Against Incrementalism

‘Incrementalism’ implies that small steps will be taken toward a goal. But we need to beware policies that do not actually serve the goals they claim.

Recently, the City Council of Sedona, Arizona, approved a measure to allow 40 people living out of their cars to have a safe designated place to park. The parking lot, located on the grounds of the city’s Cultural Park, will include temporary restrooms, showers, and trash receptacles. There’s a catch, though: most residents at a council meeting spoke against the measure, and there’s talk of creating a ballot referendum so that, presumably, the citizenry can vote to undo what their elected officials already saw fit to do by a vote of 6-1.

In the richest country in the world, we have record levels of homelessness. (In Sedona, part of the problem is that housing costs have “skyrocket[ed].” Tourism drives the economy, and Airbnb has “cannibalized” the long-term rental supply.) Throughout the country, people are living in “tents, shelters, cars, motels and couches.Tens of thousands of people are living out of their cars; in some cities, they make up the majority of those who are unhoused. In a 2023 article called “I Live in My Car,” The New York Times noted that dozens of “safe parking lots” have opened up across the country for “Americans who are wedged in the unforgiving middle. They earn too little to afford rent but too much to receive government assistance and have turned their cars into a form of affordable housing.” (I would like to remind you that a car is not housing! A car is at most a “form” of temporary and inadequate shelter.) 

The stories of the people profiled in the New York Times article reveal an avalanche of structural predations that few could hope to successfully defeat: the consequences of “bad credit,” having to buy a used car at a 27.99 percent interest rate, rent raises, juggling multiple jobs that don’t pay enough, and, of course, medical bills from health problems that arise. What all of that amounted to, in the case of one woman, was “a black hole of loans and bills that ate up her paycheck the moment it landed.” The “mobile homeless” have to find places to park, deal with threats like break-ins and bad weather, and find bathrooms wherever they can—portable toilets or state park facilities. We know nobody gets a good night’s sleep in a car. That has to take a significant toll on people’s mental and physical health.

Now, the part of me that is in favor of harm reduction wants to believe that this program will reduce some of the harm that comes to people living out of their cars. If it prevents people from being ticketed for parking or sleeping illegally in a certain place, that’s a good thing. If it reduces some of the stress of having to find parking, that’s good. But the program is not, in fact, providing housing for anyone, and housing is precisely what people need. 

So what exactly is the purpose of the program? The city’s website notes that there is a lack of affordable housing in the city, that “building new affordable units takes time” and that “many local employees already live in vehicles and struggle to find a safe, legal space to park at night.” So, the program is “being offered as a temporary strategy while housing developments are being built.” This makes it pretty clear that the city sees car dwellers as “already” having shelter that they “live” in, and so their most urgent need is assumed to be parking.

The city’s housing manager, Shannon Boone, said in an interview that the program was basically a nighttime parking program. She said that people living in their cars 

say it’s really difficult to find parking spaces. We used to have forest land where you could sleep overnight, much closer to the city. But the forest has restricted some of the parking near the city. Now, it’s just increasingly hard for them to find places to go. It’s not legal to sleep in your vehicle on a city street or in the park or anything like that. So just trying to give these folks a legal option. So they’re not sort of trying, trying to find a place to hide every night.

She also said, “we thought that this temporary program would be a strategy that could help these folks who are choosing to live in their vehicles.” (“Choosing” is doing a lot of work here.) Boone emphasized that the lot is not an encampment, no tents are allowed, and no one can be there during the day. It will not lead to anyone establishing “residency” there, she said. The program website notes that the lot is only open from 4 p.m. – 8.a.m. (What about night shift workers? What if someone has the day off and needs to park, shower, or use the bathroom during the day?) 

The point here is that we have a housing problem, and housing is not part of the solution offered—because housing “takes time” and is a “long-term” goal. Some might argue that the program is an incremental step that will eventually lead to the procurement of housing. The City implies as much in its FAQ. And as the Arizona Republic noted, “City officials estimate that the 30-unit workforce housing project on Shelby Drive will be ready for residents by the time the Safe Place to Park program ends in 2026.” But this is a case of true, true and unrelated. Who is to say that anyone in this program will be able to afford the newly-built apartments in two-years’ time? The measure angers me. It seems to offer the bare minimum to a very serious problem. Essentially, it’s doing something grossly inadequate for the sake of appearing to do something. 

Additionally, the program seems to replace individual criminalization with collective stigma. Car dwellers will be given a place to park without risk of being targeted by law enforcement, but many of their fellow Sedonans already see them as a blight on the city, and this sentiment will probably increase. As the Arizona Republic article noted, “some community members argued the presence of the lot alongside one of the city’s greatest assets would diminish its value in the eyes of many residents.” (Let’s put aside for the moment how cruel it is to say that unhoused people will “diminish” the “value” of an unused piece of land.) This, we might presume, is why the site, which is currently not being used, “is not visible from any nearby residences or roadways, according to city staff.” Stigma is already a huge problem faced by people who are unhoused, and it seems cruel to present the car-dwelling unhoused with the “choice” between keep living out of your car in unauthorized areas and come join this lot where you you’ll be part of this stigmatized group. Oh, and you are not able to freely come and go as you would be in an actual dwelling.

The eligibility requirements, too, add burdens to people who are already living with severe levels of stress and financial precarity. As noted by the Arizona Republic, participants have to be “employed full-time within city limits.” They also have to “actively engage in case management with local social services—with an end goal of securing permanent housing after the program ends.” It’s hard for me to see how stigmatization combined with bureaucratic burdens is going to make people feel good about this program. 

But means testing and bureaucratic red tape (“eligibility”) is how the U.S. likes to do things, particularly when it involves services for the poor. Just look at the eligibility requirements for Medicaid. There’s “financial” as well as “non-financial” eligibility. For someone who might make too much money to qualify, they can qualify under the “medically needy” designation by “spending down” excess income so that they become poor enough to qualify by income. What? Why would we make people do this to get healthcare?1

Another example of red tape—this one pertaining to business owners—was the COVID Restaurant Revitalization Fund application. (The program offered financial relief for restaurants impacted by the pandemic.) Just look at the application. It’s 16 pages long. That’s just a few pages shorter than the 22-page application guide! Here’s a screenshot from the table of contents of the guide, which highlights the different timelines under which applicants may have been in business and how they should apply:

Of course, all these eligibility requirements and means tests are the result of austerity and the desire to keep spending levels down, whether at the federal or state level. The Sedona program will be funded by a 2-year state grant. One wonders what will happen to the unhoused people who haven’t secured housing by then. Likely they’ll be right back where they started.

Because our policymakers refuse to see human needs (housing, healthcare, etc.) as nonnegotiable, they break them up into small parts that they can incrementally tinker with. So people are living out of their cars because the rent is too high? Well, housing development “takes time,” and we can’t just GIVE THEM A PLACE TO LIVE. But we can give them parking. That’s something. Better yet—let’s just put these people in a special lot (that’s out of sight, so we don’t have to see them) that we can temporarily zone for this purpose. Set up some case work requirements and force them to comply! Even give them outdoor bathrooms and showers. Meanwhile, they can endure collective stigmatization. It’s the best we can do. Even Sedona Mayor Scott Jablow said, “This is a last-ditch effort.” It’s also clear that the program in no way guarantees housing to anyone who participates.

Programs like Sedona’s “safe parking,” while seemingly well-intentioned, amount to a form of fake incrementalism when all they offer is parking. The term “incrementalism” implies that one will get to some endpoint or goal (in this case housing) by taking small incremental steps in that direction. And while parking is definitely a part of the unhoused car-dweller’s needs, it is not, in fact, an action that will lead anyone toward housing (unless one considers “caseworkers” to be the solution to housing). Nor is it any kind of step that would begin to mitigate or change the structural factors that lead to people being unable to afford housing, such such as low wages and high rents. In fact, a major driver of homelessness is lack of affordable housing

The same kind of misdirection has happened with healthcare. The Affordable Care Act, for instance, seemingly amounted to a form of incrementalism in that it helped incrementally fewer people to be uninsured. The ACA has been touted as some kind of success in this regard, as if “acquire health insurance” or “healthcare access” were our goal. But the goal is healthcare! And in this regard, the ACA has been a disaster. Healthcare costs have spiraled out of control, and many health insurance products sold on the exchange are simply unaffordable or unusable.2

So what we’ve gotten with the ACA is record levels of insurance policies in people’s possession, record health insurance industry profits, and Medical GoFundMes. And whatever the next small reform is that leads to more people getting insurance coverage, remember that these steps do not constitute any kind of path toward true universal healthcare. For that, we need Medicare for All (which, by the way, is far less costly than the healthcare system we have now). A truly incrementalist step toward Medicare for All would be, for example, Bernie Sanders’s plan to gradually lower the Medicare eligibility age to 0 over a four-year period

For housing, we need programs like Housing First, which meet people’s needs immediately. Even things like rent control help meet people’s needs now by allowing them to stay in their housing. Rent control works because it stabilizes the cost of housing. While these policies wouldn’t constitute universal housing, they could be part of an overall policy package to get us there. The Biden administration, meanwhile, has proposed tax credits for homebuyers and other tweaks, but those do nothing to address the reasons why housing is unaffordable to begin with, or the needs of people who are in no position to purchase a home. A tax cut is not a housing program. It’s just more fake incrementalism.

Because we live in a country where so many people lack healthcare, housing, adequate food, high-quality education, and labor that pays a dignified wage, it’s always going to be easy to justify some form of incrementalism or minor tinkering with eligibility requirements for various provisions. But we need to remember that if an action is not actually a step in the direction of obtaining the desired goal or outcome, and if the action does not do anything to change the underlying structural factors keeping people from attaining the needed thing, then it’s fake incrementalism and ought to be called out as such. There’s no reason for anyone to be denied basic goods and services, and we need to be pushing for changes that actually go in the direction of making that happen.

Another way to think about this comes from abolitionist teaching. The goal of prison and police abolition is to do away with these systems as we know them and to create new ways of responding to harm (“crime”). But many criminal punishment “reforms” only serve to further reinforce the power of this system and should be guarded against. Only if the reform serves to decrease prisons and policing should it be considered a good reform. For example, building prisons for specific populations (prison nurseries, for instance, for women who give birth while imprisoned) is not abolitionist. But shutting down prisons is. Giving police new technology or training with which to do their jobs is not abolitionist. But reducing the amount of police contact with people who are mentally ill, for instance, is.

We need to apply this reasoning to any “solution” that purports to address basic human needs. If the Sedona parking lot program were indeed a kind of temporary holding spot for people who will definitely be given housing as soon as it can be built, that would be acceptable. (Well, sort of. One wonders why the car-dwellers cannot simply be put in hotels, as was done during the pandemic in some cities.). But that’s not what this parking program is.

Meanwhile, bad ideas that purport to address homelessness abound. In Portland, Oregon, philosophy professor Paul Schofield recently tweeted about a “pretty dystopian” “homeless encampment that’s sanctioned by the city” that’s run by a nonprofit. It’s physically isolated and a long walk from downtown, surrounded by barbed wire, and has a “real POW [prisoner of war] camp feel to it.” Schofield notes that the city plans to open five more of these camps even though people are reluctant to move into them. The local news has described them as a “tiny home village.” One homeless man said the villages “ain’t cutting it” and that it’s like a “minimum security prison.” One commenter online, political scientist Rana Khoury, said, “I study forced displacement and, to put it simply, this looks similar to a refugee camp.”

Would you want to live here?

It’s clear that many leaders in our society wish to do anything but give unhoused people normal housing with all the rights and freedoms that that entails. It’s about control, and it’s about doing things that make people’s situations only slightly less worse for them.

Those of us on the left who call for radical change are sometimes accused of having “pie-in-the-sky” ideas by milquetoast liberals. Well, if it’s pie-in-the-sky to want everyone to have their basic human needs met, then so be it. Anyone who is unhoused cannot thrive. Being unhoused significantly raises one’s risk of mortality and lowers one’s life expectancy. We have to care enough about unhoused people to demand they get what often seems unthinkable: housing!

Incrementalist change is often rotten. It’s the natural outcome of a politics that refuses to see people’s human rights as nonnegotiable and that lacks a fundamental willingness to challenge structural causes of injustice. We need to have a pie-in-the-sky dedication to creating a society with zero homelessness and zero hunger, to ending poverty and unmet healthcare needs once and for all. Our society needs to center human needs, not private profit. We need to be a society that truly allows people to thrive—not one that, as Malcolm X said, merely pulls the knife in people’s backs out by a few inches.

  1. Even though Medicaid enrollment increased during the pandemic, the Biden administration has cruelly dumped millions off the rolls with the official end of the COVID-19 public health emergency. 

  2. And though the ACA is supposed to provide consumer choice, in reality it’s a scam. As Nathan J. Robinson concluded after using it for the first time to sign up for a health plan, it is virtually “impossible for consumers to make rational choices” on the exchange because of how opaque this information is on the site. 

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