Asking the Wrong Questions about Homelessness in Los Angeles Guarantees the Wrong Answers

PLANNING WATCH-To solve a worsening problem, like homelessness, you have to ask the right questions if you intend to come up with the right answers. 

What most Angelenos know about homelessness comes from what they see immediately around them, such as homeless encampments and homeless people, some with shopping carts, often disheveled and suffering from mental illness. 

A smaller percentage of people read the Los Angeles Times (LAT), especially the columns by Steve Lopez, one of LA’s most appreciated journalists. His columns expand how many Angelenos directly experience life in this vast metropolis, including the homeless, who he frequently interviews. 

This is the world that the LA Times tapped into with its series of six front-page articles about homelessness, including three reports on a survey that the LAT conducted to measure opinions about homelessness. Combined with three Steve Lopez columns, and an editorial, it is clear that the paper is devoting its considerable resources to covering selected aspects of the housing crisis in Los Angeles. 

But, until you ask the right questions, you cannot come up with the right answers, and the LA Times news coverage and public opinion surveys steer readers away from the underlying causes of homelessness. Their survey, and their front-page stories about the survey, do not simply measure public opinion. They also mold public opinion about the homeless crisis and local initiatives to address it, such as police sweeps.  In particular, the paper covered a proposal to grant Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti -- a skilled politician adept at responding to LA’s crisis of homelessness when a camera is present -- more power over land use decisions for real estate ventures serving the homeless.

 Eric Garcetti at the mike, facing the cameras, with homeless tents for a backdrop. 

But, despite The Times’ multiple articles, it still ignores the critical issues. It is not a question of space or time, because given the resources, they cover the issues they deem important. Other investigators, with considerably less means than the LA Times, but a willingness to ask the right questions, have demonstrated how much can be done, such as this extremely insightful ACCE report: Who’s Buying Los Angeles: How Speculative Finance Keeps Houses Vacant and People Unhoused. This new study asks and answers some of the obvious questions that LA’s paper of record ignores, such as: 

  • How have local planning policies contributed to the housing crisis? State and local support for real estate speculation, in the form of California laws, like SB 330, City ordinances, like TOC Guidelines, and informal practices, like shoddy code enforcement, lead to evictions, demolitions, and rent increases. Since “growth,” defined as real estate investment, is City Hall’s chief priority, officials reflexively support upscale apartment projects. They sprout up in most LA neighborhoods, and City Hall officials declare they are the solution to, not a major cause, of homelessness. Since the ACCE Institute report soundly refutes this claim, its impeccable research and findings are never quoted or verified. 

This also explains why so many planning schemes to support speculative real estate projects zigzag their way through City Hall’s backrooms -- to finally end up on a block near you. Yet, amazingly, the LA Times did not ask or answer questions about the flood of real estate capital flowing into Los Angeles, the resulting up-scale building boom, and the mismatch between these new apartments and McMansions, often vacant, and the new homeless, sleeping on nearby sidewalks and alleys. 

  • What is the role of growing economic inequality? Record levels of economic inequality have combined with a tsunami of outside investment to price many people out of their apartments and houses, especially when landlords can and do increase rents. 
  • Could HUD housing programs make a difference? The elimination of Federal government HUD public housing programs, from the Nixon administration at the end of the Vietnam War to the current Trump Administration, has steadily eliminated non-market low-income housing. Even though over one million people still live in legacy public housing, the housing gap continues to grow. In Los Angeles alone, 600,000 people qualify for Section 8 housing, but the funding is so limited that only 400 people per year are placed into this form of publicly subsidized housing. 
  • What are the long-term impacts of eliminating local Redevelopment Agencies in California? Governor Brown and the California State legislature dissolved the state’s Community Redevelopment Agencies in 2011. They were the last source of public monies to construct low-income housing, annually eliminating $1 billion in public investment for low-income housing. 
  • What other monies could be tapped for new or restored public housing programs? Foreign forever wars, already costing $5,000,000,000,000 (trillion!), have left many veterans with PTSD, which is then poorly treated by underfunded Veterans Administration hospitals. Meanwhile the enormous cost of these endless wars, especially Afghanistan and Iraq, have drained the Federal treasury of funds that could be dedicated to the restoration of HUD housing programs benefitting the homeless. 
  • What about cutbacks in social services? Serious cutbacks in mental health services, originating with California Governor Ronald Reagan, have not yet been restored. Instead they have been met with parallel cuts to social service agencies.  When this safety net is axed, far too many people fall through the cracks and end up on sidewalks and alleys. 
  • Could stronger rent control laws make a difference? Weak rent control laws in California, and an even weaker rent stabilization ordinance in Los Angeles, allow landlords to raise rents far beyond the ability of many tenants to pay. State law prohibits rent control on apartments built after 1995, while the Los Angeles ordinance only applies to apartments built before 1978, or 41 years ago. 

Luckily, the alternative media is trying to answer these obvious questions, even if City Hall and the corporate media focus on secondary issues, such as migration of desperate people to Los Angeles (a small minority of the homeless population) and police harassment, an approach that, at best, moves homeless people from one block to another, often destroying their personal documents. 

Ultimately, though, the real questions about the housing crisis demand real answers, and when the Band-Aids fall off and the Mayor’s increased authority over zoning decisions proves irrelevant, LA will be back to square one or even worse. It is small consolation that a thorough understanding of the housing crisis is already available and getting better. Let us hope, therefore, that the insight of British political analyst, R. Palme Dutt, from his prescient 1935 book on fascism does not come true again.  Eighty-four years ago, he wrote that farmers were burning surplus (i.e., unsellable) crops, but eventually history would witness the burning of “surplus” bodies, a development sadly emerging in Los Angeles.  

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA.  He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods of Los Angeles (UN4LA) and welcomes comments and corrections at rhplatkin@gmail.com.  Selected previous columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives and the Plan-it Los Angeles blog.