GUEST WORDS--After four years of Mayor Garcetti, the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County have more homeless than any other U.S city: 34,000 homeless people in the city of Los Angeles with 58,790 in the County in January 2017. Three-quarters of Los Angeles’s city homeless or 25,500 people resemble the poor in Calcutta’s slums: they live in tents on sidewalks, in canyons, riverbeds and alleys. The nation’s homelessness has increased to 554,000. Why so many homeless? How can they be helped to get into homes?
Decades ago in 1949 the U.S. federal government guaranteed a right to housing in the U.S. Housing Act that promises “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family ….” (1). The right to decent housing is part of the New York state Constitution, part of the constitutions of 69 countries, promoted by the U.N. General Assembly, and included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. How do some countries help the homeless? In Hong Kong after a major fire in 1953 destroyed the shacks for 50,000 refugees leaving them homeless, that city began building public housing on a massive scale.
In contrast, during Garcetti’s first term he supposedly spent $100 million a year on homelessness, but $80 million went to policing and only a mere $20 million on helping 34,000 homeless people. U.N. monitor on extreme poverty Phillip Alston said that LA is “lagging behind other cities in attacking its homelessness problem” (2). Alston criticized Garcetti’s excessive use of criminalization to “conceal” the homeless saying that the LAPD arrested 7,000 people on Skid Row from 2011-2016. He criticized the LAPD giving misdemeanors for panhandling, sitting in public places, or urinating for people who lack toilets that turn into “warrants, jailings, and ‘unpayable’ fines” and then criminal convictions which prevent “subsequent employment and access to most housing.” Also in street sweeps city workers throw away homeless belongings like IDs and computers making it more difficult for the homeless to get jobs.
In July, 2015, a dozen homeless from the Los Angeles Community Action Network had protested at the posh ground-breaking for two 35-story luxury apartments towers costing $500 million located in downtown. The protestors’ chants “housing for the homeless!” and “house keys, not handcuffs” almost drowned out Mayor Garcetti’s speech. General Dogon (aka Steve Richardson), a member of LACAN, said he’s witnessed LAPD’s street sweeps where clean-up crews are “rounding up shopping carts and crushing them” in front of their homeless owners (3). The LACAN people gave Garcetti a letter asking him to end the criminalization of the homeless and to meet with them in Skid row to discuss policing. Garcetti has for years ignored criticism of his excessive use of policing but increased policing.
During 2016 and 2017 when more of LA’s homeless now lived in R.V.s, the city in 2016 passed a ban of sleeping in vehicles near homes, parks, and school and has impounded many RVs in which the homeless sleep in. Also a hepatitis A epidemic spread by lack of any sanitation started in San Diego and cases of hepatitis A occurred among the homeless in Los Angeles and Santa Cruz. Mayor Garcetti for months did not provide toilets needed to stop the disease from spreading among the homeless. After downtown businesses complained about the homeless, Mayor Garcetti increased money for police street sweeps or “camp cleanups” to $13 million treating the homeless like “trash” that need to be moved out of sight while the Mayor’s promise of toilets, showers, storage for the homeless have been delayed.
“I think the city has failed [the homeless] miserably,” said West San Fernando Valley Council Mitchell Englander (4). Finally in December 2017 Los Angeles delivered a city-funded hygiene center with 8 toilets and 6 shows for Skid Rows’ 1,777 people---much less than the UN recommends for Syrian refugees. When Garcetti was giving an award to General Dogon, Dogon said the hygiene center is “10 years too late and 300 [toilets] too few” and tore up the award.
The LA Homeless Service Authority blamed rent increases for “a 26% surge in homelessness from 2016 to 2017.” Furthermore, Zillow said that the homeless in LA County is not 58,000 but 61,000 and predicted that a 4.5% rent hike in LA County would create nearly 2,000 more homeless: 63,000 in 2018 (5). When a two-week Section 8 window in 2017 opened for housing vouchers to help pay the rent, 600,000 applied for only 2,400 new vouchers to pay their rent., half of which go only to the homeless leaving only 1,200 for 600,000 people.
Why have rents gone up to much? Los Angeles’s City Council in 1979 passed the Rent Control Ordinance saying that the best way to get low-cost rentals was “to protect low income housing from undue rent increases and demolition” (6). But Garcetti has said that the problem is not weak rent control but too little new apartments encouraging developers to build for the last 15 years and to bulldoze low cost rentals. Richard Lee Abrams in Citywatch LA reported that Garcetti, when he was Hollywood councilman, had updated the Hollywood Community Plan (HCP) that between 2000 and 2005 Hollywood’s population had increased from 210,000 to 224,000.
Councilman Garcetti had encouraged billionaires to invest millions of dollars in Hollywood to erect many high-rise luxury apartment buildings and to bulldoze low-cost rental buildings. Richard Lee Abrams reported in CityWatch LA that Judge Allan Goodman in 2014 found that Hollywood’s population in 2005 was actually 200,000, 24,000 less than Garcetti had said. Judge Goodman ruled that “Garcetti’s HCP intentionally used fatally flawed data and wishful thinking to the extent that that it subverted the law.” Abrams concluded in his article that the “shortage of housing for poor people was manufactured by the City’s housing policies” (6).
From 2001 to 2016 Garcetti let over 22,000 rent-controlled units be destroyed by the Ellis Act, which allows evictions of any tenants if the landlord is supposedly going out of the rental business. Garcetti’s unleash-the-bulldozers policy in 2016 resulted in the destruction of 2,000 low-cost apartments for luxury housing plus the 1370 units lost to Ellis Act evictions that year. Thus the actual loss of low-priced apartments increased to 3370 in 2016 and probably at least another 3370 units lost in 2017.
Also the Costa Hawkins Act outlaws strict rent control so if a person leave their rental, the landlord can raise it any amount, driving rents up. Garcetti has never backed the activists in January, 2018, asking the state legislature to end the Costa-Hawkins Act. Further, the L.A. rent controlled ordinance only protects apartments built before 1978, but Mayor Garcetti has not backed strengthening rent control so it applies to all apartments.
When Garcetti started as mayor in 2012, he promised to build 100,000 new housing units by 2021. He has encouraged the LA City Council to approve luxury high-rise apartments, to approve the building of McMansions costing $3.8 million- $4.3 million which destroy neighborhoods, and to give ½ a billion dollars in hotel tax breaks to build luxury hotels downtown. Carolyn Strathmann stated in the LA Times October 16, 2016, that city had no “policy requiring developers to include affordable housing in new buildings or to replace any such units destroyed by new construction” (7).
The LA City Council uses pay-to-play with developers seeking approval of their huge projects giving council members campaign contributions. Before the 2016 election five LA City Councilmembers argued to ban campaign contributions from real estate developers seeking city approvals, but no ban was passed and the issue is now dead after the election. Meanwhile Garcetti seems to be nurturing ambitions to be running for president and has gotten the Olympics for LA in 2028 boasting of all the benefits for the city. But Seoul, Korea, evicted 700,000 were for buildings for the Olympics there in 1988. Will 700,000 be evicted for the Olympics in LA?
In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2016 and 2017 that Los Angeles had more global investors than any other U.S. city. Global investors spent $1.7 trillion of LA property mostly on the Westside and downtown on warehouse distribution centers and on multifamily residential buildings. Clearly, gentrification in Los Angeles has been increased by both global investment and the building of much luxury apartments as Garcetti treats the city as an economic growth machine for investors and speculators.
Luxury apartments downtown have a 10-14% vacancy, but the City Planning Commission in fall, 2017, approved the latest 36-story building: the Fashion District Residences. In September, 2017, several dozen Skid Row activists protested this 33-story high-rise near Skid Row which would have 400 market-rate units and 50 for low-income including 19 artists. Activists say a family with an income of $37,000 is “low-income” enough for an apartment, but the homeless whose average income is $14,000/year couldn’t afford the so-called “affordable” apartments. Ariana Alcaraz of the Downtown Women’s Action Coalition said that the market rate apartments would drive rents upwards beyond of the means of women living “’precariously’ in nearby converted flophouses, hotels, tents, and buildings” (8).
In spring 2017 Garcetti did approve a new law legalizing unpermitted low-rent units (called granny units or garages) which are now often lacking health or safety. The new law allows the landlords to improve the units over a long time to pass all necessary health, safety, and habitability inspections. Hopefully the landlords will quickly made the new safety improvements before any more housing disasters cause humans to die.
In the November, 2016 election Mayor Garcetti finally turned to affordable housing and won two electoral victories that mainly helped developers. First, he was against Measure S that would end building of high-priced housing that for two years. Measure S was defeated. Second, Garcetti got passed his Measure HHH which authorizes $1.2 billion in bonds he says will build 10,000 new units for the homeless or 1,000/year for 10 years. But with 34,000 homeless in Los Angeles, Garcetti’s plan will still leave ¾ of the city’s homeless witout housing.
On December 20, 2017, sixteen months after the election, Garcetti broke ground on PATH Metro Villas, the first housing complex funded by HHH with 187 affordable apartments and 88 interim beds to open in 2019. The Mayor will see his first homeless complex built three years after the election. Measure HHH will perhaps in ten years build a couple thousand units. Meanwhile AIDS Health Care foundation’s Healthy Housing Project has done two hotel/motel conversions in five months for 247 homeless units for $170,370/unit on one project and $36,000/unit on another project while the Garcetti’s Measure HHH is spending at least $421,000/unit on his first project. If the L.A. wanted to house the homeless quickly, it could buy up or rent old motels and hotels to cheaply housing the homeless. The L.A. City Council has set up a committee to examine how to transition of some of the city’s hotels or motels into housing for the homeless in January 2018.
In September 2017 Garcetti again announced that rents are high because the city hasn’t built enough new apartments, encouraging another orgy of building and bulldozing existing low-cost rentals. Mayor Garcetti’s policies have helped bring a housing disaster to Los Angeles dividing this place into two cities: the rich in the luxury high rises or $4 million McMansions versus the poor in tents on the street or RVs or crammed into dilapidated low-cost rentals or menaced by evictions.
None of Garcetti’s polices advocate that developers include low-cost housing in ALL new building or replace the 3,000 units lost/year. Meanwhile in Hong Kong the city continued building public housing from 1954 on, and by 2017 3.3 million people or 48.8 percent of Hong Kong’s population live in state-run rental or subsidized-sale public housing.
(Julia Stein is a poet, novelist, and literary critic now living in Los Angeles. She has published five books of poetry: Under the Ladder to Heaven, Desert Soldiers, Shulamith, and Walker Woman, and What Were They Like? Stein is also co-author of the book "Shooting Women: Behind the Camera.)