This was not a pleasant year to be a renter or a buyer, with housing prices continuing to climb in most major American cities. But how well the country recovers from the housing crisis depends on how well we’ve learned our lessons from the pandemic: Will local governments adopt new rental assistance programs to replace Emergency Rental Assistance programs? Will more cities adopt a housing-first approach and prioritize permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness? And how much of an impact will President Biden’s plan to cut homelessness have?
Here are some questions that I think will be important in the world of housing in the new year.
How Will Mayors Address The Homelessness Crisis?
An unfortunate trend among the country’s mayors this year was that, facing increasing political pushback and blame for homelessness, many tried to address the most visible aspects of their cities’ crises by expanding policing and homeless sweeps.
In Portland, Oregon, Mayor Ted Wheeler banned “camping” on paths to schools in August ,a precursor to a citywide camping ban approved by the city council in November. The citywide camping ban is being coupled with the rollout of large sanctioned sites that opponents have likened to concentration camps. As the ban rolled out, I spoke to people involved in the country’s first resident-run homeless “village”, which was founded 20 years ago in Portland. They presented another possible path forward: allowing people to have agency over their own living space, an approach that is impossible if people are herded into contained encampments.
Also in August, the Los Angeles city council banned sleeping outdoors within 500 feet of a school. The law was an expansion of a ban passed last year, Section 41.18, which makes it illegal to camp within 500 feet of an overpass, public park or library.
An Austin, Texas camping ban reinstated in 2021 ran up against a lack of affordable housing, although the city began building more to meet the demand. A ban on sleeping on state-owned land passed this year in Missouri will take effect on Jan. 1.
Sweeps of high-profile encampments went forward in Oakland. Sweeps continued in Boston’s controversial Mass and Cass intersection, where many residents are experiencing drug addiction, but crowds had returned by August.
In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams introduced new guidance for police and EMTs to take people in for psychiatric evaluation. The new criteria allows police to take in anyone who looks unkempt, under the legal pretext that they are a danger to themselves. Many critics viewed this as a broad enough edict that it would lead to more harassment of people experiencing homelessness.
The push for more homeless sweeps in some cases led to costly legal decisions. In Los Angeles, a lawsuit by an organization which relied on anti-homeless rhetoric resulted in a settlement for the City of Los Angeles requiring it to expand its shelter capacity. The organization, LA Alliance For Human Rights, laid out a goal of expanding shelter capacity so that the city can legally perform sweeps of homeless encampments without violating Martin v. Boise. (That decision held that sweeps were illegal when there were no shelter beds available.) LA Alliance for Human Rights are opposed to permanent supportive housing, deeming it too expensive and time-consuming, citing the slow time frame of LA’s Measure HHH as an example.
The Biden administration, to its credit, has made efforts to limit the criminalization of homelessness. In June, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced funding to address unsheltered homelessness.The administration will use incentives, prioritizing grant funding for officials who don’t take a punitive approach to homelessness. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness released a report decrying the trend of criminalization in October. In November, the administration unveiled an ambitious plan to cut homelessness by 25% over 5 years. The plan, also developed by the Interagency Council on Homelessness, made deliberate reference to the racial inequality intrinsic in the homeless crisis and made nods to a more bottom-up approach with shared leadership from unhoused people.
In addition to directing discretionary grants, Biden’s plan could act as a roadmap to state and local officials. How closely localities hew to the Biden administration’s approach is something to look out for. Most likely, many will attempt to have it both ways – empowering homeless sweeps, but couching it in the rhetoric of social services while applying for federal grants.
Meanwhile, pandemic solutions to provide people with hotel rooms mostly faltered. Last year we reported on Mayor Eric Adams’ promise to convert hotels into 25,000 units of supportive housing. That promise, which was hindered by zoning as well as union pushback, was delivered a potential boon by Gov. Kathy Hochul, who loosened some of those restrictions in June. But only one hotel had been converted during the pandemic as of December, according to the New York Times, and that predated Adams’ mayoralty.
Will We Build In Climate Vulnerable Areas?
This year, climate catastrophes continued to worsen the housing crisis by decreasing the supply of homes. It also revealed that the smallest homes – including tiny homes, manufactured homes and RVs – were the first victims of severe weather. These disaster-prone areas are becoming riskier and riskier to build in, limiting the available land and raising housing prices.
A fire swept through Louisville, Superior and Boulder County, Colorado in the last few days of 2021 – destroying over 1,000 homes, leaving 7,500 more without power, and leading to skyrocketing housing prices. A year later, only one home had been rebuilt.
In Florida, home prices rose after Hurricane Ian destroyed many homes and took a particularly hard toll on manufactured homes and RVs.
And a year after remnants of Hurricane Ida killed 13 New York City residents, the city struggled to pass policies that would make basement apartments safer.
There are signs that the federal government can play a role in keeping people in their homes when climate crises occur. I reported on activists in Oakland who utilized federal climate funds in a bid to curb displacement from climate gentrification. And Next City has covered how community land trusts are emerging as a solution to create affordable, disaster-resilient homes – but require government investment to scale up.
Will More Cities Become Rent-Stabilized?
Most states have laws against price-gouging during emergencies, particularly when it comes to essentials for living. Yet for years, rent was seen as outside the bounds of regulation. Crisis-level rents and scant affordable housing have changed the trajectory in the past few years, as more and more cities adopt measures to stabilize rents. New rent control programs came to Pasadena, California, for example, joining Santa Ana, which passed rent control last year.
Some of these new rent stabilization programs unsurprisingly faced immediate pushback from landlords, which weakened them or put them in limbo. In August, I wrote about the challenges that Kingston faced when they passed rent control, becoming the first upstate New York city to do so. The city was also the first in the state to enact a rent reduction – which was almost immediately halted due to a landlord-led lawsuit, as I wrote about this month.
A stringent city-wide rent control law which passed in St. Paul last year immediately saw some landlords exploiting wide-open loopholes, although advocates say the law has been helpful overall.
One way around this kind of pushback might be to pair rent control with other programs. This is the tack that Pennsylvania is taking with its Whole Home Repair program, which will provide grants of up to $50,000 to rehabilitate homes, as I wrote about in October. Landlords who accept the funds can have the full amount forgiven as long as they do not raise rents by more than 3% annually. There’s always potential for fraud and greed, but providing funding for repairs counters one of the main arguments that landlords make against rent control: the claim that they can no longer make long-term repairs to the unit without raising rents.
Will New Eviction Prevention Programs Emerge?
Evictions chugged on in 2022, though they remained below 2019 numbers.
Cities that used Emergency Rental Assistance programs (ERAP) funds were able to substantially reduce evictions. Princeton’s Eviction Lab estimated that 1.36 million evictions were prevented in 2021 alone. (National data for 2022 has not been analyzed yet.)
Not every governor wanted to help tenants pay rent. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said he would leave $130 million in eviction prevention funds unused. A total of $377 million in unused funds from Alabama, Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming and West Virginia were redirected to states willing to disburse the funds.
Even though funds are depleted, the existence of ERAP has led to some long-term rental assistance programs being adopted at the state and local level. Huntsville, Alabama is rolling out a grant-funded rental assistance program after the popularity of ERAP pointed to greater need. In Miami-Dade, where rents increased 60% in the past 2 years, the county’s rental assistance program will expand.
Programs that provide free attorneys for people in eviction proceedings continued to pop up across the country. Three states and 15 cities now have a legislative Right To Counsel for housing court on the books, according to the National Coalition For a Civil Right To Counsel. But in New York City, the first city to provide free attorneys for tenants in eviction proceedings, the program now exists in name only, as I reported in November.
A big factor in all of these programs will be federal funding. Responding to the housing crisis, the federal government’s omnibus spending bill increases funds for most housing agencies, including an additional $8 billion for HUD. Yet the package will expand rental assistance vouchers to only 12,000 more households, a drop in the bucket of the more than half a million people experiencing homelessness nationwide.
So next year, cities and states will have a little bit more to work with and ideally better cooperation from the federal government, which now has a political stake in solving the housing crisis. But it’s not enough, which means advocates and legislators will continue to have to be imaginative with their solutions.
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.