22 Aug 22, by Hello for good

Excerpt: How Homelessness Started in America

From the New York Times


Half a century ago, America invented modern homelessness.

The stage was set with the shuttering of psychiatric hospitals in the wake of abuse scandals and the introduction of new psychotropic medications. Then cities started offering tax incentives to owners of flop houses, or single-room-occupancy hotels, to convert their properties into market-rate rentals, condos and co-ops. In New York City alone, more than 100,000 S.R.O. units that had housed substance abusers, elderly singles, former inmates and the mentally ill were lost.

During the 1980s, back-to-back recessions, combined with the Reagan administration’s severe federal cutbacks targeting low-income housing and poverty assistance programs, forced more and more Americans — including large numbers of families — into homelessness. At the same time, well-paid manufacturing jobs moved overseas, and steelworkers had to start pushing brooms at McDonald’s. An oil crisis drove up fuel prices, which bumped up rents, as did a new generation of gentrifiers discovering the architectural pleasures of historic neighborhoods.

On top of all that, Reagan-era tax reforms encouraged the construction of high-end, single-family homes but not of affordable multifamily rentals. There were 515,000 multifamily homes built in America in 1985, but just 140,000 built in 1991. As people began competing for fewer and fewer apartments, the affordable housing market turned into a game of musical chairs played by low-income Americans. Someone always lost.