California Forum

Homelessness in California is much harder to fix than we’re pretending. Look at L.A.

There’s no place like home. But in much of California these days, it’s quite clear that for a growing number of homeless people, there’s no place, period.

Cities need only look to Los Angeles to see the breathtaking scope of this problem, and the steep challenges in addressing it, even when money is abundant. Whether it’s tent cities under freeway overpasses, or people sprawled out on sidewalks and bus benches or huddled in doorways, California’s largest metropolis is a reality check for anyone who assumes confronting this state’s housing crisis will be easily solved.

Talk to city and county homeless policy bureaucrats, though, and the messaging is quite different. Lavish websites for the City of Los Angeles Comprehensive Homelessness Strategy, and the Los Angeles County Homeless Initiative, adopted by their respective jurisdictions in February 2016, are relentlessly upbeat, filled with bold promises, colorful graphics and flow charts, reams of data, artful portraits of homeless people that could have been shot by Richard Avedon, and multipoint programs peppered with impressive-sounding acronyms.

Funding for their grand plans, at least for the moment, is not a problem. In November 2016, city voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure that property taxpayers will be paying off for the next 29 years, which promises to construct 10,000 new permanent supportive and affordable housing units in the city over the next decade.

And in March 2017, county voters approved a 10-year sales-tax hike that will generate some $355 million a year for an accompanying basket of social services including mental health, substance-abuse treatment, health care, job training, and so on.

This is hardly the first time officials have tried to address the issue. United Way’s Home For Good campaign, launched with great fanfare in 2010 by the “Business Leaders’ Task Force on Homelessness,” is described on its website as “an Action Plan to end chronic and veteran homelessness in LA County” – oops – “by 2016.”

And while city and county bureaucrats tout a new spirit of cooperation and coordination, it’s easy to forget that the venerable Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a city-county joint-powers authority, was established back in 1993 for just that reason – to settle protracted litigation between the city and county over who bore principal responsibility for solving a homeless problem that stretched back at least to the 1970s. LAHSA currently administers some $243 million in federal, state and local funding contracts annually among more than 100 homeless services providers.

Despite numerous plans and hundreds of millions of dollars, the problem is worse than ever. Officials boast that they housed 14,000 homeless individuals in 2016, yet homelessness countywide still increased over the same period by 23 percent, and now stands at 58,000 on any given night. Results of the January 2018 homeless tally don’t promise to be much better.

Perversely, prosperity and recovery have only made the problem worse. While the median sales price for a home in LA County jumped by 56 percent over the past five years, according to Zillow, median incomes barely grew 13 percent across the same period.

Meanwhile, as city officials proudly cut ribbons for relatively small affordable-housing projects like the 49-unit Silver Star Apartments in Hyde Park near Inglewood, the Southern California Association for Non-Profit Housing declared in a 2017 report that Los Angeles needs 552,000 more affordable rental homes to meet the region’s low-income housing needs.

The city’s HHH housing bond has seven projects in predevelopment with a total of 615 units, 416 of them the kind of permanent supportive housing needed to keep the chronically homeless off the street. Total cost: almost $265 million, or more than $400,000 a unit, comparable to a 2,500-square-foot single-family residence.

Compounding the problem is the loss of rental housing to Airbnb, which incentivizes converting residential rentals into de facto hotel rooms. A 2015 report by the labor-friendly Los Angeles Alliance for A New Economy found that Airbnb had taken 7,316 units off the rental market, the equivalent of seven years’ worth of affordable housing construction.

To placate city officials, Airbnb is now collecting a 14 percent lodging tax for the city, whose revenues will fund $5 million in “rapid re-housing vouchers” to temporarily house homeless people until they’re situated in permanent supportive housing. The only problem is that with a 2-3 percent vacancy rate in large swaths of the city, there are no rental units available, vouchers or not.

No matter what we spend, we can’t build our way out of this; L.A.’s housing market is simply incapable of meeting the enormous affordable-housing demand. Meanwhile, courts have constrained municipal cleanup efforts, and all but barred involuntary commitment of the mentally ill. And connecting people with services only works when there are enough treatment slots and the personal capacity to utilize them.

While those proliferating tent encampments and bedraggled figures are likely to be with us for a long time to come, officials will face a new homeless challenge: explaining to the public what exactly their $4.7 billion in homeless spending is buying.

Joel Bellman is a veteran Los Angeles journalist and local government public information officer who now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at jbellman@ca.rr.com.

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