Housing: LA’s Hottest Bone of Contention

DEEGAN ON LA-Not much in Los Angeles gets more attention today than housing: everything from the lack of housing for the homeless on one end of the spectrum to the residential towers sprouting up across town at the other end.

There is great anxiety and stress for some, while the boom of new housing that is changing the cityscape is exciting for others. 

A troika of key housing players includes the homeless and their advocates, developers along with the politicos who are guiding the build-out of the city, and, finally, the state legislature that has many housing motions in the hopper. 

On June 4 (after a five-day delay) the city will release the results of the annual Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count for 2019. It tabulates a “point in time” survey, conducted on the nights of January 22, 23, and 24, of how many sheltered and unsheltered homeless there are. In 2018, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Agency (LAHSA), which runs the count, says that last year there were 31,285 homeless in the city (not including the county’s count). Of those, 22,887 lived on the streets, unsheltered. The agency reported that was a 6% decrease over the 2017 count. 

High hopes for a reduction in the 2019 count, considering the new financial resources and programs that have been made available the past twelve months, were dashed with Mayor Eric Garcetti’s May 10 statement to KPCC/LAist , saying, “I’ll tell you it’s gone up. We don’t have our final numbers, but I expect … at least some double-digit increase.” 

The new resources for homeless relief that were supposed to drive the homeless count down, include cash proceeds from Measure H (a sales tax hike) and Measure HHH (a $1.2 billion bond measure to pay for housing for the homeless). 

Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is part of a coalition of housing justice and homeless advocates including Housing Is A Human Right, Healthy Housing Foundation by AHF, Coalition to Preserve LA, and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, gave a statement to the Associated Press on Friday May 31, in which he criticized “the astronomic price tag -- well over $500K per unit -- of so called ‘affordable’ housing units under the Measure HHH bond.” He added that “there’s been a sharper increase in the homeless numbers than what advocates and officials might have anticipated, despite over $619 million in government spending on the homeless in the region over the last year.” He characterized the efforts to house the homeless as “outdated, expensive -- and clearly ineffectual,” adding that plans to house the homeless so far have been “a national disgrace.” 

An audit of how the H and HHH funds have been spent may help taxpayers understand if and why it costs a half-million dollars to house a single homeless person, and how efficiently, or not, their money is being spent by the city to deal with a crisis that doesn’t appear to be abating, but growing instead. 

Cleaning up the City Hall “pay to play” culture when it comes to land use issues like development and homeless housing has been spotlighted by a recent raid in an FBI corruption probe.   

The politicos may be forced to clean up their dealings, thanks to a campaign finance reform package that Councilmember David Ryu (CD4) co-introduced, along with five other Councilmembers, which was seconded by the Council President, and then approved by the City Council. It will limit developer contributions and behested payments. 

Adding to those H and HHH resources was the creation by Mayor Garcetti of a program called A Bridge Home that offers cash and service incentives to each city council district to fast-track homeless housing in their districts. Only three of fifteen council districts have seen action on this. Public objection to having the homeless housed in some communities has been a primary stumbling block.  

Looking down on almost every sidewalk, we see the homeless camped out. No one who looks up while moving across the city can miss another sight that is as closely identified with Los Angeles’ new image as homelessness is: construction cranes that are everywhere. 

In Koreatown alone, there are thirty-six new building projects that will produce 7,000 apartments, 2,000 condos, and ten hotels with 1,500 rooms. 

Hollywood has been a developer’s paradise dating back to when Eric Garcetti, now Mayor, was Councilman there. One big project, the Crossroads of the World, will displace 82 rent-stabilized apartments to make room for 950 condos and a 300-room hotel. 

The very hot Miracle Mile, home of two new Purple Line subway stops (due to open in 2023) and several museums showcasing art, automobiles, movies, Ice Age discoveries, and crafts and folk arts in a three-block “Museum Row,” will see a subway adjacent tower of 121 condominiums and 125 hotel rooms, and a proposed 42-story luxury apartment tower containing 371 apartments -- including 56 set aside for low-income residents who will share the space and amenities with their well-heeled neighbors. No housing is being displaced, but an aging Staples store and a beauty supply store, both architecturally interesting, will make room for the proposed Art Deco influenced tower. 

A third side of the housing triangle, joining homelessness and the building boom, is the influence and work of the state legislature. 

Activists are wary of what state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) will do to breathe life back into his wounded SB-50 housing bill that targets single-family housing. It’s been tabled until next year, but not pronounced dead. 

However, there are some good housing ideas making the rounds in the Sacramento state house, working their way into becoming law. Section 8 tenants will be protected from discrimination by landlords by SB-329. Cities and counties will be prevented from imposing new parking requirements for housing developments in SB-330.  More money to fund affordable housing, at a rate of $200 million annually, will come if SB-5 becomes law.  Homeless community college students will be allowed to park overnight on campus, and sleep in their vehicles, if AB-302 passes. 

All people, from the homeless to the millionaire developers, to the politicos, and to everyday renters (who make up more than half the residents of the city) have a stake in what’s happening at City Hall with LA’s homeless and housing issues. 

Offsetting big money players and political influence, and drawing attention to what looks like the birth of a scandal in the efforts to help the homeless, are the homeless and community activists who, with their growing numbers and successes, continue to apply pressure to gain a voice in how the city deals with two critical issues that currently shape LA’s national reputation: how we fix the homeless problem, and how we deal with growth.


(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose DEEGAN ON LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appear in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.