstitutionalization did not see jumps in the average rate of homelessness.

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