You Can’t Fix a Problem with What Caused It

December 11, 2019   Robert Gmeiner

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Cities up and down the west coast of the United States have repeatedly made headlines recently because of their homelessness crises.  Portland is no exception.  All of these cities have astronomical housing prices that, in many cases, have been caused by state and local laws that infringe property rights.  For example, California cities such as those in the Los Angeles area and in the San Francisco Bay area, have laws that favor large lot sizes and single-family homes.  These laws inflate home prices and benefit current owners at the expense of all others, contributing to the homelessness problem.  Portland’s high home prices are caused by its urban growth boundary, which contains urban sprawl.  

Containing urban sprawl preserves green space and drives up home values, but has brought with it a growing homeless population, which burdens city services and brings its own issues.  Politicians in Portland are now trying to deal with the problem.  Its Planning and Sustainability Commission just approved a change to the process for approving planning designs to require property owners to “provide opportunities to rest and be welcome.”  This is ambiguous language that could mean not much at all or it could require them to permit tent cities on their property.  The right to evict trespassers has long been an established right of private property.  Although social justice concerns may dictate a generous approach to the less fortunate, mandating it requires infringing on property rights.

Assuming the ambiguity is cleared up, one might reasonably ask what the effects are of such a law.  Assuming that homeless people must be allowed to camp on private property, property owners may employ more security guards and janitorial personnel, which will drive up the cost of whatever is sold and eventually drive up property values further.  Places where there are fewer homeless people will increase further in value and further divide the city along income lines.  Of course, these are hypothetical results and they probably won’t happen in extremes, but what is sadly missing from the debate over Portland’s approach is what it can actually accomplish and what its unintended consequences will be.

Requiring private property owners to accommodate the homeless is a form of enabling.  The term “enabling” has its own negative connotations, but these can be set aside to emphasize the point that, if the goal is to solve the homelessness problem, this law only encourages it.  It does nothing to address the root of the problem.

Portland’s homelessness problem was caused in part by infringements on property rights.  The proposed solution further infringes on property rights while doing nothing to solve it.  Homelessness is a real problem for society and respecting property rights won’t solve it overnight.  Ending the existing infringements on property rights and not causing any new ones is a good first step.  Property values could become more reasonable and any solution to the homelessness issue would become less costly.