Transcript: Ezra Klein Interviews Jerusalem Demsas

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Transcript: Ezra Klein Interviews Jerusalem Demsas

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ezra klein

From New York Times Opinion, this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

So before we begin today, we’ve got a job announcement. We are looking for a new senior editor on the show, which is sort of our showrunner. This is really my editorial partner. This is a person who manages the show team and in many ways, the show.

We’re looking for somebody with significant experience driving editorial on a podcast, at a magazine, at a paper, someone who has real editing experience and real managing experience. So it is a senior level role. It does not, as I mentioned, have to be an audio role. If you come from magazines or something like that, that’s important. It’s going to matter to me much more your sense of the intellectual and news and current affairs space than specifically which medium you’re working on that in.

But if you think you’re a good fit or you know someone who is, take a look at the show description, which will be in the show notes.

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So this is an episode close to my heart because it is an episode about a study. And in particular, it’s an episode about a topic that has become more central to, I think national politics, certainly more central to Californian politics, but is not always debated in the most evidence-rich forms — let me put it that way.

So here’s some actual evidence. In June 2023, the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative released the “California Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness.” And this is the single best, biggest, deepest, most representative piece of research we have had in decades on who is homeless, how they become homeless, what they need, and what has happened to them since.

So it’s built on nearly 3,200 questionnaire respondents, 365 in-depth interviews, and I think helps us get our arms around what this issue really is, particularly in California, which is the epicenter of the problem.

California is 12 percent of the nation’s population. It is 30 percent, around, of its homeless population, and 50 percent, about, of its unsheltered homelessness population. So when you’re talking about homelessness in America, to a large extent, you are talking about California.

But that may not be true for very long because a lot of what happened in California to create this problem is now happening in other states. So understanding what is going on in California is of, I think, paramount national importance. Here to talk with me about it is Jerusalem Demsas, one of my favorite people to talk with about housing and homelessness. She’s at The Atlantic. She covers these issues very, very deeply.

And I’d want to talk not just about the study, but about the broader set of political and policy dynamics here that have made this topic both so combustible, but also so hard to make real progress on, even though it’s become a focus for politicians, not just in California, but all across the country.

As always, my email, ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.

Jerusalem Demsas, welcome to the show.

jerusalem demsas

Thanks for having me.

ezra klein

Or back to the show. I guess you’re a repeat guest here.

So I thought maybe I’d begin with some reasons that maybe explain why a report on the nature and causes of homelessness in California is worthy of national attention. So California, 12 percent of the nation’s population, 30 percent of the homeless population of the nation, and then about half of the unsheltered homeless population nationwide.

So maybe a good opening question is, why is homelessness so concentrated in California?

jerusalem demsas

California has a lot of homeless people because California has really high housing costs. And places in the U.S. that see really high housing costs see higher rates of homelessness, even if they’re colder, even if they have lower rates of poverty, even if they have lower rates of mental health affliction, even if they have lower rates of opioid abuse.

The very core question here is, is there a place affordable for people at very low incomes to live? And if there’s not, you’ll have high rates of homelessness.

ezra klein

There are two framing devices that get used here that I think are helpful. So one is this idea that homelessness is the interaction of three things: structural conditions, so maybe high housing costs, things like that, the thickness of the social safety net, and then individual risk factors — that if you’re an individual who maybe loses her job in a place with a great social safety net, probably don’t become homeless. If you’re somebody who has mental health issues in a place with a weak social safety net and high housing costs, you’ve got a pretty good chance of becoming homeless.

And then the other one is this idea that comes from this book, “Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” which is the musical chairs analogy, which I find pretty helpful for this. So do you want to go through that?

jerusalem demsas

Sure. So everyone, I’m sure here, has played musical chairs when they were young. And if you’re observing kids now, and they’re playing musical chairs, right, you’ll see as the chairs get removed from the game, the faster kids, the stronger kids, the more aggressive kids, kids who have more confidence are the ones who get left. You know, if you’re a shy kid, you might just kind of give up. And if you’re someone who has a broken leg, you’re someone who’s probably not going to make it to the last chair. And so there are a lot of things that go into who becomes the last person sitting in that winning chair.

But it’s almost a ridiculous question to ask. Like, why is there so much chairlessness in the game of musical chairs? It’s because you took chairs away. If there were 10 chairs, and there was a good amount of time, and you were able to help people with their broken legs get into the chairs, then everyone has a chair.

And the way this gets analogized into homelessness is that of course there are incredibly important individual stories for who becomes homeless. Why is it that Black people are overrepresented in homeless populations, people with disabilities, people with mental illnesses, trans youth? Why do you see that is — tells you a story of vulnerability within society.

But the core question is, they’re actually just not in homes. And if you were to, in a game of musical chairs, not allow anyone with a disability to play, make sure only confident kids could play, make sure only people with really high sprint times could play, there would still be a chairless person at the end of the day.

ezra klein

And this gets into a comparison I sometimes see get made, which is between West Virginia, say, and California. Because West Virginia, you have high rates of poverty, you have high rates of mental health affliction, you have high rates of addiction. So some of the individual risk factors that you often see blamed for homelessness in California, you very much see in West Virginia.

West Virginia has a lower rate of homelessness than California, despite again, if you look at the socioeconomics, it looks more conducive to people losing their homes. And so that’s the structural factor. That’s the idea that there are more chairs, or in this case, homes for the number of people who want to live there in West Virginia.

jerusalem demsas

Yeah, exactly. So the book you just mentioned, “Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” what the researchers do in this book is they tried to look at just simple correlations across states or across cities or counties or continuums of care, as they’re called. And they try to find, OK, there are a bunch of things that we think about, whether it’s what you just mentioned, whether it’s people living in poverty, which you have higher rates of in West Virginia, or opioid addiction, which you see in a lot of different states, or higher poverty cities like Detroit and Philadelphia, which themselves have very low relative rates of homelessness.

And they just are able to say, correlation after correlation shows that if you were saying that poverty caused homelessness, why is it a very low poverty city like San Francisco have such high homelessness? Same thing for mental illness, same thing for things like the weather. And these correlations really show that it’s very difficult for people to, when we’re talking about causality as policy wonks, explain that to someone who goes, when I see an individual person, they’re clearly poor, and that’s why they’re homeless. If they weren’t poor, they would have a house. But those are kind of different questions.

ezra klein

So one theory I heard often when I lived in California was that California’s got warm weather, it’s got, compared to some other states, at least, more generous policies here, and that all the homeless people all across the country were all rushing into California. And in this report from UCSF and the Benioff Center, they’re actually able to study that a bit. And I think they prove pretty definitively that’s not the case. But tell me a bit about what they found around whether or not the homelessness problem in California is among Californians.

jerusalem demsas

Yes, so what they found is that 90 percent of people who they surveyed, their last home was in California. So I think the first thing to do here is just take a step back, right? Imagine you’re a person who has lost your home.

Most times, when people are in the situation, whether you are someone who lost your job or whatever his situation is, you’re not going to leave your support network. You’re not going to just decide, oh, I’m immediately going to take a bus ticket and try to get all the way to California, where I have no friends, no access to job networks. I don’t know the lay of the land. I don’t even know how I would apply to social services if I got there.

I mean, even really just thinking about it on an individual level, how unlikely it would be that you would want to leave a place that you’re familiar with, a place where you likely could have easier opportunities to access, the friend and family networks, or just your knowledge networks — and also, of course, as a homeless person, you’re very vulnerable on the street. So if you’re unfamiliar with the area, you’re not going to know what places feel more safe in a city. So just at the very core, the actual presumption itself doesn’t really make a lot of sense, right?

The second thing is that people really call into question these kinds of survey data. They’ll say, well, people are just going to lie because they know that’s what nonprofits want to say. They want to say that everyone’s from California. They say people are going to lie because they want to get social services. They don’t want to be demonized as not from there, for whatever reason. So I talked to Margot Kushel, who actually ran this study. And what she did is not just say, hey, are you from California, and move on, right? What the researchers did in this survey research, and it’s probably the most comprehensive survey data that we have available of homeless folks in the U.S., so it’s really, really major — but what they do is, like, they ask people, where are you from? Oh, what county is that in? They’ll ask them other identifying questions about the place where they come from.

And then they also do a bunch of qualitative interviews, where they will go into in-depth conversations. And they’ll match those conversations with the survey answers given when the person was first interacted with. And in those conversations, unless these people are just master liars, they’re coming up with a whole life story about their lives, where they come from, and all these sorts of things, it’s extremely unlikely, in these situations, especially when they’re assured of anonymity and all this kind of thing, that they’re able to kind of fabricate that sort of level of knowledge.

Like, I can name maybe five counties in California off the top of my head. It seems unlikely that everyone in the U.S., without access to a bunch of the benefits that I have had, are able to do that as well.

ezra klein

Yeah, I was really struck by a secondary finding in the report, which is that not only were 90 percent of the folks surveyed, their last address was in California, but for 75 percent, it was in the very county they were still in. And it gets to your point that when people become homeless, they often don’t go very far.

And the logic that would seem to hold is actually not that you want to become homeless and then move from Ohio to California. It’s that if you became homeless in California, you want to get the hell out of California because the housing problem is so bad.

And people don’t really do that either, that one thing about losing your home and your life getting that hard is that the money and security and space for planning and transportation and so on that you would then need to make a major life change —

jerusalem demsas

Yeah, moving’s expensive.

ezra klein

I just moved across the country. It’s hard.

jerusalem demsas

Yeah.

ezra klein

It’s not easy. And it becomes harder if you don’t have the resources I had to, say, get a moving company, right, and plan out where you’re going to go, that in many ways, you’d imagine people could fall homeless in California, and then they go somewhere where there’s a low unemployment rate and a high housing vacancy rate — doesn’t really happen that much.

jerusalem demsas

And what I’ll say, too, is I guess two things. One is, 1 in 10 people saying their last known address was not in California obviously means that if you’re someone who works in a high-incidence field, like if you’re a doctor or a nurse or something, if 1 in 10 people, you’re finding out they’re not from California, that’s going to stick in your head. So I’m not trying to invalidate everyone’s experience of hearing that. But what they also found, researchers in the report, is that for many of the people who said they weren’t from California, they were from here maybe they grew up here, or they were born here, or they had family members here who were able to bring them out, and then they lost housing when they lost housing there, too.

But finally, I’ll just say this on here — I’m not really sure what the end game of proving this would be. Let’s say we found out that 100 percent of people in California homelessness population were not from California. California isn’t a wall with borders. It’s not its own country. It’s the United States of America. What, are we going to stop people from moving there? So part of me feels like it’s really just an attempt to sort of dehumanize the people themselves. Because if you say it’s not our problem, they’re not from here, then you can throw up your hands. You can throw them in jail. You can say, oh, it’s from some red state somewhere else. And you don’t have to take ownership of the policies that led you here because there’s not really a policy response that changes if they’re not from California.

ezra klein

I don’t think that’s quite right. So to just lay this bit of it out — because I heard this in California all the time, often from people who do not spend a lot of time thinking about the California housing situation, in my view. I mean, they lived amidst it, but they hadn’t studied it.

I think the theory is that if it’s in fact the case that California has unbelievably generous social insurance programs, and that we will let you live in California in tent encampments and provide you Medicaid and so on in a way that Texas won’t or that Ohio won’t, that it’s a kind of rational economic agent thing to come to California. And then what California has is not a housing problem, but an overly generous homelessness policy problem.

And so it implies that, oh, if we were just basically — I think this is really what the argument is doing — if we were meaner to the homeless in California, they would stop coming, right? It’s sort of a variant of the Trumpist — if it’s really miserable getting to the border, and you’re going to get separated from your kids and locked up and so on, people will stop coming. I think there’s a view that if it’s just that the country’s homelessness population is emptying into California because we’re so nice and generous, then the way to fix that is to be less nice and generous. You don’t need to worry about more housing, you just cut your social programs.

jerusalem demsas

Yeah, that’s definitely true. I think also largely what I’m trying to say is that the weather problem does not really make sense here. I will say this one thing — there is a correlation between unsheltered homelessness and weather. But it’s really unclear what’s driving that because in colder states like New York and other places on the East Coast like Boston, they have a right to shelter. So unsheltered homelessness is definitely going to correlate with better weather. But yeah, I agree that that is part of what’s going on there.

ezra klein

I want to ask something about the unsheltered question in California because as I mentioned before in those California stats, California, 12 percent of the nation’s population, 50 percent of the unsheltered homelessness population. And one thing you will hear that blamed on sometimes in California is a decision the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave in 2018 in a case called Martin v. Boise? I’m not exactly sure.

And the decision says, quote, “The government cannot criminalize indigent homeless people for sleeping outdoors on public property on the false premise that they had a choice in that matter.” And one of the things that decision has done is made it much harder in California and in other areas covered by the Ninth Circuit to basically rip up tent encampments than it is in some other places. How do you understand what that decision is or was, and whether that’s having an effect on why California specifically has an unusual unsheltered homelessness problem?

jerusalem demsas

Yes, so what Martin v. Boise does is, well, the case itself is, there was an ordinance in Boise, Idaho, that allowed police to clear homeless folks even if there was no shelter capacity. And the claimants in the case were basically like, this is a violation of our Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment. There’s nowhere for us to go. All you’re doing is you’re taking our stuff. You’re criminalizing sleeping, which is a normal human function. Like, where do you expect us to go from here?

And the court doesn’t say, which I think a lot of people think, that you’re not allowed to clear homeless encampments. What they say is that you can’t do this without providing a reasonable alternative. And then there’s not a ton of clarification outside of that of what that can look like.

And it’s important for a couple of reasons. One is that the Ninth Circuit, of course, only covers parts of the west coast and a few other states in the west. And so it doesn’t really bind, especially because the Supreme Court declined to actually hear the case. It doesn’t actually bind the rest of the country.

But what it has affected is that there are cities that have been — like San Francisco — that have been told, you can’t just clear people if you don’t have shelter capacity for them. And this seems quite reasonable at first blush, and not just on the basic human level of, like, you can’t just throw people out if there’s not somewhere for them to go, but just on the level of policy efficacy, right? We’ve seen this with homeless encampments — if you tell people to leave and there’s not a place for them to go, they just go form a homeless encampment somewhere else.

This happens in California. It happens all over the country when people are trying to clear homeless encampments. If there’s not permanent supportive housing for them to go to or shelter beds for them to go to that are actually accessible to them, it’s just not actually possible for that to actually be a policy response.

And it’s incredibly expensive. It costs millions of dollars to interact with these homeless encampments that keep popping up, and for police to keep clearing them. And so how it’s affected cities that are underneath the Ninth Circuit is mostly that they have many times tried to continue clearing homeless encampments. They have tried to say things like, providing some shelter — in D.C., for instance, which is not a Ninth Circuit — but they’ll say, we’ve given you a hotel voucher for the night. And that’s supposed to count as reasonable access to a shelter capacity or to not just being thrown out in the street.

And so I think that it’s really questionable for me how much it’s affected things because we know, of course, that police and different officials in government will often try to effectively evict people. We’ve seen this, of course, even during Covid, at the end of Covid, people trying to push folks out even when there’s not enough shelter capacity.

But it has seriously restricted the ability of some cities to do so so blatantly with the really big encampments that are really visible to reporters and to nonprofits, and that are being watched. So if you’re in that situation, it’s very difficult for you to do so in a really big, police-coming-in way. But I will say that because the Ninth Circuit did not really clarify what it meant to provide meaningful capacity, there are a lot of ways that cities can get around this ruling.

ezra klein

And it’s worth saying that when they surveyed these populations in California, 36 percent said they had experienced a sweep like that in the past six months, where the authorities in some way swept through where they were living. Many of them lost medication, cellphones, personal I.D.s.

And I will say from living there, this is one of the white-hot political spaces in the homelessness issue because people living in a community where you begin to get not just a couple people living on the street, but a tent encampment right next to them, they want their officials to get that out of there.

jerusalem demsas

Mhm.

ezra klein

And the shelter thing is somebody else’s problem, in their view. And the fight between the politicians and the courts, it’s very, very, very dysfunctional.

jerusalem demsas

And that’s what people usually mean by homelessness, often. They don’t actually mean, oh, are there people who are unhoused? They mean, are there people experiencing visible homelessness, often in tent encampments? Maybe it’s near your school, maybe it’s near your house. So it’s that visible disorder that people are mostly referencing, which is what makes it difficult sometimes to respond to that in a policy conversation.

ezra klein

And that gets to something I want to talk about, this way in which homelessness is one word that is pulling in under that description a lot of different phases and categories. And Margot Kushel, who is, as you mentioned, one of the main authors of the study, one thing this study does and that she talks about is get at this doom loop as she calls it, or slow downward slide through which people end up without a home and then homeless and then chronically homeless, and it keeps getting worse.

And the way that she and the report often see it beginning is with a leaseholder, somebody living in a place under their name. So do you want to talk a bit about that process, going from a leaseholder to a non-leaseholder, to homeless, to chronically homeless? How do they see that playing out? What did they find?

jerusalem demsas

They find that 32 percent of the people they surveyed were entering from a stable living situation in which they were on the lease, on the mortgage or another written agreement. It’s not always clear if these people were actually the ones paying significant amounts of rent, but they were on the lease. And then they find among those coming from a non-institutional setting, 40 percent are actually coming from holding a lease or a mortgage.

And so I think it’s really interesting here because people often think of folks entering homelessness as ones just experiencing really big disruption, and were already really, really on the fringes here. But people who are on leases, a lot of them say that they’ve experienced job loss recently, they had a job right before, or other form of income, whether it’s from the state or something else.

I mean, what they’re experiencing in a lot of these interviews is just a random major event will happen. And then they will make an attempt to do a bunch of different things. They’ll try to get friends and family to help them. They’ll try to avoid an eviction and will leave before that goes permanently on their record, or avoid a landlord that they feel like is not really going to honor the laws around evictions and tenants’ protections. These folks will enter their car sometimes and say, OK, I’m just going to live in my car for a little bit. And then I’m going to maybe drop my kids off at a family member who can take care of them. And what you see is that homelessness is not a static state. It’s not someone usually leaving their home and then immediately driving over to a tent encampment and pitching up a tent and starting to live there.

It’s usually a situation where an individual feels like they’re very close to being housed again. And then that slips further and further away because of a variety of circumstances, whether it’s job loss, whether it’s — in this case, this study was done in the heart of the pandemic. There’s pandemic-related housing insecurity and disability that happened. There’s one story that they talk about where the individual had a job, and they were working their way back to getting into housing. And then on the job, they were injured. They were no longer able to work. They weren’t able to qualify for certain services. I mean, that’s the kind of thing where you can see that if you’re already on the edge of homelessness, or you’re just entered homelessness and you think you’re about to get out, you just need $500 or $1,000 or something like that to get yourself back on your feet, how quickly that can slip away, and that cost can balloon and balloon and balloon.

ezra klein

It reminded me of the old Ernest Hemingway quote about how you go bankrupt, which is slowly, and then all at once.

jerusalem demsas

Yeah

ezra klein

And there is a dimension that, as you say, a lot of these folks are leaseholders. A really striking number from the report is that when they do lose their housing, often because of an event like that, they had a median of 10 days before losing housing. So that’s not a lot of time to figure something out, but maybe you do, right?

You begin living in a non-leaseholder situation, you’re living with your sister, you’re living with a buddy, that kind of thing, or you’re living in a overcrowded situation. But those are even more unstable. And in the report, they ask what leads people to lose that housing. And it’s often social, right? They have a fight with the person who they’re living, basically at their grace. And the median time of losing that housing was one day.

jerusalem demsas

Mhm.

ezra klein

So you go from having this place, something goes wrong. You’re kind of kicked out before you’re able to do anything about it. And then the next one, you really have no buffer. And then you’re homeless.

And then there’s this slide into worse and worse conditions. Maybe you’re living in your car. Then you’re in an encampment. And maybe you have run-ins with the police. Maybe you’re taking meth to stay awake, that kind of thing.

And it begins to sound a bit in the report, to me, like homelessness, particularly experienced chronically, becomes like a pre-existing condition. It becomes harder to become home-able again, right? If you’re somebody who you had a job, you just hurt your back, you couldn’t make some payments, now you’re living with your sister, that’s one thing.

If you’ve been on the street for a year, that’s another. It’s harder for people to take you in. You might have more things that have made it harder for you to be around people in that way. How do you think about that way in which homelessness feeds on itself?

jerusalem demsas

Mhm, yeah, I’m not sure where I first heard this phrase. It was from someone who works in homelessness. But it’s this concept called scarring, right? Because at the moment that you lose your home, usually, the main problem you have is homelessness. Maybe there’s something else concurrent, but something you were able to manage, you were able to be in a house for some period of time. Obviously, we’re excluding, in this case, 19 percent of people who are coming from institutionalized settings, mostly from jails and prisons.

But for the vast majority, 81 percent, these are people who are coming from some sort of housed situation. And when you go on the street, there are a bunch of reasons — or you’re in your car, you’re going to shelters or whatever it is you’re doing, or bouncing from house to house — there are a bunch of reasons why you might start becoming vulnerable to other things that increase the set of problems that you have, right?

You mentioned people really want to stay awake. They’re really afraid when they’re on the street or if they’re in their car of being victimized, of someone stealing their stuff, even of needing to move their car quickly so that they don’t get ticketed or booted. And because of that, they’ll take drugs to stay awake.

There are other folks who are themselves maybe experiencing addiction already. They do mention in the report that a significant number of people had talked about, even previously to becoming homeless, had already experienced some level of addiction. And if you’re trying to stay clean, it’s not really the best environment to stay clean when you are in a homeless encampment, or when you’re experiencing a level of despair. I mean, I’m sure a lot of people, when they’ve experienced some really hardship in their lives, they maybe turn to alcohol. I mean, alcohol is one of the big drugs that are obviously abused in this situation. And so this kind of scarring and becoming also vulnerable to both police — I mean, people get arrested at high rates when they’re homeless, of course — and then if you’re in jail or even if you are just vulnerable, you’re scared of calling the cops. You might be victimized yourself. There are really high victimization rates for folks who are homeless. And all of these things, right, lead you to get traumatized or to become less and less capable of being the kind of person that can hold down a job, or that people want to hire, or that people want to rent to, or that people feel comfortable discriminating against because they realize you’re already on the margins. And so they describe a lot of these things.

And it becomes really clear that the original problem of homelessness, right, balloons very quickly into multiple extremely difficult problems for you to handle, but also extremely expensive and difficult problems for policymakers to deal with, which is why I think one of the big things that homeless researchers talk about is that obviously, prevention’s number one. But number two is, right at the moment where someone is going to become homeless, it is really important to get them housing as soon as possible.

One of the things that I think was most interesting about this report is it seems like it would actually be very easy, at the point of when someone’s getting kicked out of jail or prison, to just ask the question, do you have somewhere to go? And if they don’t, literally just having someone there who is in touch with services to explain what are the options for them right then. I mean, things like that, it becomes really clear that there are very small interventions, if there was just one small choke point, to making sure that we could cut homelessness by a significant margin.

ezra klein

As you mentioned, there were some pretty deep interviews in this report. And one is with this guy, Carlos, or someone they’re calling Carlos. And I want to go through his story a little bit slowly because I think it gets at the way this is a kind of phase to descent.

So what happens is he’s got a job. It’s physical labor. He falls off a ladder, hurts his spine and loses his job. So he’s got a rent to lease, but he decides to leave because he can’t afford it anymore, and he doesn’t want an eviction on his record, which is its own kind of tragedy. So he then ends up living with a roommate in this two bedroom apartment, but leaves after they have friction.

He tries to crash with his sister, but she doesn’t have much space, and her family has Covid vulnerabilities and some issues there. So he tries living in his truck, but it gets towed after receiving multiple tickets. And now, he doesn’t have a truck. So now, he’s in an encampment.

And I feel like at each point there, you can kind of imagine the way he’s changing, the way his situation is changing, right? He had a truck, and now he doesn’t. And the reason he doesn’t, which is going to make it harder for him to work, is because he had to live in his truck, right? And now that he doesn’t have a truck, he’s going to be in an encampment, and with everything that comes along with that — and just at the end of this, it’s going to be harder for him to have a job.

And this is a place where you’d think we would have a lot of policy intervention. And one thing you see in the report is that we don’t. A lot of people don’t know what’s available to them. If they do know, it’s hard for them to get it. There’s, I think, a searing line where somebody says being homeless is a full-time job, just the amount of time you’re spending going from shelter to shelter and place to place and trying to access benefits.

So talk a bit about what is that intervention? Like, what do we know works here?

jerusalem demsas

So people have a sense, right, that the programs that have been instituted, particularly in states like California or New York, places like Canada and other countries where they still see a visible homeless population, that those policies have failed. And these are called Housing First policies. It’s been kind of the dominant model for a while, which is basically you don’t have to prove a bunch of stuff to get into housing. The first thing you get, you get housing first. And then there’s wraparound services. You don’t have to prove you’re clean on drugs, or that you are taking your prescription medication, or you have a job. You get into housing, and then we’re going to deal with all those problems because it’s really difficult to deal with the rest of those problems if you aren’t housed. This is really, actually a very effective solution — and not just for the average homeless person. There’s another study by a researcher named Raven and also Margot Kushel from this study that looks at the folks who are the most vulnerable. It looks at people who have experienced multiple visits to the E.R. or all these different — and taken multiple inpatient — maybe they’ve been in jail a bunch of times. They really try to find and hone in on the folks who have experienced real chronic homelessness and a bunch of other accompanying problems.

And what they find is that when you put them in permanent supportive housing, you’re getting 86 percent of people who are remaining housed five years later. This hasn’t been published yet, but she just told me that the seven-year mark also, it’s at the same or better for all the categories they look at. And so these policies do work, right?

And the analogy used is, aspirin works to reduce heart attacks. But if you don’t give people aspirin, then you can’t just be like, aspirin doesn’t work at reducing heart attacks. It’s not getting everyone Housing First policies that is really difficult.

And the reason why that’s difficult is because the problem of homelessness is not a stock problem. It’s not like these 500,000 people in the US that are currently homeless, how do we get them into a permanent supportive housing model? It’s that every single day, there are millions of people at risk of falling into homelessness. There are hundreds of thousands who may experience a night of homelessness that we will never count, we will never realize in a given year. And all of those people, because it’s kind of a flow issue, you have to stop the bleeding. You can’t just address the current group of people.

And so because of that, you have to get at the prevention step of this, too. Housing First is very, very effective for the people who are able to get access to it. But it doesn’t work to just say we’re going to continue having really, really high housing costs, allowing tons of people to fall into homelessness, and then say at that point then, we will begin to provide them the kind of services they need in order to stay housed.

ezra klein

Well, also, to the point about Housing First, which is a policy that my sense is it has faded somewhat in its gleam over the past 10 years — I mean, I remember when it was getting these glowing write-ups in The New Yorker. And then now, I think there’s a sense that it has been more marred.

But my understanding of what has been very difficult about it is, you would need to build a lot of housing. If you’re going to do Housing First for every homeless person, then you need enough housing to do that. And the places where you have these very high homelessness problems for the reason we talked about earlier, which are already places where you have high housing costs because it is hard to build housing, are also the places that it is, in some ways, hardest to do Housing First effectively because you need all those units, and you don’t have the political and policy and building conditions to create them.

jerusalem demsas

Yeah, I mean, probably the model success story is Houston. They were able to cut homelessness by 63 percent since 2011. And they used the Housing First model.

But the thing about Houston is that they also have a ton of housing. And it’s not super difficult to build a lot more housing in Houston. And while they of course did a ton of work to try to streamline a bunch of the ways that people got access to that housing — they did a lot of work on the programmatic level, on the bureaucratic level to make sure that it was very clear that they were trying to end homelessness in the city — the city leaders are very, very clear that it would have been impossible if you had the kinds of housing building restrictions that are present in places like California and New York, and where we see the highest housing issues.

But amongst housing researchers, I don’t think that gleam has faded. I think amongst the public, there was this hope that you wouldn’t have to change a lot more, that you would be able to allocate a $1 billion bond measure here, another tax on downtown corporations there, and that would just be enough money. We could just throw enough money at the problem that you could solve it. But that was always a model that assumed that the stock problem was what it was.

ezra klein

It’s definitely become also much more controversial on the right. So there’s a Michael Shellenberger book called “San Fransicko,” which in many ways was not only, but heavily a critique of Housing First policies. J.D. Vance in the Senate just had a hearing that was largely about attacking Housing First.

So try to inhabit that perspective as much as you can. What is the case that gets made against it?

jerusalem demsas

The case is made against it is that we’ve spent billions of dollars, and there are a bunch of homeless people still. And that’s true. I mean, I’d like to go back to this aspirin analogy.

Imagine a pill, an aspirin pill costs $1 billion or something, right? It’s not that aspirin doesn’t work, it’s that it costs $1 billion. And so the question is then, how do you bring down the cost of aspirin — or in this case, building permanent supportive housing?

And the case that’s building on the right here is a couple of things. One is that there is a sense that given the difficulties of building permanent supportive housing, there’s too much permissiveness to allow homelessness to disrupt the order of everyday life, that allowing homeless encampments, entreating people not to clear them until there is enough shelter space that is available and adequate to meet the needs of people, that that sort of thing is infringing on everyone else’s enjoyment of the city and order. And not just enjoyment — I don’t mean to be frivolous here. Like, of course there are real costs here when the last places that are available to people are public parks and transit, and those things can become taken over by people who may cause difficulties on commute. There may be issues where people are afraid because there’s yelling going on in the subway.

There is a difficulty, and of course, many people feel very, very bad about the idea that their community has people who are living in such dire poverty. There’s real costs that are levied, of course, on the rest of the population.

And I think the focus on that is this very true fact that permanent supportive housing does work, and building more housing to make things more affordable does work. But those were projects of decades. And what people want is a solution right now.

And the answer is that there is not a solution right now. There is a way to get people out of sight right now. And that’s what I think the focus is on the right, which is to say we need to solve this problem of making sure that the problem of homelessness does not spiral out of control, that we stop the scarring as much as possible in our downtown areas and in places that people are inhabiting that are public spaces. And I think that’s mostly what the focus has been.

ezra klein

I think you also have — and we were talking about this a bit earlier — when we’re talking about the problem of homelessness, I think in that conversation, we’re often talking about the problem of visible disorder. That conversation is not really about the family that needs to spend three nights in their car, or the person who lost their job and ends up in a shelter for a couple weeks in-between things.

But you’re talking about the Tenderloin in San Francisco. You’re talking about Skid Row in Los Angeles. You’re talking about these places, and there are more of them, of course, than those where you’re seeing a lot of open air drug use, where you’re walking to school with your kids and you’re stepping over vials, and you’re stepping over human feces on the floor.

And that’s all true. I mean, I think sometimes people on the left want to downplay this. And I mean, there is a lot of disorder. San Francisco is a safe city by a lot of measures, like if you’re looking at violent crime. And also, if you try to go into a Walgreens in the Mission, everything, almost literally everything is behind plastic because there’s so much shoplifting.

And the argument you’re hearing from people on the right is that there is a permissive culture that has taken hold, not just Housing First, but we’re letting people just be out there clearly on drugs. We’re letting them use drugs in public. And if we weren’t so permissive, there wouldn’t be so much of this, that there has become a kind of move towards tolerance — that if it was working, we would see things getting better. But there’s been the move towards tolerance, and things are getting worse. And that should make us think the move towards tolerance is failing.

So how do you think about that on the sort of disorder front?

jerusalem demsas

I think that because policy debates like this are always framed between on one side, there are the bleeding heart people who really care about homeless people, and then there’s the other side, which are people who we’re realistic, we’re realistic, we’re savvy, this is a situation that’s untenable. And that framing is incorrect because there’s a question of efficacy.

You can effectively push people out of the margins, right? But they’re going to go somewhere. So when you have these calls on the right to just say, let’s just put people in jail if they are not willing to move to one sanctioned camp area that is far away from any transit, that is far away from any of their job networks, that’s far away from their families, is that you’re just saying more and more people will fall into that bucket until you’ve, I guess, essentially created a ghetto at some level.

And so to me, it’s not a situation where you can say, oh, we can just solve this part of the problem, and then the rest of it, we can get to later. They’re all connected. And so I do think it’s a bit disingenuous to make claims that if we can just clear out downtowns, then you can just get to this level of back to normal, and then you can start dealing with the problem.

I think that there is obviously the case that we need to have much more investment in shelters. And then it should be reasonable when you have a place to offer people to stay that they can’t just stay in public places if they’re causing problems.

But at the same time, the question is, how are we allocating public monies? And are they being allocated effectively? And is it most effective to spend a bunch of money on a public sweep if those people have nowhere else to go? And that’s the question I think a lot of the times, people who are supporting these arguments don’t have to answer.

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ezra klein

One thing that the Housing First discussion always brings up for me is the question of the second house or the second unit, let’s call it, because you can imagine a world where we have a bunch of, more than we do now, taxpayer-financed homes, tiny homes, shared apartment buildings. Maybe we build things that are more like dormitories with shared bathrooms, that kind of thing.

People then need a place to leave and go to next, right? One thing about a lot of these communities is there are a lot of strictures on them, right? You want to have partners, you want to have your dog there, et cetera. So what happens when people then want to move out onto their own? And do you have a housing market where there are cheap units somewhere for the people who need them?

jerusalem demsas

Mhm.

ezra klein

And this is a point that many people who focus on housing have made. But we used to have just a lot more midrange housing options. We used to have things that were more like dormitories.

You used to have boarding houses. You used to have things where the building code didn’t make sure that everybody had a bathroom, right, or their own bathroom, and that one of the things that even if you got a lot of shelters in place for, when people then get low-level jobs again, and they have some income but not that much, do they have somewhere to live? So how do you think about that — I don’t want to call it the middle of the market because it isn’t the middle. It’s lower rungs on the ladder that used to exist, and we kicked out by basically making them illegal to build.

jerusalem demsas

Mhm.

ezra klein

But it means that even if you do have finance shelter for a while, there’s often a really big gap between that and the next home that is out there for you to get.

jerusalem demsas

The people in this study, when they lost their housing, had an average income of $900 a month. Likely a lot of that is from social services as well. It may not be from a job. That is not enough money to save up for a down payment or to save up for even a monthly rent in most of the cities that we’re talking about here, or even in the adjoining suburbs. And so there is this real problem of how you bridge the gap to that second place.

And I want to be clear, there’s just not a simple, near-term solution to this problem. And everyone wants that to exist. And it just — it does not exist. There’s not going to be a way to build hundreds of thousands of units very, very quickly of this kind of housing.

But what you explained in your question here is that that is sort of like a manufactured problem. So SROs, single room occupancy hotels and housing options were a real problem when we think about housing quality. And people had the correct intuition that it’s unreasonable to say just because you are living in poverty, that you have to live in a place that is so run-down, so below code that no one would allow their children to live there.

And the problem is the policy response says, OK, we’ll just ban that type of housing. We’ll just say you’re not allowed to build that sort of thing anymore. And that will solve the problem.

But you can’t ban poverty, right? There are going to be poor people. And if there was an alternative outside of an S.R.O., they would have already been living there.

So there’s not really an alternative to saying, how do we make sure that there’s a bunch of cheap options that exist in the market, and saying, what we’re going to do is we’re going to outlaw all cheap forms of housing. I don’t think that that means we need to accept the kinds of housing quality that we saw in S.R.O.s, in the ‘70s in New York City. I think it’s very clear that there should be some level of subsidization that we can have, and code enforcement that we can have to make sure that those are up to code.

But we have to accept that there’s going to be housing options to ensure that poor people are not on the street, that there are housing options for people who are low income. And what that means is that those are not going to have as nice amenities. It means that you might have to share amenities with people. One of the recommendations in this report is to explore shared living arrangements for people. Finally, I mean, you mentioned Carlos’s story, right? And one of the big parts of that story is that he can’t stay with his sister. And there’s another family member he can’t stay with. And what’s important there too, right, is what we’re seeing with a lot of people who would probably house their friends and family if they had an extra room available to them, is that that real expensive cost of housing means that people can’t get that extra guest bedroom at this level of income. And their family members don’t have that, which means you can’t buddy up with your family for long because there’s not enough room.

And what you would see more often — and obviously during Covid, it was of particular concern because people were worried about transmission. Particularly in the early days, they couldn’t stay with their family members if they were worried about their unhoused member of their family going out and coming back in. But also, it creates a lot of instability in your household if you have a family member who’s in that space. And it may cause problems for you and your children or whatever it is. But it becomes much easier if you have a larger home for them to stay in.

And so I think that that’s one of the big things here too, is that when you liberalize and you make it easier to build types of housing that are more amenable not just to the very low income folks, but the lower income folks, the middle income folks, those are creating housing opportunities and spaces for their family members who might be in distress.

ezra klein

So we’ve been talking a bit about this narrative on the right about what has gone wrong here. There’s been a dawning narrative on the left in the past couple of years, which is that huge private equity firms and asset managers have been buying up all this housing stock. Maybe they’re holding it back on the market. Maybe they’re raising prices too much.

But one way or another, the problem isn’t how tolerant we’ve become, it’s that concentration has happened. Capitalists are holding this back. And they’re creating this housing problem.

So first, what is the reality that is being described there? Because you do see kind of striking numbers about how much of the housing stock in a given market a private equity firm will own. And then why are you skeptical that that is the problem?

jerusalem demsas

The argument that’s being driven by folks who are worried about very large investors buying up homes is that they’re buying up a ton of homes and one of two things is happening — either that their demand pressure is just functionally raising prices because it’s increasing demand in an area, or secondarily that because they’re able to get a certain concentration of the number of homes, they’ll have some sort of monopoly power, they’ll be able to raise prices as a result.

I think that there’s a couple of reasons to be skeptical about this. One is that if you’re looking at the whole country, right, we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic early months, the whole country saw a massive run-up in housing prices. The whole country has — 1 percent to 2 percent of the housing stock is owned by one of these large investors that we’re talking about here. That means that we should be very skeptical that those are the ones that are driving it if they own such a small percentage. When you look at very local levels — you can look at an area like an Atlanta or parts of Phoenix or even near Austin or other places in Texas — you see high numbers. And I think often, these numbers are presented in a pretty misleading way. So what you’ll often see in the numbers that are being reported are what percentage of homes purchased were purchased by very large investors in a given month, quarter, year.

So the percentage of homes purchased is very different than the percentage of homes that exist in an area. So it’s a much smaller percentage of homes. So it’s very small.

And secondarily, a lot of these investors are not just people who are sitting on their homes. Either they could be build-to-rent investors. That means they’re buying the home, and then they’re renting it out, which means you’re expanding the rental stock, even if you’re taking away a home that may have been a home that was owned by someone else. Secondly, maybe it’s an iBuyer. It’s someone who — Opendoor that is buying the house for someone quickly, and then maybe they’re doing a quick renovation or something like that, or they’re just making sure it’s home-ready, and then they’re reselling it immediately. They’re adding, actually, liquidity to the market there. Or potentially, it is a house flipper.

Most of the run-up in investors during the pandemic are actually medium or small to medium investors. Often, we see people who are owning 10 to 20 properties. These are not massive conglomerates or anything like that. But it still can be a problem, right? If the problem you’re identifying is, you want individuals to be owning these homes, you can say it’s a problem to me that those are going to go to a company that is then going to flip them or to rent them out or whatever it is.

But what I’ll say is a few things. One is that often, these homes that are either built to rent or homes that are being rented out, these are people who are now able to access neighborhoods that they were not previously able to access. So renting is obviously cheaper than owning homes in a lot of these markets. And so there’s that question there.

And secondly, I think there is a real question of, of course, maybe we’re concerned about concentration in a given market. We don’t have a lot of data right now in a lot of submarkets to see if it’s the case that there has been one entity that’s buying up a ton of the housing there.

But I think, to step back here, the point is when we’re talking about the problem of homelessness, we’re talking about this problem that’s multidecadal. It’s been happening since the 1980s. And this run-up is very, very recent. I think there’s still a lot of trepidation about making really big claims about what it’s doing or it’s done or what it’s responsible for.

And I think that the urge to try to find this sort of scapegoat, one entity that we can blame is to really try to just get around the core problem here, which is that this is a policy problem that is going to require real costs from a lot of people. And all of us are implicated in a housing system that has led to this moment.

I think the biggest concerns that people have pointed out when it comes to large investors like this is that you see higher rates in some submarkets, like in Atlanta, of these folks treating their tenants poorly. Post the Great Recession is when we first started to see these kinds of entities try to buy up homes. They’re getting them at the bottom of the market. And often, they were getting homes in worse areas, ones that were not being able to be bought and sold. And then they were renting them out to individuals who are more marginalized in society. And maybe they were breaking tenant laws and things like that. Those things are really harmful. And we know from eviction research that there are very small handful of bad actors who are making the worst violations, especially when it comes to unfair evictions.

I think it’s very clear that there needs to be a lot of investment in things like landlord registry. You should know if it’s a business. You should have to register with your city and say, this is the business. This is how many units I have in this building. This is what I’m charging. And it creates the ability, of course, for people to track these actors. But I think the core thing here is just a question of what is actually raising housing costs, what is actually contributing to homelessness. And I’m not here to defend private equity, who I think has earned a lot of their bad rep. But I think that the reason why I’ve been so concerned about the narrative building about this is because I think it’s a distraction from the core problem.

You could get rid of and outlaw Blackstone tomorrow, and you’re not going to see a change in the number of homeless people in California. And I think that very few people will say that. But they will spend a lot of their time talking about this.

ezra klein

Something else you mentioned there, which is the Great Recession — and we now refer to this time period by a bunch of different terms — Great Recession, the financial crisis. But at the core was a housing crisis.

And we had built a lot of homes for a while. We’d given people a lot of credit to buy them. And in the aftermath, the sense was we had overbuilt and overvalued. And so the pace of investment and pace of construction fell quite a bit for a while.

How much do you understand the rise in homelessness and the rising housing shortages? Or how much of a contributor to that do you see the kind of aftermath of the housing crisis as having been?

jerusalem demsas

Yeah, so there was not a recovery post-Great Recession. So pre-Great Recession, we built a significant number especially of single family homes. And we saw, of course, a housing boom, especially in the Sun Belt states, things like in Phoenix and Austin and places like that.

And after that, you saw a real fear of getting back into that space. Construction permits do not reach levels pre-Great Recession until the Covid-19 crisis, actually. And so that’s really, really tough because a lot of what was creating the escape pressure valve for places like California and New York were Sun Belt cities. And of course, they still are.

But in Sun Belt cities, building a single family home, single family neighborhood out in the suburbs of Phoenix, whether in Chandler or something like that, that was a very cheap and easy way for someone to get access to a large house and the American dream that they’re looking for that they couldn’t get in California, they couldn’t get in New York or other expensive states.

And so part of this question is this implication that some people have, that if we hadn’t had that financial crisis, in response, we would have continued to keep building, we’d be in a good place right now.

We’d be in a much better place right now. But the fundamental problem with relying on the Phoenixes and the Austins, outside of the climate change worries, of course, is that they also are going to run out of the commuting zone that people are willing to live within. We’re seeing a run-up in prices in these very cities. And the suburbs of Phoenix and Austin and in Salt Lake City, those places hit their commuting zone. So there’s basically a certain distance that people are willing to travel in order to get to their jobs. They’ll travel, like, 40 minutes, an hour. Once you hit two hours, you’re really hitting the limit at which people are willing to commute. And once you get to that point, once you’ve built out your suburbs to that level, then you’ve kind of run out of the cheap land and housing that can be built at the single family home level.

And so I think that we would still have reached this point here, where you would have seen a real need for more density in our big cities. But I think the Great Recession was a real problem for construction.

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ezra klein

So you’d mentioned Houston earlier and its work on homelessness. We’re a good number of years into there being a recognized housing problem in a bunch of what we called superstar cities, right? We have known for a while that L.A., S.F., New York, Seattle, et cetera have these big problems.

There’s also been, by now, a lot of policy passed. California’s passed a lot of pro-housing bills in the past couple of years. You’ve seen more or less movement in other states. But some have done real movement.

Are there success stories? Is this getting abated anywhere? I mean, all this stuff people at least seem like they’re doing, all this activity, all this energy and the space, is it resulting in anything?

jerusalem demsas

So there has been, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, I think a lot of policymakers and a lot of cities were shocked by the run-up in prices. I mean, people did not expect, when the pandemic started, that it would lead to that level of home price appreciation. And when it did, it really focused a lot of policymakers to say, we don’t want to be like California.

I mean, California had started taking a lead in passing some of these pro-housing bills. But then places like Montana, there was energy in places like Texas and in Colorado, where there were unsuccessful efforts. In North Carolina and in Massachusetts and in Washington and in Oregon, and in a lot of other states on very minor levels, you saw an increase in attention from policymakers on the issue of how do we build enough housing before we get to this level of unaffordability that prices out our entire population.

We’ve seen, obviously, an increase in permitting. We’ve seen a lot more housing being built as a result, especially when we think about the reforms to make it possible to build accessory dwelling units, which are just mother-in-law suites, or turning your garage into an apartment for your kid or something like that.

But you haven’t seen a massive decrease in rents. And I think this is for a couple of reasons. One is that these reforms have really only passed in the last three or four years or so. And it takes more time for people to adjust.

Minneapolis famously got rid of single family zoning and made it possible to build more triplexes. It was then held up in courts for a while. But even now, you’ve seen very slow takeup of trying to build these. And that’s because when you think about the industry, the home building industry in particular, usually, developers are very local, right? They have a way of doing things. They’ve done it for a long time. When rules change, it takes them a while to learn what the rules are, to decide what’s profitable, how they’re going to make it work, and make that actually happen. And because of that delay, I think people are not seeing the kind of immediate response that they hoped to see.

But also, I’ll say even though there are places that have taken really big steps here, when we’re thinking about a lot of these major cities, even in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, you’re still seeing quite a bit of reticence to tackle the issue. 78 percent of Los Angeles is zoned for only single family homes. And those kinds of timelines, where building a house can take years, and building any kind of multifamily house that you’re trying to get multiple people housed at once, that can take years. That’s not a process that even though there have been remarkable successes, more so than I think anyone really expected, is really one that can be said to have been working.

It’s like saying we have a problem of we have four million homes that need to be built across the country. And we’ve made it 5 percent easier in some places to build more homes. I think expecting a lot from that is not the path towards accuracy.

ezra klein

One of the pieces that really depressed me on this was written by your colleague, and my wife, I should say, Annie Lowrey. And she was working with some economics research that Enrico Moretti and others have done, trying to ask the question of what would it take to make housing affordable in these cities? Because when you’re asking that question, you’re not just asking, well, what would it take to get the currently homeless there off the street or into more permanent housing.

But also, if housing became cheaper, people who have been priced out of San Francisco right now would move there and want to live there. People who have been priced out of New York would move to parts of Brooklyn they would like to live in and try to live there. And when you really run that kind of number, the numbers of units you start to think about are so high. I mean, you’re talking about more than four million units at that point to make things affordable, not just to deal with the kind of shortage, holding things like demand static, that it seems very unlikely.

I mean, you can make this problem maybe a bit better, a bit worse. I sometimes think about the test of a firefighter or policeman, right? Can you be a firefighter in San Francisco and own a home in the city in which you fight fires?

jerusalem demsas

Mhm.

ezra klein

And they’re so far from that. And nobody’s really got a plan, I think, to get in that direction. I’m curious how you think about that. Do you think this is solvable in the context of the cities that need to solve it? Or the only actual solution is enough change over time in migration patterns that the problems of the superstar cities now kind of stagnate, and other cities arise that are building a little bit more from — I don’t want to call it square one, but are not trying to solve a problem, or trying to prevent one, or take advantage of somebody else’s problem as an opportunity for them?

jerusalem demsas

I think the biggest lesson that I’ve learned in the last three years is that trying to predict where demand to live is going to be is a fool’s errand. Trying to predict where people are going to move and want to be is extremely difficult even in the short term.

People didn’t expect there to be this sort of suburbanization effect when the pandemic happened, where people just really moved into the suburbs to the point where we’ve seen donut effects everywhere. I think if you asked people in the ‘80s, do you think that Brooklyn is going to be the most expensive place to live, or one of the most expensive places to live in the country, I don’t think that people would have expected that. And that’s what we see now. We see these brownstones that were maligned 100 years ago. They’re now one of the most iconic forms of housing that you can get in the city.

And so I’m very, very unsure. If we see that places like San Francisco and New York and Los Angeles remain kind of the core job-producing engines of the US, and all these superstar cities, Seattle, all these places, and there’s not some other countervailing effect, whether it’s climate change, whether there’s some other kind of job producer that kind of arises in other places, if you don’t see that kind of change, I agree, I think it’s extremely unlikely that you would ever see home prices seriously fall in any of these cities if you continued on on that pattern.

I think that marginal effects here, we can talk about that in really wonky terms, like, oh, what is the effect of there being 10 more homes that are available to someone who can pay $2,500 a month, right? And those are real people, right? So when you’re talking about on the margins here, can we build 100,000 more homes over 10 years, no, that’s not going to solve anywhere close to the problem in California. It’s not going to solve the problem in the Bay Area even if they built 100,000 homes in 10 years. But that’s 100,000 families that get to live there now who previously did not get to live there. It’s 100,000 families, or people, or whatever it is who now get to say, I wanted to live in San Francisco. I wanted this job. I wanted to solve this problem and work in this tech environment.

Or I wanted to go to Los Angeles and be an actor. And I’m going to share a small apartment with two people. Those are people with real dreams and hopes and lives.

And so I am very skeptical that in the short term, even in 10, 20 years, that you could see if trends continue, passing liberalizing laws on land use development change the game functionally in these big cities. But I am really optimistic that people have finally recognized the problem, that it’s become so bad that ignoring it has become impossible.

You used to hear even four or five years ago that people would just deny that we had to build more housing. People who are elected officials in California, in Washington, D.C., they would deny this reality. And I think that what’s happened is, especially in cities that are afraid of becoming like San Francisco — and it’s not just something they say behind the scenes. People are literally saying this in public, we are terrified of becoming like California, even liberal areas. And they don’t mean the Californication worries that Greg Abbott ran on when he worried about liberal values coming to Texas. They’re worried about the possibility that middle class people won’t be able to buy a house, or young people won’t be able to rent in their communities. And so they’re passing a lot of laws, or they’re taking a look at the way that their cities are built out, and trying to solve the problem before it gets that bad. And so I think the most likely path towards getting kind of affordability is going to be hoping that the new suburbs that are popping up, that the places like Nashville, like Knoxville, like Charlotte that have been expensive certainly for the region that they’re in, but are now experiencing a type of demand pressure they were unused to, especially because of remote work, that those places take it really seriously.

And I think that one of the biggest fights that we saw this past year was in Colorado, where that was the very big concern. And it was their first effort to attempt to pass a really, really major bill that would have gone further than basically any other state in trying to address the cost of housing. And it failed by a state which has a Democratic governor, a Democratic-led Senate and a Democratic-led House. And I think that that’s an effort that’s — they are still continuing. And just like in California and in Washington, all these successful places, it takes multiple years to pass these sorts of things. But the fact that a Denver or a Boulder or these places might become more affordable is a really, really, really big deal to even people in California, who are looking for a place to live.

ezra klein

I think that is a good place to end. Always our final question, what are three books you would recommend to the audience?

jerusalem demsas

So I think if you’re interested in learning about homelessness, I think one of the really good books to read is “Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” which you mentioned earlier, by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Aldern. And I always — and last time, I like to recommend fiction because I feel like people don’t read enough fiction, especially science fiction.

I think he was actually on the show, Adrian Tchaikovsky, but “Children of Time” by Adrian Tchaikovsky is really great, and I think actually feels relevant to the story of building new communities, how they develop. And so that’s one that I would recommend.

ezra klein

Spiders make it easier to build up, though.

jerusalem demsas

[LAUGHS] Exactly.

ezra klein

You don’t have quite these issues around —

jerusalem demsas

Construction.

ezra klein

— height requirements.

jerusalem demsas

Exactly. And the final one, I think, is “Strangers to Ourselves” by Rachel Aviv. This is a book that I think I’m recommending it for a couple reasons, one, because I thought that it was probably one of the best versions of someone writing a nonfiction book where they personalized the problem and clearly just know so much about the systemic issues, especially in health care, which is a field where I feel like maybe five people understand the entire system, but I think also because I think it really portrays this tension between understanding a problem as an individual one and understanding one as a systemic one.

And that’s something that I think is the type of policy analysis that I’m seeing increasingly when it comes to, of course, the mental illness issues that Aviv is pointing to, but also in housing and transportation and a lot of things we cover, the importance of moving beyond the individual to solve those problems is just more important than ever.

ezra klein

Jerusalem Demsas, thank you very much.

jerusalem demsas

Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

This episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” was produced by Rollin Hu. Fact checking by Michelle Harris with Mary Marge Locker. Our senior engineer is Jeff Geld. Our senior editor is Rogé Karma.

The show’s production team also includes Emefa Agawu, Annie Galvin and Kristin Lin. We have original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Kristina Samulewski and Shannon Busta. And the executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser. And special thanks on this one to Sonia Herrero.

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