While this looks mostly like a cynical ploy to embarrass Democrats in major cities, it’s also true that homelessness is a large and growing problem. Trump, the former builder, has been clear in the past about what’s needed to solve that problem: more affordable housing. Moreover, he argued that the federal government had an important role to play in expanding the housing stock through economic incentives. Yet now, with the power of the federal government in his hands, Trump is pushing an idea that would do little to solve homelessness.
Homelessness really is on the rise in the United States. The number of American homeless people rose in 2018, the second year in a row, with particular spikes in major cities like New York and Los Angeles. Unlike many thorny policy questions, this one is relatively straightforward. No policy solution will remove everyone from the streets, but policy experts and advocates agree that the leading cause of homelessness is that people can’t afford homes. Housing prices, especially in cities, are on the rise, and the supply of housing isn’t rising fast enough—which of course just makes the prices higher.
Because of its extensive resources and national reach, the federal government is best positioned to deal with this. But federal efforts are split between a variety of agencies, and have often focused on efforts like Section 8 vouchers that allow tenants to rent on the open market, with a subsidy. That has proved effective for getting recipients housing, but it doesn’t usually produce large new stocks of housing.
The government can expand housing stock in two ways. First, it can build public housing, though American public opinion has largely turned against such developments. Second, it can incentivize private developers to build affordable housing. Here’s how one expert described the need:
You can’t, Tom, build low-cost housing at a profit and I wish you could. You can build it efficiently and economically as long as you have assistance and help from the government. And I wish we could get that help from the government because it’s desperately needed. When you look at the homeless, when you look at all the problems on the streets, a lot of that is directly related to a lack of housing.
That expert was Donald Trump, appearing on Crossfire in 1987. Trump spoke in some depth on the topic, and his argument is fascinating.
“If you look at the homeless situation all over the country, it’s because of the fact that there is no housing,” Trump said, agreeing with the expert consensus. “The federal government used to have programs, a lot of programs; they don’t have any programs right now.”
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Trump’s foil on the show was Pat Buchanan, the white-identity politician who is commonly portrayed as a harbinger of Trumpism. But on Crossfire, they did not agree. Buchanan pushed back on Trump, saying such programs already existed.