07/14/2012 12:22 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2012

Who Should Win This Country's Housing Lottery?

Placing people in those coveted, and quite limited, permanent supportive housing units across America is a bit like desperately trying to win that golden ticket in the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Millions of people are in need of affordable housing, and only a handful of apartments are subsidized by the government.

If you are homeless, the odds of accessing an affordable apartment with support services are probably worse than winning a money lottery. Of course, some cities, like Los Angeles, set aside rental vouchers for people who are homeless, but with 50,000 Angelenos homeless the vouchers are never enough.

So how should society prioritize who gets a coveted subsidized housing unit?

The demand is high since moving into one of these units is really like winning the Super Lotto. If you're lucky enough to win a golden housing ticket, you receive subsidized rent for life. That could be around $1,000 per month, depending on your actual rent and your limited income. (You are typically mandated to pay 30 percent of your income toward rent, and you obviously can't rent some outrageously expensive loft.)

That $1,000 per month subsidy could end up costing the federal government almost a quarter of million dollars within a span of twenty years. Definitely an expensive winning ticket.

So who should get one?

Most of the time, priority is based on timing. Housing vouchers are allocated to a jurisdiction, or an affordable housing facility is built, and whoever is lucky enough to get on the list first earns the right to subsidized rent for a lifetime.

But with this system the most hurting people -- for example, sick people who are homeless or elderly folks with limited physical capacity -- are typically unable to respond quickly enough to make the list. The most functional and qualified people usually win the right to move in.

This is like entering a hospital emergency room, and the people who see the doctor first are those who can write the best essay on why they need help. Not real practical.

Other times, a list is put together, usually tens of thousands of people sign up, and then a simple lottery is performed. Priority is based on luck. If your name is pulled out of the hat, you get your lifetime rent paid. Again, if this were an emergency room, the doctor would place everyone's name in a hat and treat the lucky ones whose names are pulled. Sort of stupid.

There are other ways to figure out who gets affordable housing.

There is the priority of economics. Let's prioritize those people who cost society the most. These are the people who are treated by emergency services, assisted in mental health clinics, and flow in and out of the jail system. It is cheaper to house them at $1,000 per month, than the status quo of keeping people on the streets using expensive emergency services for free.

But what if these people are dead-beat dads, ex-convicts, or simply people who don't want to work and just want to party on the streets? Do they deserve subsidized affordable housing? Some people in Los Angeles have been debating this priority.

How about the political priority of housing people? House those people on the streets who cause the most complaints. Business owners or neighborhood groups would call their local political leader, screaming to get them off the streets even if it means giving these nuisance-causing people a housing voucher. In other words, the squeaky people get the oil, or in this case the housing unit.

In our emergency room analogy it would mean the people who scream the loudest in the waiting room get treated first. (Those who have throat cancer or strep throat would certainly be in trouble.)

There is, however, a better way to prioritize people for those coveted subsidized housing units. Instead of prioritizing people based on timing, luck, economics, or politics, we should give priority to the most hurting people on the streets.

The 100K Homes movement is the leading national advocate for this approach. They say housing priority should be based on vulnerability, people who are most likely to die on the streets because of disability, health, and number of years on the streets.

Permanent supportive housing has become the mantra for ending homelessness in America. But if we place in these units the people most able to navigate the highly bureaucratic acceptance procedures, or we use priorities like timing, luck, economics, or politics, then this movement will do little to end homelessness.

Prioritizing based on the most hurting people, who otherwise could very well die on the streets, just makes sense. If I had to walk into an emergency room, I would hope the doctor would use a similar priority system.