Without a Home: Arizona’s lack of affordable housing leaves some with nowhere to go

Jun 13, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 2:28 pm

This is the second of a five-part series titled “Without a Home,” a KTAR News special report on homelessness in metro Phoenix. Here’s part 1. Tune to 92.3 FM all week for more in-depth coverage of the issue.

PHOENIX – The growing number of people without a place to live is one of the biggest challenges facing Arizona.

Experts say that while multiple factors are contributing to the state’s homelessness problem, it all comes back to the lack of affordable housing.

Arizona State University economics professor Dennis Hoffman says this crisis could get worse before it levels out.

“Because of the cost of shelter, the cost of housing, the challenges so many folks face in trying to get by, you just have more and more people on the edge,” Hoffman said. “When I’m talking about people on the edge, they’re like one severe bill or one missed paycheck away from being on the street. It’s a sad situation.”

The Valley’s shortage of available homes comes as the population continues to soar, companies continue to relocate operations from other states and construction of new homes is far behind the levels needed to keep up.

Hoffman says the lack of homebuilding dates back 15 years easily.

“The development community and development financing community really overreacted to the excesses of the early 2000s, and it’s like they said, ‘We’re not going to make that mistake again and we’re not going to overinvest in housing,’ so they underinvested in housing by a large amount,” he said.

A report from Arizona Town Hall last year showed the pandemic and Arizona’s housing shortage were a devastating duo that fueled the growth of homelessness.

Suzanne Pfister, president and CEO of Vitalyst Health Foundation in Phoenix and who serves on the board of Arizona Town Hall, says it’s not poverty or mental illness mainly driving the higher homeless numbers. It was largely the skyrocketing rental prices, and that especially took a toll on seniors living on fixed incomes.

“Those vulnerable people have less flexibility to endure price hikes,” she said. “We’ve had as much as 20-40% rent increases. Think about someone in their 60s that’s on a fixed income who may have lived in their apartment for 15-20 years and is suddenly facing a 40% rate increase. There’s literally nowhere to go.”

And it wasn’t just limited to seniors. People of all ages and all walks of life were impacted by the pandemic and all that came with it. The Arizona Town Hall report found that while rents were skyrocketing, paychecks weren’t. Pfister says that forced many people out of their homes and onto the streets.

“The median rental right now is $1,400 a month, literally twice what someone making minimum wage [can afford],” she said.

The lack of workforce housing means people in lower-paying fields, like the service sector, are being priced out of places to live.

“We have homeless people who are working but they just can’t pay that first and last month’s rent and keep it consistent,” Pfister said.

Rachel Milne, director of Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions, said the city is confronting the issue on multiple fronts.

With the Valley heading into its hottest time of the year, her office is working to protect its unsheltered residents from the potentially deadly heat, including those living in the homeless encampment known as the Zone near downtown Phoenix.

“We’re focused right now on that emergency situation, opening indoor places as quickly as we possibly can but also offering the entire spectrum of services, from prevention, outreach, housing, importantly, as well as emergency shelter,” Milne said.

The city brought on almost 600 new bed spaces last year and there are 800 more in the pipeline, she said.

One strategy Phoenix and other Valley cities have been using is to rehab old hotels into shelters.

“Our existing shelter partners have been absolutely incredible in this effort,” Milne said. “They are coordinating with us and letting us know pretty much on a daily basis how many beds they have when we’re going out and doing an engagement effort.”

Milne, who’s been leading the Office of Homeless Solutions since it opened in October, says she’s confident Phoenix has the resources provided by the City Council and other government partners necessary to tackle the challenge of homelessness.

“We’ve got a plan,” she said. “We’re going to stick with it, and I’m confident and hopeful that we’re going to make some serious headway in the next several months.”

Pfister is also optimistic about what lies ahead.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to have zero homeless people, but I want everybody to have the chance to have the wraparound services that they need,” she said.

We want to hear from you.

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Without a Home: Arizona’s lack of affordable housing leaves some with nowhere to go