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Can you end homelessness without increasing supply of affordable housing units?

An adequate supply of safe, affordable housing is essential to a healthy, equitable society. But context matters, and many communities are proving they can reduce and even end homelessness through systems change.
April 6, 2021

We are often asked whether it is possible for communities to reduce or end homelessness for a population without substantially increasing the local supply of dedicated affordable housing units.

People often assume that the answer is no. A combination of rising housing costs, tight housing markets, and stagnant wages have narrowed the paths to affordable housing for many Americans. Meanwhile, the current system for delivering new affordable housing units is expensive, inflexible, and often too slow to meet the needs of rapidly growing communities.

These are real problems that demand solutions — affordable housing stock is and will always be a critical component of a community’s ability to end and sustain and end to homelessness . (For communities with housing supply challenges, Community Solutions is working on a social impact investment model that delivers affordable housing more quickly.) 

So what explains the surprising reality that many communities are driving reductions in homelessness — some even getting all the way to zero — without new units or other housing supply increases?

“We were definitely the community that thought we didn’t have resources [to end veteran homelessness], but it turns out it wasn’t true at all,” said Emma Beers, who helped the Chattanooga and Southeast Tennessee community functionally end veteran homelessness in her previous role. “Change started happening without it.”

To date, 93% of Built for Zero communities that have reached functional zero chronic or veteran homelessness did so by optimizing these subsidies, rather than adding large amounts of new physical housing supply.

In the United States, we are very lucky to have a federally funded system of affordable and permanent supportive housing. While this system isn’t perfect, and it’s not always enough, it does mean that every community in the country starts with a supply of portable rental and social service subsidies to optimize. Over the last 20 years, Congress has expanded the supply of such portable subsidies for use on the open market— think of it as an expansion of people’s ability to pay rent, rather than an expansion of actual units. 

To date, 93% of Built for Zero communities that have reached functional zero chronic or veteran homelessness did so by optimizing these subsidies, rather than adding large amounts of new physical housing supply. Even large cities that eventually need new housing supply to get all the way to zero have driven significant reductions in homelessness without it. Five large cities have achieved reductions of 20% or more in chronic or veteran homelessness.

So, if Built for Zero communities have been able to get these results, why isn’t every community seeing similar success?

Fixing the housing system

At Community Solutions, we think a lot about the eradication of smallpox. 

The vaccine for the disease was introduced in 1796. But smallpox was not eradicated until 1980 — more than 180 years later. Getting to zero required more than the vaccine. It required a global system capable of targeting and delivering the vaccine to everyone who needed it. 

Homes, like vaccines, are essential, but insufficient on their own. Without an effective delivery system, the problem persists despite the availability of a cure. 

So, what are the prerequisite features of an operating system that can move from managing homelessness to reducing and ending it?

Across the country, communities in Built for Zero are proving that homelessness is solvable.
single team

A single accountable team

In most communities, many stakeholders hold a piece of the solution, but it’s no one’s job to bring all the pieces together to sustainably end homelessness — for everyone. In Built for Zero communities, organizations addressing homelessness hold each other accountable for measurably ending homelessness together, and align their work to achieve that.

shared aim

A shared aim

Success within the homelessness sector has traditionally been  defined by how individual programs perform. Built for Zero communities commit to reaching functional zero across the whole community, beginning with ending chronic or veteran homelessness. They measure progress based on whether the overall number of people experiencing homelessness is going down, month over month.

by-name list

The right information

Homelessness is a dynamic problem that is constantly changing. But it has been tracked using an annual, anonymous street count from a single night. Communities relying on this limited information have little insight into  the actual scale and nature of the problem they’re dealing with, or what interventions are working. Instead, Built for Zero communities maintain by-name data on who is experiencing homelessness, in real time. They understand not only every individual’s needs, but the dynamics of the problem itself. They can see the whole picture of who is experiencing homelessness, where people are getting stuck in the system and what can be improved.  With this data they can test new ideas and track whether their efforts are actually working to reduce homelessness overall and serve each individual or family effectively.

Target investments

Targeted resources

With this quality, comprehensive data, communities can target their existing housing resources strategically, and make investments in new housing solutions, to achieve overall reductions in homelessness across the community.

A coordinated system is required to match a community’s prioritized by-name list of those experiencing homelessness with new housing investments.

A coordinated system is required to match a community’s prioritized by-name list of those experiencing homelessness with new housing investments.

So what does this all mean?

An adequate supply of safe, affordable housing is essential to a healthy, equitable society. But context matters, and many communities are proving they can reduce and even end homelessness — the most extreme form of housing need — through the coordinated and disciplined use of their existing assets and by using their data to target new investments.  What we’re seeing:

1. Not all communities need new physical affordable housing supply to end homelessness.

When communities unify their response to homelessness they often find they have more housing options available than they realized or that barriers to accessing housing can be removed by resourceful local action. No one should underestimate the ability of a community that is working as a team toward a clear, shared aim to  achieve results.


2. Even communities that do need new affordable housing can make dramatic progress in reducing homelessness without it.

As noted, large cities across the country are steadily reducing homelessness through disciplined coordination of their resources even as they work to expand their housing supply.


3. Without quality, real-time data, a community doesn’t know what they’re dealing with.

Having a clear picture of the constantly changing dynamics of homelessness and who is experiencing it is essential to a community’s ability to know what housing solutions they should invest in to achieve the greatest impact in reducing homelessness. 


Simply creating new affordable housing does not automatically reduce homelessness.  A coordinated system is required to match a community’s prioritized by-name list of those experiencing homelessness with new housing investments. Community Solutions is helping communities leverage a four-part social impact housing model, which ensures that new housing units are connected to the housing system, ensuring that they contribute to reductions in homelessness.  


To sum up, should we invest more deeply as a country in expanding access to affordable housing? Unequivocally, yes! But is affordable housing supply alone a solution to homelessness? Unequivocally no! Built for Zero communities are proving that a well resourced and well coordinated housing system is the pathway to sustainable reductions and ultimately an end to homelessness for all.

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