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Avowed Socialist Takes Charge of U.S. Public Housing Policy

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

*This column is co-authored by Robert Ehrlich, former governor of Maryland.

You may not know it but an avowed socialist is a key architect of our nation’s public housing policy, injecting a political vision that has become standard operating procedure in communities throughout the country.  While he has succeeded in garnering attention and making “Housing First” public policy, there is no evidence the program enables individuals to transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency or even intends to under a market economy.  

Nevertheless, Housing First is official policy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Secretary Julian Castro believes it should be expanded into an $11 billion entitlement.  Housing First, essentially re-branded as “Rapid Re Housing” in 2009, is part of the federal department’s regular annual appropriations.  It is also the source of $4 billion in grants distributed around the country. Note that the federal government’s Council on Homelessness suggests the housing approach should be implemented through a dozen additional public assistance programs.

As the name implies, Housing First provides vouchers and subsidies to the homeless first - and asks questions later.  The removal of work requirements, drug treatment and sobriety tests is the central premise of this approach - which also conveniently expedites the Obama Administration’s pledge to “end homelessness” by 2020.

But Housing First is a politically rigid answer to America’s social ills. The program rests on a three-legged stool:  “distributive justice,” housing is a human right, and government housing is the answer to chronic homelessness.  This is according to Sam Tsemberis, the self-described founder of Housing First.  His twitter description claims “ending homelessness requires distributive justice”; a recent tweet laments Bernie Sanders no longer inserting socialism into the Presidential election.

Regarding Housing First, Tsemberis’ comments in a media interview last year illustrate the loose requirements of the program.  He explained that if an addict were to sell the furniture that came with their housing unit to pay for drugs, said tenant would not be evicted.  “People thought this was crazy,” he said.

We agree, considering recent trends of opioid abuse and the destitution it causes. Lack of employment, fatherless children, mental disorders, substance abuse, criminal history, domestic violence and traumatic childhood events are but a sampling of the issues causing homelessness.  Simply providing an apartment does not make entrenched problems go away.

Yet, it’s a different story in ivory towers; Tsemberis serves on the faculty of Columbia University.  He has written dozens of scholarly papers and books advocating for Housing First with fellow academics who agree with one another.  This mountain of paper boils down to one over-riding conclusion: those who are given a home tend to stay off the streets.  No surprise here, but advocate-researchers are doing a mediocre job in following up on other outcomes.

In order to justify the billions of dollars in new spending requests, Castro points to a convoluted 300-page HUD- commissioned report labeled as “interim,” or in other words, “unfinished.” Seems the Department has been tracking a large sample of homeless individuals for several years but does not know whether they are achieving self-sufficiency.  

Instead, HUD highlights the ongoing beta testing of Housing First and pits this approach against other solutions such as community-led transitional housing.  The Department also tells local granting authorities to look at transitional housing “with a critical eye” as it shifts funding priorities to its preferred model. Yet, there are thousands of transitional housing facilities in the U.S. which offer case management and other services that help individuals attain self-sufficiency.  

In analyzing the federal government’s lengthy report, the New York-based “Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness” concludes “definitive answers are nowhere to be found,” raising serious questions about the report’s methodology and conclusions.  In one example, the organization characterizes the Department’s crediting of employment and income gains among Housing First beneficiaries as mere hypothesis.

Further, HUD has difficulty evaluating the effectiveness of its programs. The Government Accountability Office recently issued a report wherein it states the Department lacks an agency-wide policy on performance outcomes. The challenge is most apparent on homelessness efforts, according to the Congressional watchdog. 

Meanwhile Tsemberis is on the lecture circuit, explaining how local governments and non-profits can advance Housing First. He leads government panel discussions on why communities and non-profits should implement the approach through grant funding.  And HUD’s policy shop sponsors dozens of Tsemberis’ research papers citing his work as justification for budget requests to Congress.

What remains after academic research papers, utopian socialist ideals and an ill-conceived attempt to eradicate homelessness is the illusion of government fixing problems.  Ending homelessness must not be about the far right or far left of the political spectrum. The lack of meaningful data on the results of public housing spending harms America’s ability to alleviate both homelessness and the underlying issues causing it. 

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