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A Primer on Politics of Homelessness in LA

NEW GEOGRAPHY--I’ll start by giving you all a chance to consider some basic questions that Mayor Eric Garcetti and his staff failed to address –-

and the mainstream media left hanging -- in the wake of a report that confirmed the obvious rise in homelessness in Los Angeles over the past year or so.

Here they are, as submitted to Garcetti’s office:

Could you please answer a few questions about this paragraph from today’s [June 5] story in the LA Times?:

More than 20,000 people were helped into housing last year, a record number. Other cities and counties in Southern California reported bigger increases in homelessness than Los Angeles did, a sign that local policies are working, Garcetti said.

1) What is the source of the claim of 20,000 people helped into housing?

2) By what measure/benchmark is that a record?

3) How many of the 20,000 people were helped via city funds and programs established since the passage of Prop HHH?

4) How many people were helped, using the same measure, in each of the prior 5 years?

I asked these questions because they matter in light of the numerous public programs that have been funded for years to provide housing and other help for folks in need.

Did the 20,000 cases of people being helped mark significant progress or an incremental gain that cost hundreds of millions of dollars?

Let’s move on to the politics behind the homeless crisis in LA.

Anyone from LA has obvious reasons for interest. Anyone from places where homelessness is not a crisis can take this as a cautionary tale.

I know that there's a notion about the current crisis on homelessness really being a housing crisis – that's becoming a mantra among politicians, big representatives of the nonprofit world such as United Way, various for-profit entities, and other segments of society. It’s likely that many are sincere – and it’s just as likely that many are over-eager for a bumper sticker answer to this complicated and comprehensive challenge.

Beware in this case.

The challenge of addressing homelessness should be simplified, to be sure, but there’s reason to doubt that connecting it to the separate problem of housing affordability for the middle class is the proper frame for the task at hand.

Mother’s Milk

Let’s first consider the beginning of the mess behind homelessness: Money is the mother’s milk of politics, as the old saying goes – and elected officials make money with their decisions on matters of public policy.

The financial payoffs the politicians get traditionally run the gamut from technically legal campaign contributions granted or bundled up by special interests to envelopes of cash.

The setup means that politicians like to be in a position to make lots of decisions that matter to special interests.

And the real estate business puts politicians in such a position when it comes to zoning laws, building codes, possible variances, density bonuses, tax credits and so on.

The whole process of real estate development is chock full of chances for elected officials and their minions to grab campaign donations or other perks or envelopes of cash.

“Progressive” Approach

The benefits that come with inserting themselves as decision makers in the process mean that politicians want lots of development. Running out of room in a city where traffic is already clogged and the roads are in terrible condition? Just proclaim that the solution is high-density housing and call it a “progressive” approach.

Put that scenario against the picture being painted to equate the crisis on homelessness with a housing crisis. It's based on some faulty logic that’s been parroted everywhere from the New York Times to the LA Times lately. The picture starts with a citation of a median rent of $2,471 per month in LA County, according to Downtown LA-based nonprofit California Housing Partnership. It includes the suggestion that anyone who wants to rent in LA needs to make $47.52 an hour – about $99,000 a year and more than triple the local minimum wage.

The point of those data points – according to proponents and members of the press who’ve swallowed them whole – is that there is a need for a great deal of new development and construction of low-cost housing to solve the challenge of homelessness.

Here’s what they might not have considered as they drive toward what looks to be an inordinately expensive and over-engineered response to homelessness:

A median is not an average. The median cited on rent is the point at which there are equal numbers of tenants paying more and less than $2,471 a month.

Also unaddressed is the fact that many households have more than one member working.

Neither of those points render the data irrelevant, but they provide context that starts to give shape to a different perspective.

1.8 Million Rental Units

Now consider that LA County has nearly 1.8 million renter-occupied housing units, with nearly three people living in each on average. That’s according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s five-year estimate, which covers 2013-2017, the most recent data available.

More than 600,000 of the units were rented for somewhere between $1,000 and $1,500 a month, according to the federal agency.

Another 350,000 or so went for $500 to $999 a month.

And somewhere around 85,000 units leased for less than $500 a month.

That’s more than 1 million units of housing at less than $1,500 a month – and that’s a far cry from the picture painted by citing the median rent of nearly $2,500 a month.

Yes, prices have probably increased some in the past 18 months, but not enough to fundamentally change the point here.

And no, I’m not claiming that all of those units are idyllic.

But I’m reasonably certain that nearly all of them represent a better option than facing homelessness. Simply having a door to close to mark off some private space is likely a relief that few who have never been homeless can understand.

And we have bureaucracies to handle substandard housing – so this might also provide a spark for them to engage their missions on a new level.

1 Million at $1,500-a-Month or Less

Official tallies indicate, in any case, that we have about 60,000 homeless folks throughout Los Angeles County and 1 million units of housing priced at $1,500 a month or less – a level that could likely accommodate significant numbers of the individuals and families who are on the streets or living in vehicles simply because the cost of monthly rent is out of reach.

The vacancy rate for apartments in LA County is about 3.8%, according to NAI Capital, a real estate brokerage based in Encino.

That would suggest – and this is rough figuring – nearly 40,000 rental units on the market at $1,500 a month or less.

Simply paying the full rent for a homeless person or family that has a chance to achieve stability with the benefit of that sort of financial break would cost $18,000 a year – probably much less expensive than the true, comprehensive cost of their going homeless.

Pay the full rent on 15,000 of those units and you’d make a 25% dent in homelessness at the cost of $270 million for the year. Figure out a proactive approach and you might stem the flow of new cases, too.

Compare that with the $600 million the city and county joined forces to spend last year amid smoke and mirrors and ribbon cuttings only to see homelessness increase by 16%.

What about cases where household incomes come up a bit short of the monthly charge – maybe another $300 a month would make them stable renters? Why not give grants to bridge the gap? Do that for a year in 15,000 cases, and it would cost $54 million.

It’s clear that there’s plenty of work to do in vetting such candidates and sorting situations. Thousands of more individuals and families will likely require greater assistance for their physical and mental health. Some might require permanent care from a public institution.

Wise Up

That will surely get more expensive, which makes it all the more important to use the money taxpayers have committed to this cause wisely.

Let’s start by making the cost-effective decisions to help folks who could stand on their own two feet with the benefit of a hand up, getting them off the slippery slope of homelessness.

And that should start with a deeper understanding of a median rent and an hourly wage and other dramatic bits of data that could be used to trick us all into letting politicians turn another crisis into an opportunity for their selfish interests.

(Jerry Sullivan is founder and chief columnist for SullivanSaysSoCal.com. This perspective was posted most recently at NewGeography.com.) 

-cw