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LA to declare homelessness emergency as big cities struggle with affordable housing crisis

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Los Angeles appears set to declare a state of emergency over homelessness.

The declaration is part of a plan to devote as much as $100 million to dealing with homelessness, the Los Angeles Times's Peter Jamison, David Zahniser, and Matt Hamilton reported. The announcement follows an alarming rise in the city's homeless population — a problem that is by no means unique to Los Angeles.

It's unclear where the funding will come from, and how exactly it will all be used. But local officials said the declaration will ease restrictions on churches and nonprofit groups sheltering the homeless and speed up the permitting process for affordable housing. And as the LA Times noted, a state law lets the city declare a "shelter crisis" to use public facilities such as parks or schools for emergency housing.

While Los Angeles's move is certainly dramatic, it actually speaks to a problem many cities are facing across the country as higher home prices and stagnating wages push up rates of homelessness in major cities — even though there are several policies that could sensibly deal with this long-term problem.

Homelessness is down nationally, but up in the biggest cities

Skid Row is known as the center of homelessness in Los Angeles.

Skid Row is known as the center of homelessness in Los Angeles.

Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Homelessness in Los Angeles County climbed by 16 percent since 2009, although it remains down compared with 2005 and 2007, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. City data is only available for 2013 and 2015, but it shows a 12 percent increase between those two years.

The LA Times reported on the dire situation in the city: "The homelessness problem's reach can be seen in the clusters of tents, tarpaulins and shopping carts that have spread far beyond downtown's Skid Row, taking root in neighborhoods from Studio City to Highland Park. The number of encampments and vehicles occupied by the homeless has increased 85% over the last two years, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority."

But LA isn't the only major city seeing an increase. A 2014 study from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found that while nationwide homelessness declined by 2 percent between 2013 and 2014, it rose by 1 percent across the country's 50 biggest cities.

A 2015 report by the Coalition of the Homeless showed that New York City, for example, has seen homelessness trend way up for decades: While the city's population grew by about 16 percent between 1990 and 2014, the number of homeless people tracked in the New York City shelter system more than tripled during this time.

Homelessness is way up in New York City.

Coalition for the Homeless

So LA's situation is certainly dramatic, as the city's emergency declaration suggests, but it's actually part of a much broader trend in major US cities.

Housing in major cities is too expensive for low-income families

Behind the homeless crisis is one simple problem: The rent is too damn high.

A recent report by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition found that a full-time minimum wage worker can't afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in America without spending more than 30 percent of her paycheck (a standard for housing affordability). Strikingly, the problem is most concentrated in the states where the minimum wage is highest — but also where rents are even higher.

A map of the number of hours of minimum-wage work needed to afford rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

National Low-Income Housing Coalition

The situation is even grimmer in cities than the state numbers suggest, since big cities tend to be much more expensive places to live in. Although some localities have higher minimum wages, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition found the increase isn't typically enough to make up for the increase in housing prices.

A chart of the minimum wage and how much housing costs in certain localities.

National Low-Income Housing Coalition

Similarly, a recent report from online real estate database company Zillow found that while current monthly mortgage payments aren't higher than the historic rates from 1985 to 2000, the current US rates for monthly rent were nearly 24 percent higher than the historical average. It's particularly grim in metro areas with major cities: The average LA resident, for example, could expect to pay nearly half his monthly income just on rent — far above the recommended 30 percent and the historical average of 35.6 percent. And Zillow deemed rent "unaffordable" to the median earner in three-quarters of US housing markets.

What's worse, a tough renting market can make the buying market tougher, too — by making it harder to save up for a down payment to buy a home.

"Our research found that unaffordable rents are making it hard for people to save for a down payment and retirement, and that people whose rent is unaffordable are more likely to skip out on their own health care," Svenja Gudell, Zillow's chief economist, said in a statement. "There are good reasons to rent temporarily — when you move to a new city, for example — but from an affordability perspective, rents are crazy right now. If you can possibly come up with a down payment, then it's a good time to buy a home and start putting your money toward a mortgage."

So part of the problem is housing is simply too expensive, especially in major cities. As Vox's Matt Yglesias and Timothy Lee have extensively written, it doesn't have to be this way: Cities could relax housing regulations to encourage the construction of more housing, which would bring down prices. (One study suggested doing just that would boost the American economy by hundreds of billions of dollars.)

But this solution typically runs into political problems: Not-in-my-backyard attitudes have long fostered opposition to more housing and development by people who are worried that development will change their neighborhoods for the worse. Still, people may need to get over those attitudes if they want to seriously address homelessness.

One solution to homelessness: Give everyone housing

A homeless person sleeps outside a store.

A homeless person.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

In places where enough houses exist, policies that simply give houses to people who can't afford them turn out to be incredibly effective. Studies show this can actually save taxpayers money by shifting costs from the criminal justice system, hospitals, and other public services to the single cost of housing.

This isn't some bizarre, untried idea. In 2005, Utah — not exactly a beacon of liberal politics — began giving homeless people permanent housing, and reduced chronic homelessness by nearly 72 percent in the following nine years, according to a state report. And it saved money in the process: Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah's Homeless Task Force, estimated to Mother Jones's Scott Carrier that the state's program costs between $10,000 and $12,000 per person, which is nearly half of the $20,000 it would take to treat and care for a homeless person on the street.

Other reports have found similar financial savings to giving people homes. The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, for example, found housing costs $10,000 per person per year, while leaving them homeless costs law enforcement, jails, hospitals, and other community services $31,000 per person per year. So giving homeless people a home would save roughly $21,000 per person per year.

It's simple, and it seems to work. And if paired with other policies to increase the supply of houses, it could maybe let cities like Los Angeles avoid having to declare states of emergencies over homelessness in the first place.

Watch: HandUp is like Kickstarter for the homeless