Vacant Houses Outnumber Homeless People?

Categories: Fact Check, Poverty
Comments: 4 Comments
Published on: 2014.11.24

An empty house near Bowlegs, Oklahoma
(Copyright © 2006 by Wil C. Fry.)

Someone I know posted on Facebook recently a photo of a guy holding a sign that read: “In the U.S., vacant houses outnumber homeless people.” (Yes, the cardboard sign actually had correct punctuation and spelling.) The link under the image was to a site I’d never heard of, which made a more specific claim: “…there are 6 vacant homes for every 1 homeless person.” No source was cited, so of course I looked it up.

Specifically, I wanted to know:

1) Is the 6-for-1 statistic true?
2) Define “vacant”
3) Who counted all the houses and homeless people?
4) What difference does it make? (What do they want me to do about it?)

◊ Are The Numbers Correct?

Searching Google for vacant houses outnumber homeless turned up quite a few results, including one site that actually claimed there were twenty-four empty houses for every homeless person in the U.S.

Most of the pages I clicked through to did not cite a source, though a couple referred to Amnesty International, so another search led me to this page, on which author Tanuka Loha (director of the Immigrants’ Rights Are Human Rights and Demand Dignity Campaigns at Amnesty International USA) claims, again without citing a source:

“…approximately 3.5 million people in the U.S. are homeless, many of them veterans. It is worth noting that, at the same time, there are 18.5 million vacant homes in the country.”

Vacant house in Providence, R.I.
(Copyright © 2014 by Wil C. Fry.)

That’s actually 5.28 vacant houses for every homeless person, but I’m still looking for definitions and where the numbers came from.

The U.S. Census Bureau defines a house as “vacant” if “if no one is living in it at the time of the interview”, with a couple of caveats. And this Census Bureau press release (.pdf, 211 KB) says there are 18.02 million (not 18.5 million) vacant homes in the U.S.

Note that this includes homes that are (1) “in use” part of the year (vacation/seasonal homes), (2) newly constructed but not quite finished and not yet occupied, and (3) not houses — such as apartments, rooms-for-rent, and mobile homes. Also worth noting: the USCB estimates these tallies from “sample surveys”.

The 18 million drops immediately to 13.6 million if you remove the “seasonal housing units” and even lower when you remove the “for occasional use” homes. If you only include the empty homes that are for rent or for sale (or both), you only get 5.9 million.


Abandoned house in Seminole, Oklahoma
(Copyright © 2007 by Wil C. Fry.)

According to the U.S. Department Of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 2009 Homeless Assessment Report (.pdf, 4 MB), there were 643,067 homeless people in the U.S. “on a single night in January 2009”. This is a slight decrease from the 664,414 that were counted on a single night in January 2008. And, according to the report, these people were actually counted. However, the report notes that a huge majority of these were temporarily homeless — sleeping in the car for a night or two, for example. The study only “identified 110,917 individuals who met the definition of chronic homelessness” (“…either continuously homeless for a year or more or who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years…”).

Other studies show as many as 3.5 million people homeless during the course of a year, but these studies include people living in extended stay motels as well as families who don’t have a home of their own but are currently living inside a home (with another family). They also count people who are homeless for a single night.

So, if you really want to read the numbers a certain way, the Amnesty International claim I quoted above is technically true. There are 18.5 million “vacant” homes and 3.5 million “homeless” people in the U.S.

But the real numbers are closer to 5.9 million vacant homes and 650,000 homeless people.

That’s actually nine vacant homes for each homeless person.

◊ What Am I Supposed To Do About It?

Now that we see the numbers were way off but still astounding, the question is really: what course to take? Sure, I feel all sad now that I know there are these empty houses, empty apartments, empty mobile homes, all over the country, and that there are hundreds of thousands of people who could sleep inside. But is it just about being sad? Is there supposed to be some kind of solution implied by posting these numbers?

Some of the posts on Facebook in response to this:

“This is so sad why are we letting this happen?”

“Why is this problem not fixed! Seems the crooks are winning! Sad!”

“This is not SOCIALIST AMERICA. You EARN what you have. Not get handouts, just because you’re homeless. What’s the initiative to EARN a home, when you expect to just get a home for free form uncle sam?”

“so, we should let the homeless people live in these houses.”

“So… if the U.S. GIVES away homes, what’s to stop me from becoming homeless so I can get out of my loan ( that is way more than the declining value of my home) so I can have a free one too ? There is a solution, but it’s not for FREE”

(I cherry-picked the comments, hoping to show various viewpoints. All of these were copied/pasted in their entirety.)

Clearly, some of the readers understood the implication: We should let homeless people live in these homes. Some were fine with that; others were not. Some of us (let’s just call them “right-wing nutjobs”) want homeless people to stay out in the cold (or heat) until they can miraculously get jobs and buy or rent houses for themselves. Others of us (let’s call them “left-wing nutjobs”) want anyone who owns a vacant home to open it to homeless people, for free.

In real life, the former is what usually happens.

Just being practical for a moment, what would be the outcome of the latter?

◊ Second-Guessing The Scenario

Let’s say I own a second home (I don’t) that’s just sitting empty on the other side of town. It hasn’t sold or rented because I haven’t priced it aggressively enough. I realize there are homeless people nearby and decide to open this house to them. “I have an empty house two blocks away”, I could say. “Here are the keys. Share it with your friends.” I’ve left the power and water connected to more easily show the house to prospective buyers, which means my homeless beneficiaries can now bathe, cook, and stay warm. But they don’t have any goods with which to bake, or soap with which to bathe, or detergent with which to wash their clothes and blankets. So I buy that stuff for them too, and stock the house — not difficult for a guy who owns two houses, right? They’ll also need dishes, flatware, pots and pans, potholders. Might as well drop off a vacuum cleaner, some dish towels and bath towels too. That’s still not all you need to keep a house running, but it gets them started and only cost me a few hundred bucks.

When I come back next week to check on them, what does it look like? How many people are stuffed in there? How clean is it? Have my guests taken out the trash, washed the dishes, mowed the lawn, kept the doors locked at night? Were there squabbles over capacity, room assignments, food?

The previous two paragraphs take just an instant for a homeowner to consider, and the answers to the questions in the latter paragraph can be assumed. Stipulating that in some cases everything will be fine and that the guests will clean up and get jobs, we can guess with some certainty that the usual outcome will be: (1) house value drops to almost nothing, (2) you’ll be on the hook to continue providing food and other supplies and paying the suddenly raised water and power bills, and (3) neighbors will call the cops — for a variety of easily guessable reasons.

Why? Because staying alive in a house requires a steady income. Because mental illness is often at least partially to blame for homelessness (and being homeless often makes it worse). Because drug use is often at least partially to blame for homelessness (and being homeless often makes it worse). Because homeless people usually need a lot more than a room and a meal.

At best, opening the vacant home to homeless people is an extremely short-term solution. If that was the answer, then the nation’s shelters would have already solved the problem. There are many shelters. I volunteered at one in Springfield, Missouri, for quite some time. If shelters were enough, you wouldn’t find folks sleeping under bridges during blizzards, or on the front steps of NYC high rises.

◊ What Do They Really Need?

The nation’s homeless population needs a long-term solution. It will be expensive in the short-term, but will pay for itself in the long run.

Homeless people need meals, and places to stay, yes. But many of them need mental health screenings and care — and it has to be provided without cost to them. They need rehabilitation from drug use — and it has to be provided without cost to them.

They need job-training (re-training in many cases) for skills that are currently in demand, not necessarily the skills they already have. Many of them (about 12%, so more than 60,000 on any given night) are military veterans — military training is often not transferable to the civilian world without significant retraining and support. Both veterans and non-veteran homeless persons often suffer from PTSD. In addition to job-training, they need job placement services. They almost certainly will need housing and food until their first paychecks begin rolling in. Once they can afford it, they will need help finding affordable housing. Some of them — those who’ve been homeless for very long — will need life training and support groups.

Many of them will require continuing care — health care, mental health treatment, etc. — for years to come.

◊ Who Should Do It?

Having thought this through, relatively thoroughly I think, I fall completely on the side of liberals here.

The conservative thought is often along these lines: If the government pays for all this, it’s seen as “redistribution of wealth” (taxing some to pay to others), which is somehow evil. It’s “socialism”, which is also evil in their eyes (even though the definition of socialism is very different). It should be left up to charities, churches, and volunteers, because these private organizations are more effective and efficient. Government handouts (to include welfare) trap the poor in a cycle of poverty, reduce their self-worth, teach them to be dependent.

I am embarrassed to admit that I once held such a view.

My current view is that the churches, charities, and volunteers cannot possibly be effective, because one in every hundred Americans is homeless at some point each year more than half a million are homeless right now. These organizations, much like any similar government programs, are either underfunded or are only treating symptoms, or both. They are also drastically uncoordinated, each working separately, often overlapping in purpose, and duplicating overhead costs a thousand times. This is not efficiency.

I say the federal government needs to play Robin Hood in this scenario, because no one else is able to move the money from the upper classes to the programs that need it. No other organization can offer top-down coordination of projects and spending. Even in light of known government inefficiency, it can’t possibly be as bad as the thousand current organizations each moving about like leaderless ants.

This is an issue that is known and solvable — on that everyone agrees. Therefore it should be above politics.

4 Comments
  1. I can only offer long-term solutions…

    1. Stop going to war with every pissant dictator on the planet.
    2. Make tobacco illegal.
    3. Stop subsidizing meat and refined sugar.
    4. Did anyone see The Matrix? Make the homeless into a power source? I’m just saying’.

    On second thought, let me pen a manifesto. End transmission.

  2. Robert Dunmeyer says:

    Property taxes and utilities and building code violations forced people out of their homes.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “Property taxes and utilities and building code violations forced people out of their homes.”

      [Citation needed.]

      While I’m willing to be convinced by evidence, I’m very skeptical that a large percentage of homeless persons nationwide were forced out of their homes by any of the three factors you mentioned.

      Property taxes: even in the locales with the highest property taxes I’ve heard of, those taxes are still minuscule relative to the amount of the mortgage payment, and in almost all cases, people moving into homes know in advance what the rate will be. (Yes, there are exceptions in cases where the value went up unexpectedly, but these cases are statistically rare.)

      Utilities: Like property taxes, utility costs are typically very low relative to the mortgage payment, especially if you only consider the “necessary” utilities — water and power.

      Building code violations: Probably many codes are worth looking into. However, in my experience, more homes are in need of *more* citations (for safety/health reasons) than are being unfairly punished.

      Regardless, this post wasn’t so much about the cause of homelessness, but rather about fact-checking a rather dubious claim and then looking possible solutions.

      Perhaps another entry will look at causes, of which there are many.

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