Home / Our Way Home / Blog / Blog: 12-06-22

To Solve Homelessness, We Must Increase the Supply of Housing

By Richard Cho, Senior Advisor, Housing and Services

December 6, 2022


In their book, Homelessness is a Housing Problem, authors Gregg Colburn and Clayton Aldern examine different explanations for homelessness between communities—mental illness, substance use, poverty, weather, and more. Their analysis confirms what many have long known: homelessness is a housing problem, driven by rising rental costs and low rental vacancy rates.

While it may be true that there are significant mental health needs and substance use disorders among people experiencing homelessness, Colburn and Aldern’s analysis helps us understand that when housing supply is low and rental housing costs are high, those who lose in highly competitive housing markets tend to be people with the least ability to compete.

Understanding homelessness as a housing problem explains the growing trend of older adults experiencing homelessness, as well as people with disabilities. (As rents increase, people with fixed incomes have little to no ability to pay more of their income for rent.) Recognizing homelessness as a housing problem may also explain why Black Americans, indigenous people, and other people of color experience homelessness at disproportionate rates, even when controlling for income and poverty rates. These groups experience housing discrimination at a higher level and face even greater housing discrimination in tighter rental markets.

Solving homelessness entails assisting people who have already become homeless to exit homelessness, namely, by re-housing them in affordable rental housing. This is done by helping households already homeless to obtain affordable housing units or rental assistance along with housing search and navigation assistance and, for a subset of people with chronic conditions, long-term supportive services. Scaling these interventions, without requiring treatment completion or sobriety, is known as the ‘Housing First’ approach, and it has been proven to reduce homelessness. This approach does not diminish the importance of treatment for the mental health and substance use disorders that affect some people experiencing homelessness, quite the opposite, in fact. It understands that stable housing serves as a platform for getting the individuals the support and treatment they need.

Applying this Housing First approach enabled the Obama Administration to reduce homelessness between 2010 and 2016 by 14 percent overall and unsheltered homelessness—people sleeping in streets, parks, vehicles, and encampments—declined by 24 percent. The broad application of the Housing First approach to solve Veteran homelessness has also led to a 55 percent reduction in the number of Veterans experiencing homelessness between 2010 and 2022.

Since the Biden-Harris Administration took office, HUD has taken action to set the nation’s trajectory on homelessness back in the right direction—downward. Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, HUD deployed 70,000 Emergency Housing Vouchers—the first-ever special purpose voucher program within HUD to address homelessness not specific to veterans and the newest tool in the Housing First toolkit. The program is leasing at a rate faster than any previous housing voucher program within HUD and has put new energy into community efforts to re-house people experiencing homelessness. In addition, the American Rescue Plan enabled HUD to launch a new program—known as HOME-ARP—that HUD hopes communities will use to increase the nation’s supply of permanent supportive housing. HOME-ARP can be used to fund capital costs, supportive services, as well as capitalize operating reserves in permanent supportive housing. HUD also recently released our first-ever funding initiative specifically focused on addressing unsheltered homelessness, including in rural areas. This initiative will help communities apply the Housing First approach to reach unsheltered people and people in encampments.

To assist communities to use HUD resources strategically and effectively, HUD launched House America, a national partnership with mayors, county leaders, governors, and tribal nation leaders, who are making specific commitments on how they will re-house people experiencing homelessness and add more permanent supportive housing or deeply subsidized affordable housing to their development pipelines. As of this writing, House America includes leaders from 100 communities across 31 states and territories and the District of Columbia. House America communities represent 50 percent of the nation’s homelessness population. Collectively, HUD hopes that House America communities will re-house at least 100,000 people experiencing homelessness and add at least 20,000 new units of housing to address homelessness to their development pipelines by the end of 2022.

Of course, re-housing people experiencing homelessness is only part of the solution to homelessness. Another key part is preventing homelessness before it happens. And preventing homelessness requires increasing the supply of housing, particularly for people with the lowest (and fixed) incomes and those who have faced systemic discrimination.

In recognizing the inherent connection between addressing homelessness and boosting housing supply, HUD has brought a higher level of attention – and action – to these efforts through Secretary Fudge’s House America and Our Way Home initiatives. This connection will be further emphasized in the Administration’s forthcoming federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. Neither homelessness nor the housing supply shortage can be solved overnight. But House America and Our Way Home are building partnerships, political will, and momentum across the nation that set us on a path to solve these twin crises. By working together in partnership with state and local leaders, we will house America and find our way home.