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Book Review

The Excluded Americans: Homelessness and Housing Policies

by William Tucker

Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1990, 389 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Jay Flemion
William Tucker has made an invaluable and timely contribution to all who are working toward a strategy for the poor and homeless. At a time when taxpayers are beginning to see how the goverment has miserably dealt with poverty, The Excluded Americans explains how an anti-free market approach in government housing policy actually contributes to homelessness. Tucker exposes how these policies contribute to the expanding problems of all involved: the homeless, renters, landlords, (would be) home owners, housing developers, and the American taxpayers. Tucker examines the different attitudes, policies and consequences of housing politics by comparing New York City, Santa Monica, and San Francisco, with Houston, Kansas City, and other U.S. cities. He even provides his personal experience as a pretended homeless person in Grand Central Station. Tucker includes a collection of supporting anecdotes, case histories, statistics, as well as invoking the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

Tucker argues that local rather than federal government housing policies serve to reduce the amount of available housing. With less new homes "filtering down" to the lower economic groups, the used housing market prices remain higher thus excluding these groups even to the point where many segments of society can no longer anticipate affordable housing. This is dangerous because when people anticipate owning a home, they are more movitivated to save money. If both the dream of and savings for home ownership continue to fade, the baby-boom generation may eventually call for government to take an even greater role in the current housing crisis. Tucker's solution is to deregulate construction barriers which will serve to stimulate home building. By eliminating restrictive rent control and zoning policies, current housing will be freed up so that it filter's down to the lower economic stratum.

Tucker exposes other political, legal, and financial barriers in the housing industry via housing "reform," "controlled growth," exclusionary zoning restrictions on land use, and the building regulation practices. In order to develop a home in Southern California, for example, a developer must jump through several hundred bureaucratic hoops. And jumping through these hoops is very costly. According to Jack Kemp, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, this adds thirty to forty thousand dollars to the cost of an affordable home in southern California.

The Excluded Americans also discusses current myths and misconceptions regarding housing policies. For example, Tucker shows how rent control benefits the wealthy instead of the lower economic groups. The poor are also harmed by the growing tenant and landlord wars fueled by "tenants' rights" advocates. For comparison, he also examines rent control policies in other countries. Perhaps more valuable to the current debate is Tucker's refutation of popular explanations for homelessness, the myth of real welfare cutbacks under the Reagan administration, and the (ab)use of statistics in calculating the real number of homeless Americans in recent years. Hopefully, Tucker's analysis will serve to break through the faulty assumptions found on all sides of the political-ideological spectrum.

There may be good news at the federal level in so far as Jack Kemp can lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the direction of Tucker's solutions. The HUD Secretary's stated intent is clear: "When we talk about affordable housing we're talking about government bureaucracy, government regulation, zoning exclusively, rent controls that have been defended by John Kenneth Galbraith for years. I want to remove the level of bureaucracy and get America back to a housing policy that will build houses, for the poor and first time home buyers."[1]

Perhaps Kemp's stated efforts will not be in vain so long as voters remember in their community and state elections that local policies affect housing more significantly than national efforts. While critics may argue that the housing industry is ruled by interest rates, the economy is also influenced by productivity and savings which are reciprocally influenced by the possibility of affordable housing.

Robert Hayes of the National Coalition for the Homeless has described the three-word solution to the homeless crisis as, "Housing, housing, housing," but neither such simplistic sloganeering nor even Tucker's analysis deals with the larger problems. Studies conducted by HUD over the last two years indicate that providing a home for some alcoholics, addicts, or the "mentally ill" may not keep them off the street. Their studies estimate that half of the urban homeless have been homeless more than once, suggesting that housing alone does not solve a complex human problem. The HUD survey also found that less than a third of the nation's shelters provide adequate treatment for substance abuse, "mental illness," or health care. The majority of the homeless have intense and persistent personal and interpersonal problems which for many people can only be addressed by extensive and consistent medical and/or spiritual counseling. If the private sector has assumed the responsibility for the care of the homeless (as the HUD shelter survey indicated with approximately 9 out of 10 homeless shelters being operated by community groups and churches as of 1988), then perhaps what is needed as much as Tucker's analysis is an agenda dealing with the spiritual problems behind homelessness.

For these larger issues concerning poverty, I recommend Olasky, et al, Freedom, Justice, and Hope: Toward a Strategy for the Poor and the Oppressed, and Grant's In the Shadow of Plenty: Biblical Principles of Welfare and Poverty. The latter book is a companion volume to Grant's text The Dispossessed: Homelessness in America which should be required reading for anyone who wants a comprehensive Biblical view of the homeless problem. I would even recommend these books to Tucker considering his concluding remarks: "...I wonder if anybody really knows what is causing homelessness. Building more housing and getting rid of rent control are my favorite solutions, but other things are obviously going to be needed as well. In a sense, homelessness remains an enigma that the homeless themselves must live out. I doubt if anyone [my emphasis] completely understands the problem." (p. 355) At the heart of the Christian world-and-life view is Jesus Christ who has himself experienced oppression, alienation, defeat, and other states found at the core of the homeless experience. As such, Christ is the source of genuine relief.

While limited in scope, Tucker's solutions are Biblically sound. The Excluded Americans may prove to accomplish more than merely introduce a free market housing policy into the homelessness debate. Like Charles Murray's historic analysis Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, Tucker may help convert the baby-boom vote to a market based strategy before they lose all hope of home ownership and become vulnerable to even more government housing policies. If a majority of the American voters use Tucker's criteria for electing state and local officials, we will indeed discover improved material conditions for the homeless, a basis for the dream and reality of affordable housing, more personal savings, a stronger economy and a better standard of living for us all.


[1] Kemp, Gingrich, & Buckley Jr. verses McGovern, Hart, Schroeder, & Galbraith, "Free Market Competitiveness is Best for America," Firing Line Debate, Sept. 13, 1989.

Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1990
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