Selected Skirmishes: Homelessness

The movie

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As health concerns and various probation agreements force the Hollywood illuminati to discard the cocaine habit, they have begun a frantic search for a new high. It appears thousands are finding solace in Cause Addiction. And the box office smash of the moment is clearly a tearjerker—Families in the Streets: Affluent America's Greedy Legacy.

The stars are lined up to snort a little of the magic. "Your girl can call my girl and set up the homeless thing. We'll take lunch and sketch it. You're beautiful, babe. Luv ya. Mean it."

The Homeless in Reagan's America. What a rush!

Still, the dramatic talents of airbrushed actor boys and girls can be put to serious use in this Nonsubstance Abuse. Susan Dey, who obviously studied statistics and demography with a rare dedication while on the set of the "Partridge Family," recently told CNN talk-show host Larry King that 3 million homeless people are a disgrace in a country with such vast wealth.

When Mr. King weakly suggested that other calculations of the problem place the figure considerably lower (two respected private /research centers, the Urban Institute and the National Bureau of Economic Research, put the number at 450,000 to 600,000), Ms. Dey flashed very large, sullen eyes at the host. Appearing quite on the brink, she said, her voice virtually broken: "Of course there are 3 million. You can see them."

The overwhelmed Larry King fell silent before the devastating performance. Bravo! Encore! Here, here! (And hey, who are you gonna believe, the Urban Institute or Grace Van Owen, D.A.?)

Forget the fabrication of millions of homeless. Forget the fabrication that Reagan budget cuts are responsible. (Actual spending for low-income housing rose by 65 percent in real terms during the Reagan years; "budget authority" got cut 71 percent, but that is a meaningless projection. Outlays are what get spent.) Forget about the fact that if these megamillionaire actor-director-producer types wanted to share their 12,000- square-foot homes, Reagan's America is a perfect place in which to make such individualistic contributions.

Forget too, about America's housing marketplace, where greed-oriented, non-consciousness-raised couch potatoes produce about 1.7 million new residences each year. The American easily enjoys more housing square footage, of a higher quality, than his counterpart anywhere this side of Jupiter. By physical units, the U.S. housing machine cranks it out fast enough to house the likely homeless population in one month.

What is truly so simply mahvelous, darling, about Hollywood's new hallucinogen is that the only individual held in lower esteem by the glitzoids than a Reagan housing appointee is…a developer. Anyone even remotely versed in the politics of Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Bel Air, and Malibu is well aware that the one thing that can never be built in any of these communities is middle-income, high-density housing. (I purposely didn't even mention low-income housing in the same sentence with these communities to avoid legal liability for heart failure, should Martin Sheen's secretary read this to him.)

Three houses per acre? Six? Condos? Apartments!?!? That's going to just kill the environment, babe. If God, that crazy cat, had wanted us to build more than one house per five acres, he wouldn't have given us a Sierra Club.

If "Housing NOW!" goes on the placard, one might wonder about Housing Then. These protesters are the "I've got mine, you can live in Riverside" crowd, who have so successfully shell-shocked local councilmen and zoning boards into excluding affordable housing. This is an ugly California ethic that has taken root in nice neighborhoods coast to coast. Those who have studied this virulent social pathology for decades (well, perhaps not quite as tirelessly as Ms. Dey has pursued a statistical database) seem to be curiously absent, however, from the podium at homelessness rallies.

For example, MIT's esteemed urban planning professor Bernard Frieden. His classic 1979 study of six large housing projects in the San Francisco area revealed that, in every instance, upscale homeowners combined with professional environmental activists to impose large regulatory delays and huge legal fees on developers building several hundred to thousands of units of low- to middle-income housing. The "no-growthers" in San Francisco regularly agreed to compromise with developers when they downscaled their densities and promised to build much more expensive housing.

Or nationally recognized housing economist Anthony Downs, of the Brookings Institution. In his 1988 study, Downs explicitly tied the issue of local rent controls to the question of housing availability and homelessness, showing that such controls signal property owners that rental housing is a bad investment and that those who put their capital into it are buffoons. (The New York homeless might have gotten a chance to talk to him about the net loss of 11,000 rental units annually in that rent-controlled city.) I guess Frieden and Downs are busy doing housing research on all the major rally dates. No matter. I'd rather hear what Cher has to say. And, oh, how she says it.

Really. You can see them.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.

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