Shanty Town

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I have no problems with social experiments. I just want honest accounting of them. My Mayor (Sam Liccardo) got people to sponsor "tiny homes" (garden sheds) for the homeless on public lands, at about about 5x the cost per unit (≈$70K each) as it would cost an individual. Which I find compassionate to the homeless, and cruel to the taxpayers.

We know that's likely to bring crime, disease, and detritus to our community, suppress property values, and is less economically efficient than any alternatives... and it will probably attract more homeless to come here (for the free housing, etc). But it gets Sam free press, and that's what's important, right?


What I would have liked is for a Mayor that does something like this, to have examples of it working and making anything better, anywhere. We have many examples of Federal, City, or State run housing projects being fucking disasters like Cabrini Green, but show me somewhere that it worked. Or at least why the other ones failed, and what you're going to do different to prevent that from happening again.

We didn't get any of that. Some people pointed loosely to Utah (SLC) housing the homeless, and proclaiming it a victory in the first year, without looking at the disaster it turned into a few years later.

More than that, if we are going to be the pioneers on a new kind of program, fine. I get that too. Then you damn well better setup good accounting and metrics for tracking the results. Honest pilot experiments aren't bad, even if I'm skeptical, as long as you're really trying to learn -- and you're putting in analytics that we can learn from. What's a baseline headcount of how many homeless we have now, versus how many these programs attract in a year or three -- how much policing is done now versus future on homeless calls -- what are crime rates (including petty crimes) now and later in the areas where these things are created. You state in advance what metrics we're going to measure it by, and setup tracking, and I have respect for the attempt. Of course, Sam and San Jose doesn't want to be held accountable, so didn't do any of that.

What the Mayor wants is credit for building highly expensive shanty-towns (little Favela's) and spreading crime and detritus around the city, and no accountability for what happens after he gets credit for giving away public lands to these skid-row encampments. Just what San Jose needs, little tenderloins spread out (crime-ridden dirty homless encampments).


The problem is there's different types of homeless. Someone that got evicted and is living in a car is different than someone between jobs, urban campers, and persistent homeless. And the solutions are too. And the problem with things like this is always unintended consequences. (They're homeless, not stupid).

If you create a program that gets them their own homes, you get more homeless:

  1. So you attract all the homeless from the entire bay area. If I'm homeless in SF, why don't I just take cal train down and get a tiny home?
  2. Then if that doesn't collapse your system, you might draw from further, as the word spreads.
  3. And then you get people that want to game the system. The college student or surfer dude that wants a free place to live, and all they have to do is camp out for a while and get on the list?
  4. All of these extra homeless increases the burdens on other city services. And the city ends with as many or more homeless AND the burdens of subsidized housing (and the costs of stresses on systems you had in place to help).

My wife did social services for years, and as many as 70% of her cases had some fraud. (And she'd get punished if she reported it: there's good money in the poverty industrial complex, and many politicians don't want to stop the gravy train by fixing it). What's to stop that here?

So I'm not against the program (I don't know enough about implementation details) -- I just want to make sure we don't make the problem worse. I'm skeptical, but that's not the same as an opponent. And I'm sympathetic to the people suffering, but it's hard to help the right people without helping the wrong ones in greater scale. And this is a small part of addressing the bigger problem.

So it's not about vilification of the mentally ill or homeless, it's just understanding that the reason these programs have always failed in history, was because they failed to understand how people would adapt. Someone always attacked the people that asked the hard questions or warned about the potential pitfalls. By shutting down the discussions, it caused the ultimate failure of the programs (but not before wasting many millions of dollars, and sowing the seeds of the next problem).

Utah Model

The Utah model was on a smaller scale, in a colder place, and they'd have to deal with Mormons. (Not that there's anything wrong with that --- it just comes with a reputation). Still, it seemed like they still had 2,200 homeless at last count. Then they used cops to start scattering them and the numbers went down (or went untrackable). So much for a magical fix of firing a money canon at the problem... the problem was as big after the program as before. The solution may have been to drive them out. Though I'm not sure that's the compassionate answer.

Also, there's ≈6,000 homeless in Oakland, and ≈8,000 in SF, and not counting surrounding areas... that's a far different case than moving to SLC. And the scale of the problem being bigger, means it's harder to get critical mass. If you only offer 100 of 7,000 a home, what good did you do?

Tiny homes for short term transitional homeless (or distressed veterans) sounds good.... but I'm highly suspicious that the program won't get screwed up. Because they aren't able to offer examples of this ever working before. (And there are many where city run housing has been a f'in disaster).

Historically what happens with "projects" is that they pool high risk people in one place, which turns that area into a slum (crime, needles, etc), which discourages development/investment in that area.... and makes the problem worse. In the mean time, they often try to fund that with higher taxes and fees, and that causes more distress and homelessness than the homes help. Then the politicians leave office and everyone loses. (Sorry to be cynical, that's just a more common pattern than unnamed successes).


I was attacked for questioning the program. People see what they want to. When I was younger, I shared our home with homeless runaways, I donated 3 years of my Dojo profits to the battered Woman's and Children's shelter, I've worked foodbanks and soup kitchens, and my wife did social work for ≈5 years. We offered an apartment free to a homeless friend for a year... he didn't want to move to Reno (where we had the property). We did the same for another friend going through a divorce. So people that want to see me as a compassionless villain, are free to do so. Someday I'll meet one that has matched my efforts.

Social Argument

Are garden sheds the right solution? Who is going to pickup the needles they leave at the preschool, or make up for the stolen bikes and packages? Why do you think angry screamers or psychotic ranting is going to make your community more pedestrian/tourist friendly? And if the answer is nobody is going to addresss that, because no one is willing to answer these questions, then how do you think that will play out in the long term?

What happens is people are fine with throwing change at the guy at the offramp with a sign (or at housing programs that aren't next to them)... but stick them in their neighborhoods and deal with "those people" up close, and you're more likely to turn the community against the homeless (in the long term) than to help them.

Is short term comfort for a few worth the long term backlash and private resentment against the untouchables? How do you think this will change the culture? (I think it will, and not for the better as people learn to resent the homeless and the government for forcing them on them). These are the duh questions that few are asking, and fewer are answering.

Who really thinks garden sheds and favelas is the long term solution for mental illness and the high cost of living in Silicon Valley?


And if it isn't, then why are we throwing money at it?

There are different homeless problems and different solutions.

  • Working poor? They need bus tickets and startup money for somewhere affordable. (I heard Salt Lake City has free housing for the homeless, let's bus them there). Not everyone can or should afford to live here. Sorry, the sooner some learn that, the faster their lives can turn around. I lived elsewhere in the country and it's a lot easier to get by (and often a lot more open minded).
  • Substance abusers? Treatment programs, prisons or work camps.
  • Mentally ill? Half way houses or asylums.
  • Transitional homeless? Temporary housing/shelters and bridge solutions. And if those don't work, then bus tickets.
  • Layabouts, surfers and urban campers? A boot in the ass and NIMBYism.

None of those solutions seems to be unsupervised garden sheds next to preschools and residential neighborhoods.

Economic Argument

For the price of housing one person here, you could pay to move them and house 4 somewhere else. That's not about hating "them"... it's about caring enough to help more, and getting ahead of the problems, instead of perpetuating them for profit (or politics).

Economics says if you want to make the area more affordable, once supply exceed demand, prices will start coming down. Thus instead of driving up costs (and down development) with taxes and regulations, we have to figure out how to get more development (faster approvals, lower regulations/taxes, etc). Just imagine how many more units could be housed on those "public lands" if they were sold to high density development, instead of homeless Favela.

Or just ask the question, Is helping people stay poor in one of the most expensive areas of the country, really helping them? Wouldn't a bus tickets and enough money for a fresh start in a more affordable place, be a better option?

If trying to think through things like that makes me less human, then fine... I'd rather be a robot that helps people than a human that keeps making the problems worse.

Business/economics is how do you get the best returns for the least cost. I don't see how turning some of the most expensive land in the world, into habitats for substance abusers and the mentally ill, is a good use of resources, or good for the community, unless we think a little tenderloin in every community, somehow makes for a better neighborhood. Because no one has shown or imagined how this really helps any of the underlying problems.

Here's the math (loose model)

  • Cost of building 10 favelas $700,000
  • Lost property value to ≈100 homes around that area @ $100K each = $10M
  • Lost yearly tax revenue due to that property value loss = $200K/year
  • If you'd sold that land to developers $16M (assuming 1 acre)
  • If the developer had put 50 units on the same site = $25M for property
  • +$750K/year in reoccurring property taxes for those units
  • + $675K/year in other taxes (assuming those people buy groceries and use retailers in the area).
  • Increase in property value due to ≈100 homes in the area around the new development @ $100K each = $10M
  • Increase in property tax to those ≈100 homes = $200K/year

Doing it Uncle Sam Liccardo's way, we got 15 homeless people sheltered for what would have gotten us 75 people housed (assuming 1.5 people per unit). And it cost us $45M in relative property values lost in the area, $16M in sale of those public lands, and $2M/year in lost taxes.

Now these numbers are made up (don't get focused on the exact amounts as much as concepts). Most of my guesses were highly conservative. Like I didn't factor in any of the jobs that would have been created, or those income taxes, or the policing and maintenance costs of the homeless encampment (or cleanup costs once they decide the program has failed in a few years), and stuff like that. But that's the kind of question we should ask:

  • What helps the homeless more? 10 sheds, or what we could have done for them and the city with $16.4M in immediate income, and $2M/year more (in reoccurring revenue, in perpetuity)?

If Sam had a single person with a clue on his staff, they would have pointed that out to him. So either he's staffed with morons, or he ignored their advice because feel-good political expediency and getting his name on a program is worth more than actually helping 6x as many people long term.

For asking these questions, many will call me insensitive (or worse). But to me, compassion is putting the agenda of "what helps more people in the long term", ahead of "what makes me feel good" in the short term.