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KURTZWEIL: City Council should truly adhere to a Housing First policy

Housing First initiatives have many benefits, and with the purchase of a downtown property, City Council has the opportunity to replicate this solution

<p>Housing First is an increasingly popular strategy that places emphasis on using permanent housing for people without shelter as a jumping off point into employment and food stability.</p>

Housing First is an increasingly popular strategy that places emphasis on using permanent housing for people without shelter as a jumping off point into employment and food stability.

Recently, Charlottesville City Council has allocated funds towards transforming a few downtown properties into housing assistance for people without shelter. This allocation signals an important step towards a Housing First approach. In contrast with popular short-term assistance programs geared towards alleviating the effects of homelessness, a focus on housing — not shelter — first aims to provide lasting support so participants can focus on gaining work and eventual self-sufficiency. Ultimately, however,  the property acquisition is but a single step in what must be a sustained effort on the part of the Council to respond to the homelessness epidemic with sustainable, long-term initiatives. Housing First approaches promote this sort of long-term housing solution and, in the process, engender fiscally responsible welfare programs.

Housing First is an increasingly popular strategy that emphasizes using permanent housing for people without shelter as a jumping off point into employment and food stability. By not having to endure a financially and mentally taxing housing search, people are more able to find work and deal with mental health issues. Focusing on long-term housing instead of temporary shelter has led to 72 percent decreases in urban homeless populations across the country. It has also been shown to be the most efficient in regards to tax money spent versus community benefit. For example, in New York City, every person in a housing program saved the taxpayer about $10,000 per year in money that would have been used in the cyclical temporary shelter programs. Housing First programs are clearly more efficient and helpful than their short-term counterparts, and Charlottesville must begin to acknowledge that.

It is clear that the Council’s current programs are failing to help to end homelessness, as proven by a 25 percent increase in the unhoused population. Moreover, even those who do have housing are at risk — 50 percent of renters are described as financially unstable. This statistic is bolstered by the fact that safe shelters are limited, forcing many to sign leases to apartments they simply cannot afford. Clearly, something is not working at a policy level. One reason for this is the Council’s use of several proclaimed Housing First initiatives such as The Haven and The Crossings. The Council claims that these organizations provide long-term housing relief, but they end up not actually adhering to their advertised guidelines. For example, The Crossings only provides housing to those who have an income, not those who live on the street. Similarly, The Haven provides the supplies that are needed to stay alive, not the foundation of security that a home brings. Despite the large expenditures on these programs, homelessness is not shrinking in Charlottesville, and thus dedicating money to such programs is woefully inefficient.

These programs play an absolutely vital role in helping those without money receive basic necessities. However, it would be a mistake to assume that a switch to Housing First would eliminate these resources — a switch would only add to them. Instead of merely receiving survival goods, recipients of the Housing First policies would be able to benefit from potential long-term stability while also having their immediate needs supported. Additionally, as people need to spend less money on housing, they will be able to support other aspects of their lives without money from the City. This sort of future self-sufficiency, the end goal for any policies that attempt to address homelessness, is simply not possible in the current system. Thus,  we have an obligation to try something different — Housing First.

Proof that focusing on Housing First is beneficial is further evidenced by the fact that many of the shelter assistance programs in Charlottesville falsely claim to adhere to it. Additionally, the differences in the cities of Houston and San Diego’s respective homelessness policies provide an interesting case study in program efficiency. Both cities had received over $26 million in federal grants to address homelessness. San Diego dedicated it to short term programs and saw a 19 percent decrease in its homelessness population. In comparison, Houston dedicated its funding to long term, Housing First programs and saw a 55 percent decrease in its homelessness population. Both programs worked hard to help those who need it most, but one was objectively better at it, saving the city money in the long term while also — and more importantly — helping more people. 

Charlottesville City Council should be applauded for their new property purchase and should be pushed by the Charlottesville community to emphasize the important distinction between the current, temporary, solutions it employs and more permanent solutions such as Housing First. We should leave behind traditional shelters in favor of more beneficial long-term housing. The new property on the downtown mall provides a unicorn of an opportunity to reduce tax expenses and provide real productive welfare at the same time, a situation that could make Dick Cheney shake hands with Bernie Sanders. Thus, all residents of the Charlottesville community, including students, need to heavily push for implementation of the practical solutions that Housing First works to create. 

Paul Kurtzweil is a senior associate opinion editor who writes about economics, business and housing for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.


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