Tonight, in my hometown of Seattle—one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest country the world has ever known—thousands of homeless people will huddle for warmth in their cars or in tents or on the streets, as thousands more crowd onto mats and cots at emergency shelters. And Seattle’s no outlier. In New York and in Los Angeles and in cities and towns from coast to coast, more than half a million Americans will go to sleep homeless, 40 percent of them unsheltered. And that’s just on any given night: Altogether, an estimated 3.5 million Americans—including 1.25 million children—will suffer one or more bouts of homelessness over the course of the coming year.
But even as city leaders struggle to address this shameful crisis, others are working to weaponize it in a coordinated campaign of lies, hate, and fear. In fact, some of the same trickle-downers whose policies help create homelessness are spending millions of dollars vilifying it as a disease peculiar to Democratic cities—with right-wing media, corporate lobbies, and the president himself aggressively leading the way. “We have people living in our best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings, where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes,” President Trump angrily complained in September, while blasting California Democrats for preventing police from cracking down on homeless people. In Trumpworld, the layabouts in America’s tent cities don’t need costly public investments in affordable housing and social services. They just need a little tough love: Enforce the vagrancy laws, bulldoze their encampments, and incarcerate the repeat offenders. And if cities want more affordable housing, then just let the free market do its magic: Rip up all the housing regulations—even those that protect existing tenants, the environment, and workers’ rights—and we’ll make America’s cities great again!
Trickle-downers argue that the progressive values and policies of America’s cities are the cause of homelessness, but that confuses correlation with causation. It’s about as rational as arguing that progressive policies “cause” skyscrapers or hot-dog stands. In truth, Trump and his allies don’t want to improve municipal housing policy; they want to scapegoat blue cities for a social disaster that was always the inevitable outcome of decades of failed economic orthodoxy.
America’s major metropolitan areas might sometimes seem like worlds unto themselves, but they aren’t self-sufficient city-states, immune to all forces beyond their borders. The housing crises in cities like Seattle, New York, and San Francisco are inextricable from federal policy. And since the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, our leaders in Washington have shaped federal policy around the dictates of trickle-down economics, a doctrine that insists that shared prosperity can best be achieved by cutting taxes on the wealthy (aka “job creators”), loosening regulations on corporations, and keeping a tight lid on the bargaining power of workers.
The homelessness crisis, by its very existence, gives the lie to this ideology. It reveals that what actually trickles down is dislocation and deprivation. Despite all the fearful rhetoric about addiction, mental illness, and crime, our homelessness crisis is largely driven by a shortage of affordable housing—and affordability is simply the quotient of income divided by cost. The math is simple: Across America, housing costs have been rising faster than incomes for decades, with every $100 increase in median rent entailing a 15 percent increase in homelessness. And trickle-down economics is largely to blame.
In the trickle-down era, the rich have steadily increased their share of economic growth, while everyone else has gotten the shaft. And since concentrating power and money in the hands of the wealthy didn’t lead to the promised higher rates of overall growth, our nation’s lowest-income workers actually saw their real wages decline, with our most vulnerable workers suffering the most.
As urban rents have increased twice as fast the minimum wage since 1980, low-income housing has grown half as affordable.
What happened in 1980? The election of Ronald Reagan and the triumph of trickle-down economics.
Contrary to the trickle-down narrative, as many as 44 percent of adult homeless people are employed in full- or part-time work. But even steady work is no longer enough to stay securely housed. Today, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development classifies half of all renters as “housing cost-burdened,” paying more than 30 percent of their pretax income for housing—and a quarter of all workers pay more than 50 percent, qualifying as “severely cost-burdened.” With rental costs so high, wages so low, and savings virtually nonexistent (about 40 percent of households would find it difficult to cover a $400 emergency expense), it’s little surprise even for working Americans when income divided by rent equals homelessness.
Exacerbating the income side of this equation has been a collapse of federal spending on affordable housing. Before 1980, nearly every new unit of low-income housing was built in whole or in part by federal dollars, but Congress hasn’t made a significant investment in public housing in more than 30 years. And over that time, spending on all categories of low-income housing programs has failed to keep pace with inflation or GDP, let alone rising demand. Today, four times as many households qualify for federal rental assistance than receive it. Meanwhile, the federal government spends twice as much on the home mortgage interest deduction (a deduction that disproportionately benefits wealthier households) than it spends on all other housing subsidies combined.
Put simply, when you suppress the wages of low-income workers, and disinvest from low-income housing, you’re going to have more homelessness.
The Trump administration’s plan for fixing those crises is, by and large, to double down on the policies that created it. The White House has endorsed a couple of unobjectionable ideas, including reducing parking requirements for new construction, and eliminating single-family zoning. In Seattle, restrictive zoning is definitely part of the problem. But the across-the-board housing-market deregulation that Trump’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has counseled would also roll back hard-won labor rights, degrade the urban environment, enable unfair housing practices, and threaten the security of existing renters, all without generating a remotely adequate supply of affordable housing. What’s worse, the administration is simultaneously pushing to cut billions of dollars from the already insufficient federal budget for public housing and homelessness.
By emphasizing the role of federal policy in fostering homelessness, I don’t mean to suggest that blue cities have been blameless. A new report from McKinsey & Co. suggests that my hometown of Seattle should be spending an additional billion dollars a year on top of the quarter-billion it already spends to provide shelter and services. But the White House’s calls for indiscriminate land-use deregulation and more “quality of life” policing is just a bad-faith attempt to divert attention from the indefensible fiscal priorities that lie at the heart of the crisis while their big-dollar donors make off with the tax cuts that used to make up HUD’s budget.
And the Trump administration isn’t alone in trying to blame blue cities for the mess the 1 percent made. Trickle-downers across the country are hoping to exploit voters’ concerns about homelessness for political gain, while right-wing media outlets and editorial boards relentlessly run anti-urban disinformation campaigns.
Last year in Seattle, several corporate-funded PACs attempted to unseat progressive lawmakers from the City Council by spending $4 million ($1.5 million from Amazon alone) on an anti-homelessness election crusade. They called for crackdowns on encampments and on wasteful government spending. They photoshopped homeless encampments into neighborhood playgrounds on campaign mailers. They promised a better climate for business, and cleaner streets for the middle class. With the help of a propaganda special from Sinclair-owned affiliate KOMO-TV, they tried to convince Seattle voters that the main threat to our “quality of life” comes from the unruly poor, rather than the trickle-down policies of the ruling rich.
On Election Day, Seattle voters called their bluff. Voters in other cities must be prepared to do the same.
Yes, there is much more that progressive cities like Seattle must do. But after 40 years of trickle-down policies at the federal level, we can’t possibly resolve homelessness on our own.
Don’t take my word for it. Take Donald Trump’s.
“You can’t…build low-cost housing at a profit and I wish you could,” Trump explained on CNN’s Crossfire in 1987. “When you look at the homeless, when you look at all the problems on the streets, a lot of that is directly related to a lack of housing.… The federal government used to have programs, a lot of programs; they don’t have any programs right now…. It’s just not enough.”
When Trump and his allies blame homelessness on blue cities, don’t buy it. Homelessness is a national crisis. And trickle-down economics is to blame.