Thursday, December 14, 2023

25 (make that 26) Christmas Movies for the Holiday Season

Here's my annual post of Christmas movies worth watching this holiday season. Not all are technically "Christmas" movies, but in some way they're related to the Christmas season. As always, I've updated the list from last year.

1. The Bishop's Wife (Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven)

Dejected by his efforts to raise money to build a cathedral, Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) beseeches heaven for guidance, and is visited immediately by an angel Dudley (Cary Grant). Henry, as a good theological liberal, is skeptical and then becomes annoyed when Dudley wins the attentions of Henry's long-suffering wife, Julia (Loretta Young). Dudley falls for Julia, but in the end Julia tells him it's time for him to go. Dudley leaves, all memory of him is erased, and later that night at the Christmas Eve service when Henry delivers his sermon, Dudley watches from the street. If this plot sounds familiar, it was remade as The Preacher's Wife starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in 1996. 

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)

It's been over 50 years since "A Charlie Brown Christmas" first appeared on TV. It's probably the best of the Charlie Brown movies (although "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is right up there) and is one of the few Christmas movies that refers to the biblical story. After Charlie Brown asks, "Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?," Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and  the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.'"
And then Linus concludes, "... and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Amen.

3. A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees)

There are several great versions of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but this is my favorite. Scott is (was) such a great actor. When he (Ebenezer Scrooge) yells, "Mr. Cratchit!", there's little doubt that he holds poor Bob in contempt. And, the supporting cast is quite good. David Warner (who once upon a time played a reporter in "The Omen") is an excellent Bob Cratchit, as is Susannah York as Mrs. Cratchit (Note: two of York's children played two of the Cratchit children). And I really like Roger Rees as Scrooge's nephew, Fred. Finally, Angela Pleasence and Edward Woodward are excellent as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively. There are, of course, several other versions are worth considering, such as the one with Alastair Sim as Scrooge ("A Christmas Carol"). When I was kid, I was especially taken with "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." Jonathan Winters' reading of Dickens's book is also quite good.

4. A Christmas Story (Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon)

Adapted from a memoir by Jean Shepherd (who narrates the film), the movie is primarily about Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a young boy living in Indiana in the 1940s who desperately wants a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas and tries to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that it's the perfect gift for him, while they counter that he'll shoot his eye out. In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." I confess that it isn't one of my favorites, but I'm clearly in the minority.

5. Christmas with the Kranks (Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Akroyd)

It's too bad that the movie's producers didn't keep the title of John Grisham's book on which the movie is based: "Skipping Christmas" (see picture at right). The movie's title leads people to expect one kind of movie when in fact it's something quite different. It tells the story of a couple (Luther and Nora Krank) who, because their daughter (Blair) is going to be Peru for Christmas, working for the Peace Corps, decide to skip Christmas (i.e., don't buy a Christmas tree, hold their annual Christmas party, decorate their house, etc.), and use the money they save to go on a cruise. Their decision to skip Christmas sit poorly with their neighbors (especially Dan Akroyd), who pressure them to get into the holiday spirit. A battle, of sorts, plays out between the Kranks and their neighbors. Then Luther and Nora learn that Blair coming home for Christmas (with her fiancé), and they have less than 24 hours to prepare for their annual party. How the neighborhood comes together to pull this off and what Luther does with their cruise tickets speaks to the true meaning of Christmas.

6. Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson)

OK. Not your traditional Christmas movie. In fact, there's a debate as to whether it really is (see "Is 'Die Hard' a Christmas Film?"). I obviously fall on the side of those who think it it. It takes place on Christmas Eve, is a battle between good and evil, and includes some traditional (and not so traditional) Christmas songs. It stars Bruce Willis as NY city police detective John McClane, who flies to LA to reconcile with his wife. He meets her at her company's Christmas party, but while he's changing clothes in the men's room, the party's taken over by a terrorist group (headed by Hans Gruber -- played by Alan Rickman, who a few years later played Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies), which holds them hostage, all except for McClane, who sneaks away before they know he's there. The rest of the movie is the battle between McClane (good) and Gruber (evil) and includes a lot of classic lines ("Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..."; Yippee ki-yay...").

7. Elf (Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)

This movie is too fun. Will Ferrell is great as someone (Buddy) who thinks he's one of Santa's elves but is actually a human being who, through a twist of fate, was adopted by an elf (Bob Newhart) when just a baby. Unfortunately, he's not a very good at elf things (e.g., making toys), and once he learns that he's not an elf, he heads to New York where his biological father (James Caan) lives. There he falls in love with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), helps NY recapture the Christmas spirit, and has a heck of a lot of fun along the way (well, most of the time). The movie is also educational. We learn, for instance, that the four main elvish food groups are candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup. There's also allusions to other Christmas classics like "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer" (see #18 and #20 below).

8. The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle)

One of my favorites. It's is a cross between "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol." It tells the story of Jack Campbell (JC = Jesus Christ?; his boss/advisor is named Peter), played by Nicholas Cage, who chooses to spend the year after graduating from college in London as an investment banker rather remaining in New York with his girl friend (Tea Leoni). Unsurprisingly, the relationship doesn't survive, and when the movie begins (13 years later), Cage is a successful investment banker who loves money and fine things, but cares little for women or family. However, when he wakes up one Christmas morning, he's living the life he would've lived if he hadn't moved to London. He's married (to Tea Leoni), has two kids, and works as a car tire salesman (for his wife's father - Big Ed). Although he initially despises this life, he eventually comes to love it more than the one in which he drove fast cars, wore designer suits, and had his pick of women. The movie's climax occurs after he wakes up back in his old life, tracks down his old girlfriend, and convinces her not to leave for Paris to take a new job.

9. The Family Stone (Claire Danes, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Dermot Mulroney, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson)

This tells the story about a Christmas gathering of the Stone family when the eldest son (Dermot Mulroney) brings his very uptight girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) home with him to introduce her to his family, as well as propose to her with his grandmother's wedding ring. Parker's reception by Mulroney's family -- played by Diane Keaton (mom, who is dying), Craig T. Nelson (dad), Rachel McAdams (younger sister), Elizabeth Reaser (older sister), Luke Wilson (younger brother), and Tyrone Giordano (youngest brother) - is chilly, to say the least. So chilly, in fact, that Parker begs her sister (Claire Danes) to join her. Mulroney ends up falling for Danes (and vice versa), Wilson for Parker (and vice versa), and McAdams for her ex-boyfriend (and vice versa) played by Paul Schneider. Chaos ensues, poignancy follows, and although it was greeted with mixed reviews, it has become a holiday favorite for many.

10. Hallmark Christmas Movies (Various)

There isn't one Hallmark Christmas movie, of course. New ones premier every week beginning in October, and almost without exception, they’re corny and predictable. Ted Lasso may offer the best description of Hallmark Christmas movies:
Hallmark Christmas movies are films that feature women from the big city falling in love with their childhood crushes. It’s usually some fella that owns a Christmas tree farm. Sometimes he’s also Santa Clause or a prince. They suck, but they’re great — but they also mostly suck, but they’re also kinda great… They’re good with the sound off.
Moreover, you can pretty much count on couple breaking up with about 15 minutes to go (usually due to a lack of communication) and then getting back together with only a few seconds before the next movie starts. 

11. Happiest Season (Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, and Mary Steenburgen)

Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are a couple who have been dating almost a year. Abby has disliked Christmas since her parents passed away, so on a whim Harper invites her to celebrate the holidays with Harper and her family in her hometown. Harper, however, hasn't to come out to her parents (or sisters) and thus tells them that Abby is her roommate. In the meantime, Abby plans to ask Harper to marry her and has already bought a ring. Complicating things: Harper's Dad (Victor Garber) is running for mayor, and she doesn't want to mess that up by coming out; one of her sisters (Mary Holland) is a bit wacky and has been writing a book for 10 years; her other sister's (Alison Brie) marriage isn't as happy as it appears; and her high school boy friend and (secret) girl friend tend to be around a lot. Daniel Levy of Schitt's Creek fame is also great as Abby's best friend, John. Of course, it is a Christmas movie, so things, for the most part, work out in the end.

12. The Holiday (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Eli Wallach)

Definitely one our family's holiday favorites. This movie tells the story of two women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) who, suffering from guy-problems, swap homes with each other (they don't know on another -- they "meet" through an on-line home exchange website) where they each meet someone and fall in love. Diaz's character (Amanda) lives in LA, is a producer of movie trailers, and breaks up with her boy friend after she discovers that he's cheated on her. Winslet (Iris) is a journalist working in London, who's in love with someone who wants to keep her around but doesn't want to commit. When she learns that he's engaged to another journalist, she becomes suicidal, but luckily chooses to spend the holidays in LA instead. A side story concerns elderly gentleman (Eli Wallach--the "Ugly" from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), who lives near Amanda and whom Iris befriends. It turns out that Wallach is a widowed and retired screen writer whom the screen writer's guild wants to honor. He doesn't want to attend, but Iris talks him into it. I believe Wallach should've at least received a best supporting actor nomination for his role, but this isn't the type of movie that actors and actresses win awards for. One of the biggest surprises is the revelation that Jack Black actually can act. It's too bad he doesn't get more parts like this.

13. Home Alone (Macaulay Culkin, John Heard, Catherine O'Hara, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Robert Blossom)

When adjusted for inflation, Home Alone is the highest grossing Christmas movie of all time at the North American box office. It tells the story of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), an 8-year-old boy who is accidentally left behind when his family flies to Paris for their Christmas vacation. Kevin initially relishes being home alone, but soon has to contend with two highly incompetent burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), whom he continues to foil with numerous booby-traps. The rest of his family doesn't realize they left him behind until they are mid-flight to Paris and then struggle to find a flight back (all her booked). Kevin also ends up befriending Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom), who is rumored to have murdered his family. Like many holiday favorites, it received a mixed reception from critics, but many consider it one of the best Christmas films of all time.

14. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff)

One of the best holiday movies ever (the animated version, that is, not the one that Opie Taylor directed several years later). In it the Grinch, a cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small," lives on Mount Crumpit, a steep mountain above Whoville, home of the Whos. His only companion is his faithful dog, Max. Every year from his perch atop Mount Crumpit, the Grinch hears the "clangy" noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville. Annoyed and unable to understand why the Whos are so happy, he sneaks into town on Christmas Eve and takes all of their Christmas presents, decorations, and food in order to prevent Christmas from coming. However, when Christmas morning arrives, the Whos still celebrate Christmas even though all their presents and decorations have been stolen. Realizing that Christmas is more than gifts and presents, the Grinch's heart grows three times in size, and he returns all the presents and trimmings and joins the Whos for the Christmas feast. There are now three Grinch movies, one with "real people" directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Cary in 2000, and a 2018 computer-animated version with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role.

15. It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore)

I'm not sure how much I need to say about this movie since it is so well known. Briefly, it stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has repeatedly given up his dreams in order to help the dreams of others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve (because of a financial disaster not of his own doing) brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who has yet to earn his  wings (he's an angel second class). However, by showing what the world would have been like if George had never been born, Clarence keeps George from committing suicide (and thereby earning his wings). George sees that his life hasn't been a waste but has in fact touched (and improved) the lives of almost all those around him in Bedford Falls. He is, as his younger brother Harry puts it, "The richest man in town." Although the movie opened to mixed reviews, it has become a perennial Christmas classic that captures the true meaning of Christmas. There is a scene at the railroad station when George Bailey learns that his younger brother is not going to take over the family business so that George can go to college. For about 5 seconds, Stewart says nothing; his (i.e., George's) disappointment and frustration only shows in his facial expressions. It's a wonderful example of why Stewart was one of the greatest actors of all time. For more on the movie, see the following post ("It's a Wonderful Life").

16. Klaus (J.K. Simmons, Jason Schwartzman, Norm McDonald, Joan Cusack) 

Klaus is alternate origin story of Santa Claus. It revolves around a postman (Jesper) stationed on a frozen island above the Arctic Circle where the feuding locals rarely speak. Jesper comes close to giving up when he makes meets Klaus, a mysterious carpenter who lives alone in a cabin full of handmade toys. They deliver a toy "in the dead of night" in response to a letter written by one of town's children, and soon all the children start writing letters to "Klaus" for a toy. Jesper and Klaus's partnership slowly rekindles good feelings in the village and old feuds begin to fade (except for a few die hards). It isn't all smooth sailing, of course, but along the way, we learn why some children get lumps of coal, why reindeer began pulling Klaus's "sled" (and flying), Santa's naughty list, why Santa comes down chimneys, and so on. Jesper also falls in love with the local teacher, but in the tradition of a good Hallmark movie, they have a brief falling out toward the end of the movie. The movie was released in 2019 and won seven awards at the 47th Annie Awards (including Best Animated Feature) and the Best Animated Film award at the 73rd British Academy Film Awards.

17. Last Christmas (Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson)

Most critics disliked this 2019 movie, which is very loosely inspired by Wham's song of the same name, but it's light-hearted (so to speak) with a somewhat surprising twist at the end, which makes it a little different from the typical Christmas movie fare. Emilia Clarke plays Kate, who is a singer who supports herself working as an elf at a year-round Christmas shop. We also eventually learn that she recently received a heart transplant from which she hasn't mentally recovered. She, in fact, appears to be careening through life with something of a death wish. One day, while at work she notices Henry Golding (Tom) outside the shop, whom she gets eventually falls for, but it's never entirely clear whether he feels the same. Nevertheless, he has a positive affect on her, and she slowly gets her life back in order. She stops drinking, having one-night stands, and restores her ties with her mom (Emma Thompson), dad, and sister. Like most Christmas movies, it's ultimately a story about redemption, in this case, Kate's, and the effect this has others. Michelle Yeoh plays "Santa," the owner of the Christmas shop where Kate works (she also played Henry Golding's mother in Crazy Rich Asians, was a Bond girl (Tomorrow Never Dies), and starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

18. Love Actually (Too many to list)

A 2003 British Christmas-themed romantic comedy explores several separate stories involving a wide variety of individuals, whom we learn as the movie progresses are connected with one another. The movie begins five weeks before Christmas and plays out in a weekly countdown to Christmas, followed by an epilogue that takes place a month later. The movie includes numerous British stars, including Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Martin Freeman, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, Martine McCutcheon, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alan Rickman. You may be skeptical, but recently FiveThirtyEight called it the greatest Christmas movie of all time ("The Definitive Analysis Of ‘Love Actually,’ The Greatest Christmas Movie Of Our Time").

19. Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood)

Although the 1994 remake of this movie, starring Sir Richard Attenborough (as Santa Claus), Dylan McDermott, and Elizabeth Perkins, is decent, it doesn't come close to the original with Maureen O'Hara and a very young Natalie Wood. The story takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day and focuses on the impact of the Santa Claus hired to work at the Macy's on 34th St. in NY City, who claims to be the real Santa and acts accordingly. For example, he some times he ignores instructions to steer parents to goods that Macy's sells like the time he directs one shopper to another store for a toy fire engine that Macy's doesn't have in stock. And he tells another mother that Macy's rival Gimbels has better skates for her daughter. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to Gentleman's Agreement with Gregory Peck.

20. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara, William Hickey)

The movie tells the story of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of “Halloween Town,” which is populated by various monsters and beings associated with the holiday. Jack organizes the town’s annual Halloween celebrations. However, he has grown bored with the same yearly routine and wants to try something new, and when he stumbles upon “Christmas Town,” with its bright colors and upbeat atmosphere, he schemes to bring Christmas under his control by kidnapping Santa Claus and taking over the role. Things, however, don’t go as planned. It was released in 1993 and is regarded by many as one of the greatest animated films ever. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects but lost to Jurassic Park. In 2023, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

21. November Christmas (Sam Elliot, Karen Allen, John Corbett, Sarah Paulson, and Emily Lynd)

A heartwarming story about a father who fears that his daughter, who has cancer, will not live through the end of the year. Determined to make the rest of her life as happy as possible, he arranges, with the help of his neighbors, to celebrate Halloween and Christmas months ahead of schedule so she can enjoy both holidays. Tracking down pumpkins and Christmas trees becomes something of a challenge. A Christmas movie from Hallmark, long before Hallmark Christmas movies became a phenomenon. In fact, November Christmas shouldn't be grouped with other Hallmark Christmas movies, as this was produced by "Hallmark Hall of Fame" and premiered on CBS. Some readers will remember, used to routinely produce high quality dramas.

22. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Ilse Steppat)

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (OHMSS) is a "Christmas film" of the way that "Die Hard" is (see above): It involves a battle between good and evil, it's set at Christmas (or quite a bit of it is), it includes Christmas songs, and it even throws in a little bit of redemption. It also involves a chase scene through a Swiss village celebrating the holiday and includes some of the skiing scenes ever. Recently, in an article in which The Economist considers whether "Die Hard" is really a Christmas movie, the author makes the case for considering OHMSS as one ("Is 'Die Hard' a Christmas Film?"). OHMSS is, of course, the only movie in which George Lazenby plays James Bond. He was chosen after Sean Connery retired from the role after "You Only Live Twice," although Connery changed his mind and came back to play Bond in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) and "Never Say Never Again" (1983). Although OHMSS was a commercial success, its reception was mixed. The film's reputation has improved greatly over time, however. The director Christopher Nolan named it as his favorite Bond movie, and it has slowly moved its way up the "all-time Bond film lists" ("On Her Majesty's Secret Service", "50 Years Later, This Bond Film Should Finally Get Its Due"). It's no wonder. OHMSS contains some of the best action scenes of the series (which are similar to those of the more recent Bourne movies), Lazenby plays a capable Bond, Diana Rigg's excellent as his love interest and future (and only) wife, and Telly Savalas's "Blofeld" is by far the best of all the Bond films (although Christoph Waltz's portrayal in Spectre is a close second). It also follows the original novel much more closely than the other Bond films. It's definitely worth a watch.

23. The Polar Express (Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Jimmy Bennett, Eddie Deezen)

Set on Christmas Eve, The Polar Express tells the story of a young boy who sees a mysterious train bound for the North Pole stop outside his window. Invited aboard, he joins several other children as they travel to the North Pole to visit Santa Claus as he prepares for Christmas. The train ride is eventful, and their time at the North Pole is quite the experience. When Santa Claus offers the boy any gift he wants, the boy only asks for a bell from the harness of Santa's reindeer. On the way home, he loses the bell, but on Christmas morning, he finds it under the Christmas tree. The bell makes the most beautiful sound he's ever heard when he shakes it. His parents admire the bell but can't hear it because only true believers can hear it ring. The film features human characters animated using live action and motion capture computer animation. It stars Tom Hanks in multiple roles (the boy, the boy's father, the conductor, the hobo, Santa Claus, and the Ebenezer Scrooge puppet).

24. Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (Burl Ives)

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for this to come on TV. I only got to see it once a year, and it was a big deal when it came on. Not just for me, but for most of my friends. Now, of course, you can get it (and virtually any other Christmas movie) on DVD or Blue Ray, or download it from iTunes or Amazon, so it (and other Christmas movies) has lost its "specialness." Nevertheless, I still love watching this retelling of the original Robert L. May story ("Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer"), in which Rudolph's rejection by his peers (for his shiny nose) leads him to run away from home with by a similarly-outcast elf (Hermey) whose dreams of becoming a dentist. These two eventually join up with a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and after a battle with the Abominable Snowman, they return home to the North Pole just in time for Rudolph to lead Santa's sleigh through a terrible snow storm, thus keeping Christmas from being cancelled.

25. The Santa Clause (Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz)

Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a cynical, divorced, advertising executive for a toy company, who accidentally causes a guy dressed like Santa Claus to fall to his death from his roof on Christmas Eve. Scott and his son Charlie (who is spending Christmas Eve with Scott) discover a sleigh with eight reindeer on the roof, and they conclude that the man must have been Santa Claus. They also find a card in the Santa's suit, instructing that if something should happen to him, that whoever finds the clothes, should put them on and get in the sleigh. Charlie convinces Scott to follow these instructions, and the reindeer take Scott to children's houses around the world to finish Santa's deliveries. After this, the sleigh takes them to the North Pole where they learn that Scott is the new Santa (because of the clause in the instruction card they found -- that is, the "Santa Clause") and convince his former wife that he's the new Kris Kringle.

26. White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)

What more can you say about this one? It's got Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" (not once, but twice); it has Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing (several times); it has George Clooney's aunt singing and dancing; and it tells a nice, heart-warming story that some may think is  a bit corny. But, to paraphrase Kate Winslet's character in The Holiday (see above), sometimes corny is just what the doctor ordered. The song, "Count Your Blessings" (written by Irving Berlin), was nominated for an Oscar (White Christmas won the Oscar 12 years before for the movie, Holiday Inn), but my favorite (aside from White Christmas) is Snow, sung by Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and Vera-Ellen on the train from Miami to Vermont (pictured above).

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Homelessness is a Housing Supply Problem

Imagine two games of musical chairs. In both, half of the participants are wearing blindfolds. However, in one, only one chair is removed when the music stops, while in the second, five are. In both games, those wearing blindfolds are more likely to be left standing, but in the former game, at least four will locate a chair, while in the latter, it is possible that all five will not.

Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern, authors of Homelessness Is a Housing Problem, use musical chairs to illustrate two aspects of homelessness. One is that those who are suffering from a disability (i.e., blindfolded), such as mental illness, substance abuse, and poverty, are more likely to become homeless (i.e., left standing). The second is that how many individuals become homeless is a function of supply. If there are enough chairs (homes), then even the blindfolded (disabled) will find a seat.

Colburn and Aldern show that cities and counties where the supply of housing keeps up with demand have much lower rates of homelessness than those that do not. Further, a lack of supply drives up the cost of housing, making “affordable” housing unaffordable for most.

Where has the supply of housing kept up with demand? In cities like Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, and San Antonio, where it is relatively easy to construct homes and apartments. Other cities, such as Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, also enjoy low homelessness rates, not because it is “easy” to build there but because the demand for housing has fallen in recent years. Where hasn't supply kept up with demand? In cities like Los Angeles, New York, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle, where various constraints make the construction of housing slow and difficult. It is not a coincidence that it is this latter category of cities with the highest rates of homelessness.

Numerous factors make the construction of homes and apartments difficult. Four of the more common are (1) geography (water and mountains), (2) long and expensive permitting processes, (3) low and no-growth policies, and (4) parking minimums. The first two are relatively intuitive. The supply of buildable land is greater in areas with few or no mountains, rivers, and oceans, so all else equal, the supply of housing will be greater while the cost will be lower. Similarly, the more difficult it is to acquire building permits, the longer it will take to respond to demand, and the more costly the resulting construction will be.

The impact of low and no-growth policies is also relatively intuitive. Growth limits keep the supply of available land low. What may not be apparent, however, is that these policies often limit how “high” buildings can go, and if builders can't go up, they will go out, eating up the supply of land and increasing the cost of housing. Notably, “building higher” is also good for the environment. People living in high-rises have a smaller carbon footprint than those who don't. This is documented in Edward Glaeser's book, Triumph of the City.

Finally, parking minimums limit how “high” buildings can go (see previous paragraph) and eat up land that could be used for housing. Researchers estimate there are three to eight parking places for every vehicle in the U.S. Henry Graber, author of Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, notes, “More square footage is dedicated to parking each car than to housing each person.” However, not only does all this excess parking drive up the cost of housing and contribute to the homelessness crisis, but it is also bad for the environment. All that extra asphalt makes cities hotter and contributes to global warming. Also, when parking spots are plentiful, people are more likely to drive from spot-to-spot rather than walk, bike, or use public transportation.

The bottom line is that there are tradeoffs when addressing homelessness. High rises may not be as aesthetically pleasing as the alternatives, but they are better for the environment and can help reduce homelessness. Similarly, it’s nice when parking is convenient and free. But free parking comes with a cost: hotter cities, elevated home prices, and higher rates of homelessness. Take your pick. I vote for lower rates of homelessness.

If I've piqued your interest, watch this short video (17 minutes) by Gregg Colburn: 

Also, consider the following: