Milwaukee County’s ‘housing first’ success and the crisis of affordability

Consider the 2021 State of Homelessness report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH). Drawing on national Point in Time (PIT) counts in January 2020, there were “580,466 people experiencing homelessness” in the United States. The crisis is only deepening with soaring housing costs across the country, with states seeing a 40% rise in average prices.    

Local governments have long been under pressure to solve the growing crisis of the unhoused. In the 1990s, a new model emerged called “housing first.” The housing-first model, developed by Dr. Sam Tsemberis, advocates for getting people housed as quickly as possible and then connecting them to services.

Nan Roman, CEO of NAEH, described the principles of housing first to Daily Kos and why they work: “The principles of housing first are that we all do better if we’re trying to address our problems with some stability and consistency in the place that we’re living.”

Most of us can recall moments of instability in our lives and how that instability affected our ability to go about our daily life. As Roman explains, “It’s very hard to concentrate on serious problems if you don’t have housing stability […] you can’t do anything else because you’re upset in your housing. It is a principle that says the faster we get people into housing, the more the services and things they may also need to get on their feet are going to work, much better than if they’re in a temporary place like a shelter.”

Since Tsemberis launched this model in the 1990s, it has been time-tested; this model works and saves governments money. The Milwaukee County government was recently recognized by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for having the lowest per-capita PIT count in the country, at just 17 unhoused people; for comparison, their PIT count during the winter of 2016 was 207, their highest. Milwaukee County’s housing first initiative costs $2 million a year, but reduces Medicare costs by $2.1 million a year, reduces mental health costs to the county by $715,000 a year, and costs to the legal system by $600,000 a year—that’s a net savings to Milwaukee County of $1.4 million, before even considering the positive human impact.

A graph showing Point In Time (PIT) counts of people experiencing homelessness, over the years. When they started housing first model in 2015, they had an official PIT count of 207. In 2021, it was 17.

Some have voiced skepticism about using PIT counts, saying the counts “don’t do justice” to unhoused people. That’s what Sister MacCanon Brown, a homeless advocate for over 30 years, recently told Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR). It is important to highlight, as WPR notes, the fluidity of homelessness. People go in and out of shelters and housing; being unsheltered and homeless aren’t permanent states. This reality is part of what fuels criticism of using PIT numbers as a measurement. 

James Mathy, Milwaukee County’s housing administrator, is confident in the county’s PIT counts and efforts, while also acknowledging its shortfalls. Mathy notes that “our team is out there 16 hours a day doing homeless outreach. […] A lot of these PIT counts are not reliable, ours definitely is. If you do your point-in-time count, the same way, year after year, that’s how you know if you’re decreasing homelessness.”

Milwaukee County also does unmandated PIT counts, Mathy points out. “Because of our climate, we’re also going to do unofficial point-in-time counts in the summer and in the fall. It’s not mandated, but we do it anyway, just to compare our community’s process every year.” Mathy acknowledges the changes in PIT counts in different seasons which is why the county will compare numbers from summer 2022 with numbers from summer 2021; “If that number is lower, we look at what we did differently this year than last year. And if we see an increase, we try to determine what that is and try to focus on that issue.”

Mathy noted their 2021 end-of-summer PIT count was 70 unsheltered people, and they expect a similar number of people being unsheltered this summer. Milwaukee County knows summer counts go up when compared to the bitter cold of wintertime, which is why Mathy and his team know the summer counts are important: The extra data offers a more complete picture of their progress.

Wendy Weckler is executive director of Hope House of Milwaukee, “a non-profit emergency homeless shelter and rapid rehousing facility.” In Weckler’s experience with Milwaukee County and the city proper, she believes the PIT number is accurate. Weckler elaborates while describing the county government and partners’ holistic and robust approach: “What I think is unique about Milwaukee is how closely we work together; you have the governments working together, the city, and the county. You have all the shelters working together, transitional housing, rapid rehousing, all working together with those governments. And you have the private foundations and business community committed to working, too.” Weckler emphasized this point: “Everyone is all pulling together on this issue.” If you’ve ever tried to engage local governments and their community partners, this description is rare.

Milwaukee isn’t the only city getting press for the success of a housing first model. Christopher Lee, writing for The New York Times, deeply explored how Houston moved 25,000 people experiencing homelessness into housing with a housing first model. Like Milwaukee County, the city of Houston developed a collective response with its community partners. After once having one of the highest homeless populations per capita, the city has made significant inroads. Again, this model works.  

While Milwaukee’s and Houston’s approach follows the housing first principles NAEH’s Roman laid out, the housing crisis goes beyond homelessness. Roman explains, “Our view is that housing affordability is the driver of homelessness, and it’s also the solution.” Roman has been doing this work since the 1980s, and has seen America’s housing policy failure evolve.

“When I first started working on housing issues, which was in the late ‘70s, basically there was no homelessness. At that time, there was an adequate number of affordable units for the number of low-income households […] if someone lost their housing, you got someone housed that same day.”

People walk past a homeless woman in Tbilisi, on October 3, 2012. Georgia was preparing today for a big political transition after the opposition's shock victory over President Mikheil Saakashvili's long-dominant party in parliamentary elections.  AFP PHOTO / VANO SHLAMOV        (Photo credit should read VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/GettyImages)

Then in the 1980s, things started to deteriorate, where the United States developed “a deficit (of affordable housing), which is now 7 million units; that’s when homelessness emerged,” says Roman. “You can lower the price of housing, but you can also increase people’s income. It’s the housing-income match that is not working. People just don’t make enough to pay for what housing costs now. It’s a game of musical chairs, and the people who are not going to get a chair are people who have more strikes against them.”

Roman recognizes that housing quality was substandard with the SROs and public housing of days gone by, but at least it was still there. And now, because the affordable housing deficit is creeping into a new income bracket, we are seeing a rise in homelessness and housing insecure populations.

The Dispossession of Americans

Housing insecurity is surging into the middle class, and we’re only beginning to feel the impact of lifting the federal COVID-19 eviction moratorium. The larger national housing crisis is nearing a breaking point, though that exact mark is hard to define, with rent and home prices still skyrocketing from already high prices. The Pew Research Center shows a 25% rise in single-family home costs just since 2019, and an 18% rise in rental rates over the past five years. Additionally, Pew shows that “46% of American renters spent 30% or more of their income on housing, including 23% who spent at least 50% of their income” on rent.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg; The Guardian reports a renter’s housing costs in Sarasota, Florida, jumped by 116% within a year, with some state averages facing upward of a 40% rent hike.

Mathy says Milwaukee County is already seeing the increased pressure on its rental assistance fund, and is anticipating it to increase:

“We’re certainly seeing the tide of rising rents, not just for homelessness, but without question in the area of our eviction prevention programming work. That’s going to continue to become more and more of a challenge. It’s been harder to find units for individuals with rental assistance […] we’ll see how much that’s going to affect our program, probably mid-summer.”

Weckler echos this statement; he talked about the increasing timeline it takes to rehouse families. “There’s definitely a huge increase in the length of time it takes someone to find housing. Our rapid rehousing families—we used to be at about 24 days from when we told them to start looking for an apartment, and now we’re up to 53 days. It takes a lot longer because there are fewer units, and it costs more.” With the crisis growing, rapid rehousing taking longer—and with rents rising, Weckler states, “We haven’t seen the worst of all of these evictions yet.” The human cost of rising housing prices and the ending of the eviction moratorium is demonstrated by New York City’s rising rates of eviction, increasing every month this year.  

This crisis in the world’s “wealthiest” nation has been years in the making. Curbed provides a great primer to explore this crisis’s origins. A collection of policy decisions, wage flattening, rising material and construction costs, and Not in my Back Yard-ism (NIMBY-ism) are to blame. While America’s housing policies are hurting the American people, as always in capitalism, there are those who are benefiting from those living in anguish.

It’s not just construction and NIMBY mentalities ratcheting up the pressure on people and families to find a good and safe place to live, hedge funds are buying up real estate at an alarming rate. During a March House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations hearing, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put hedge funds at the front of the crisis, saying, “We have these major, often private equity-backed companies, that are gobbling up homes in our housing market, which is already creating excess scarcity on top of the housing scarcity that already exists.” This puts a crunch on supply, and forces families to compete with corporations when buying a house.

The Subcommittee’s report, released on June 28, detailed information presented during the hearing, with some notable findings of the five largest owners of single-family rental housing: Invitation Homes, American Homes 4 Rent, FirstKey Homes, Progress Residential, and Amherst Residential.

  • They had a net property gain of 76,235 single-family rental homes between March 31, 2018, and September 30, 2021.

  • 40.2% of their homes in the largest zip codes were Black homeowners.

  • The neighborhoods they targeted had “30% more single mothers than the national average.”

  • The companies “tended to purchase homes in neighborhoods with lower home prices and higher rents.”

  • From 2018-2021, there was a 40% rise in rent and other leasing fees.

  • Tenants who fell behind on rent and fees almost doubled between 2018 and 2021.

In addition, Kevin Schaul and Jonathan O’Connell of The Washington Post reported that “investors bought a record share of homes in 2021.” Not only that, but these firms are buying up housing in historically Black neighborhoods at an alarming rate, reporting that “30% of home sales in majority Black neighborhoods were to investors, compared with 12% in other zip codes.”

On Feb. 7, Heather Vogell, with ProPublica, released an investigative piece titled “When Private Equity Becomes Your Landlord,” detailing the human side of hedge funds squeezing money out of their renters. Vogell notes that “[i]n 2018, private equity-backed Lone Star Capital (which is unrelated to Lone Star Funds) bought a Houston apartment complex where many tenants were delinquent or paying below-market rates. All were evicted or gone within a year, the company said.”

The effects of America’s housing policy failures, and human misery, go beyond housing prices and supply. Homelessness and the broader housing crisis intersect with a cross-section of issues: public health, education, racial oppression and marginalization, and public safety. Addressing the housing crisis aids in addressing all of these issues, with the added benefit of being a smart economic policy.

The Predictability of White Supremacy

Unsurprisingly, those most marginalized and oppressed in the United States also face higher rates of homelessness. NAEH reports that “Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders have the highest rate of homelessness (109 out of every 10,000 people). Groups such as Native Americans (45 out of every 10,000) and Black or African Americans (52 out of every 10,000) also experience elevated rates. Importantly, these rates are much higher than the nation’s overall rate of homelessness (18 out of every 10,000).”

Naturally, populations that are underpaid and face discriminatory housing practices (such as redlining, or discriminatory and predatory lending practices), and worse health care outcomes face higher rates of homelessness. In 2017’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, author Richard Rothstein takes a deep dive into the racism baked into America’s housing history.

This racist history is why Milwaukee County sees housing first as a part of their larger initiative, as they declared racism a public health crisis in April 2020. Milwaukee County’s Mathy says, “It’s been a huge benefit with our current county executive [with this initiative], making us laser-focused on the lens of racial equity. And the issue of homelessness weaves its way through those inequities. Looking at it through that lens paid a lot of dividends for us. It led us to focus more on upstream funding and eviction prevention funding. And when we looked at the data for those being evicted, north of 80% of those we were serving were African American. Looking at it through that lens opened up a lot of doors for our work.”

Corrective Avenues

Despite the time-tested data, housing first can be a tough sell, with myths about homeless populations refusing to go away; Roman said that the top hurdles are NIMBY mentalities, and homelessness becoming a partisan issue. But NIMBY concerns about crime and ideas of “handouts” are a myth:

Further, housing first is a public health imperative, decreasing disease spread, while keeping emergency rooms open. Housing first, when done right, meets people where they are and brings them services for their needs, through a coordinated (and adequately funded) public and private wraparound approach. 

Looking beyond housing first to address the larger housing crisis, reinvestment in public housing is a must, as is rent control, changing zoning laws, creating subsidies to build affordable housing to help offset rising construction costs, and a willingness to embrace multiple types of housing units and complexes. Yet these moves are just a start.

An expansive option that may not get as much attention is a government “public option” for housing, or in effect, a housing guarantee. But when it comes to the bottom line, building more housing needs to happen. This is, in effect, an “all of the above” option that centers on the needs of people, housing quality, and affordability through public projects, regulations, and safety nets. People’s Action has launched a Housing Guarantee campaign and is working to build out a National Tenants Bill of Rights. This effort would address supply and costs, as well as construction costs, through smart government actions.

When it comes to solutions, Roman says local governments can still take advantage of federal HUD COVID-19 stimulus money—something Milwaukee County is currently putting into motion. “We’re looking at, potentially, a substantial allotment of Rescue Plan dollars that will be going to affordable housing. Being able to provide gap financing to developers to develop a lot more affordable housing is something in our plan.”

Other long-term options, such as federal assistance in buying a house like the FHA—just without the redlining this time—and giving people money and building housing, are solutions Roman puts forward. What is clear is the private sector is ill-equipped and unwilling to address this crisis without government intervention. Why would they, when they are making such a profit? Building more housing is also a great chance to expand the workforce, create jobs, and rejuvenate towns and cities across the United States, making life more affordable for all.

A strong housing policy isn’t just a moralistic imperative, but a political one that can help stem the rise of fascism. Simply, America’s housing policy at every level is cruel to anyone without monetary resources and a violation of human rights. It is continuing a massive wealth transfer from the 99% to the 1%, with those already destitute experiencing an escalating form of state-sanctioned violence in the failure of humane housing policies.

If you would like to learn more about housing first or would like to get involved in larger issues of the housing crisis, Pathways to Housing and the National Alliance to End Homelessness are great places to start. You can also get involved with People’s Action’s Housing Guarantee Campaign.

This story was produced through the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows (DKEF) Program. Read more about DKEF (and meet the author, and other Emerging Fellows) here.

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