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A woman walks past homeless tents in the Washington, DC, neighborhood of Dupont Circle in May.
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A potential inauguration threat showcased America’s housing crisis

A fire, Biden’s inauguration rehearsal, and 500,000 homeless Americans.

What was feared to be an attack near the US Capitol on Monday was instead found to be a fire that injured a homeless woman and destroyed her possessions. And the reaction to it reveals how normal it has become for homelessness to exist in one of the world’s wealthiest countries.

The fire led to a lockdown of an inauguration rehearsal at the US Capitol complex after it “sent a plume of smoke into the air and caused security concerns in an already jittery city,” the Associated Press reported.

First responders arrived at the fire and reportedly found a woman in distress — her possessions were burning, and she was injured. They quickly put out the blaze, and after receiving treatment, she declined to be taken to a hospital for further examination, Vito Maggiolo, a spokesperson for the DC Fire and EMS Department, told Vox.

The woman’s portable gas tank — which contained flammable gas — had exploded, which firefighters suspect is what led to concerns about a potential attack on the Capitol.

The heightened security response that turned a small fire into a national story is a result of the recent storming of the Capitol. After the January 6 insurrection, the Defense Department authorized up to 25,000 National Guard troops to support the security of Wednesday’s inauguration. As Vox’s Alex Ward reported, “That’s a massive security presence. ... President Barack Obama’s ‘surge’ of additional US troops to Afghanistan in late 2009 consisted of 30,000 troops.” And that heightened security comes in addition to the veritable fortress that has been enacted around the Capitol.

All of these measures were put in place due to fears of further violent activity from pro-Trump extremists who, as Vox’s Anna North reported last week, may have plans to storm statehouses and even potentially surround the White House and the Capitol ahead of Inauguration Day. These threats have so far not come to pass.

A worker installs razor wire in preparation for Wednesday’s presidential inauguration.
Tom Williams/Getty Images
A member of the National Guard keeps watch behind a security fence near the US Capitol on January 17 in Washington, DC.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

But with the fire in DC, relief of a dissipated threat is mixed with something troubling: An injured homeless woman lost her shelter, her means of staying warm, and must now find alternative accommodations. She is not alone — an estimated 500,000 Americans are homeless in part because federal, state, and local policy ensures they stay that way.

America’s homelessness during Covid-19

While homelessness is notoriously difficult to measure due to the transient nature of the population and varying definitions of the term, the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that homelessness increased in 2019, with 567,715 people experiencing homelessness on at least one night.

There is significant geographic variation in these numbers; for example, “twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia reported declines ... while 21 states reported increases.” On its own, California saw 21,306 more people homeless than in 2018 — a 16.4 percent increase that significantly drove up the national statistic.

These numbers are likely to get worse. The pandemic has put significant pressure on the lower end of the rental market as financial losses associated with the Covid-19-related economic downturn are concentrated among low-income people who tend to be renters.

That means 30 million Americans are at risk of eviction as they struggle to make rent — potentially significantly increasing homelessness. The Biden administration has announced it intends to extend the current national eviction moratorium (set to expire on January 31) until September 30. While the administration can do this through executive order, there could be a wave of evictions on that date. Even if the pandemic is more controlled by that point, the economic losses suffered by those on the edge of losing their homes may continue. And even if Biden’s extension goes into effect, many could still lose their homes — informal evictions occur frequently among vulnerable populations either unaware of their rights or unable to exercise them.

As I reported earlier this year, preliminary research shows that evictions during the pandemic could be causing more deaths and higher transmission rates — among both homeless populations and the population writ large. One study found that nearly 11,000 Covid-19 deaths could be blamed on the lifting of eviction moratoriums, and that figure could be an undercount.

Homelessness and the broader housing crisis are policy choices

The homelessness crisis in the US is a subset of a national failure to ensure the country is providing enough housing for its population. According to Redfin: “Active listings (the number of homes listed for sale at any point during the period) fell 33% from 2020 to a new all-time low” this January. That means even as demand is increasing for new homes, there are simply not enough to meet this need.

Limited supply means greater competition for the housing that is available, and that competition benefits higher- and middle-income people. And local zoning regulations, which make it more difficult for developers to respond to demand signals and build enough market-rate homes, are part of what creates this shortage. Some of these zoning regulations even prohibit anything but single-family buildings from being built. In Washington, DC, for example, single-family zoning occupies “75 percent of all tax lots in D.C., and 43 percent of all surface area not owned by the federal government,” according to the DC Policy Center.

That means that people looking for duplexes, condos, apartments, or other smaller units that could meet a limited budget have only 25 percent of DC available to them.

In addition, zoning regulations allow small groups of people (even those unrepresentative of the broader population) to block new development for any number of reasons. The funds required to counter this opposition and comply with onerous regulations can also drive up the cost of developing homes, which pushes developers to only invest time and energy into building luxury units and properties guaranteed to turn a profit.

This issue was typified by a Berkeley, California, flyer circulating Monday on Twitter, which warned that a new development “promotes pandemics and poverty.”

Of course, what “promotes pandemics and poverty” is refusing to allow developers to build enough housing to meet demand, and housing priced in a manner accessible to all. That lack of housing exacerbates the federal government’s failure to provide sufficient support to ensure that homeless people — who may never be served by market-rate housing — find shelter.

The housing crisis is not a simple problem. Dealing with the rising costs of construction, ensuring that affordable housing is developed in areas to provide opportunity without increasing residential segregation, and working with local residents to alleviate concerns are all difficult economic and political problems.

But greatly reducing homelessness does seem possible — if the federal government is willing to spend the money. As the New York Times’s Binyamin Appelbaum explains:

Over the past decade, the federal government has conducted a highly successful campaign to reduce homelessness among veterans. The government reported in January that it had reduced the number of homeless veterans by 50 percent — from about 75,000 in 2010 to about 37,000 at the end of 2019. Three states and several dozen cities have provided housing for their entire veteran populations.

This was accomplished through direct cash assistance, and by providing supportive housing, included counseling and health care services in addition to shelter. The program, called HUD-VASH (HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing), cost $40 million in 2019.

This program, while focused on a population of 75,000 rather than 500,000, could serve as a model for addressing homelessness more broadly. Appelbaum writes that even with very liberal estimates, “the nation’s homeless population could be housed for $10 billion a year.” But not every homeless person may need direct government assistance — to eliminate housing insecurity, the government has to ensure that it is not blocking the market from providing whatever housing it can.

A homeless encampment in Los Angeles, California, in December 2020.
Brittany Murray/Getty Images

The US isn’t constrained financially from drastically reducing housing insecurity and eliminating homelessness. And to continue on the current course is to normalize growing encampments in the country’s wealthiest cities, entrench residential segregation, and make it more difficult for many to afford a place to live.


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