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Why the Homeless Crisis is so Feebly Addressed in Los Angeles?

PLANNING WATCH-As the homeless crisis gets worse in Los Angeles, California, and the entire United States, two narratives dominate media coverage, both of which blame elected officials. 

The ideological descendants of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics, even those who are mainstream Democrats or who pose as “progressives,” are in one camp. They claim that the deregulation of local zoning laws will eliminate homelessness. As I have repeatedly explained in previous Planning Watch columns, their neo-liberal approach is based on duplicity, and it makes the housing crisis worse, not better. 

The other camp believes there is an elusive formula that local officials could pursue to solve the homeless crisis. While these officials could undoubtedly do a better job, their critics never reveal their solution. Instead, they repeatedly call on the LAPD to evict homeless encampments from their communities. In doing so, they close their eyes to the displaced homeless, who quickly relocate to other neighborhoods.  

Searching for a rationale to justify these police crackdowns, local activists usually claim that homeless encampments are filled with drug-crazed addicts. According to them, cities offer decent treatment and housing options, but the homeless prefer to live a care-free life of crime, languishing in tents, cars, and blankets rolled out on sidewalks. Therefore, they insist that the police must protect local communities from these dangerous criminals. Like the up-zoning proposals, this unleash-the-cops approach also makes the homeless crisis worse because it sweeps its underlying causes underneath the carpet. 

What both groups agree on:  Even though the two camps despise each other, they have much in common. They not only blame local politicians for the homeless crisis and forget that homelessness is not a crime, but they also ignore these structural causes of the housing crisis. 

  • Gentrifying neighborhoods typically replace existing rent-stabilized low-priced housing and with expensive housing exempt from rent control. 
  • A diminishing supply of housing built before 1978 results from LA’s weak Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO). It allows the landlords of post-1978 apartments and vacated RSO units to increase rents to market rates. As a result, LA's supply of low-priced housing steadily declines
  • Deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill in California, beginning with Governor Ronald Reagan, may account for 40 percent or more of the homeless population. Instead, California now relies on jails to isolate the mentally ill. 
  • Dissolving Community Redevelopment Agencies in California in 2011 led to more homelessness. They were the last source of public money for public housing, allocating 20 percent of their budgets to low-cost housing. 
  • Escalating Ellis Act evictions have reduced the supply of low-priced housing in Los Angeles. 
  • Relying on private developers, affordable housing programs have mostly benefited investors, not those who need low-priced housing. In a brilliant new article Tracy Rosenthal explains how these programs really operate. 

Considering this long list of structural factors responsible for the housing crisis, it seems obvious that we should stop relegating homelessness encampments to LAPD SWAT teams. 

        LAPD massing to force a homeless encampment out of Echo Park in Los Angeles. 

To this end, in a recent CityWatch column, Brad Kane, John Mirisch, Larry Gross, Better Way California, and this author offered detailed programs that treat homelessness as part of the housing crisis. These are some of those housing proposals: 

  • Index the minimum wage to the cost of housing. If a tenant makes $7.25 per hour, he/she could not afford a place to live in most of the United States. If, instead, the minimum wage had been indexed to the cost of housing in California, it would now be $36/hour. 
  • Strengthen rent control.  Because of vacancy decontrol, many affordable units vanish when a current tenant moves out. If vacancy decontrol was eliminated and if all residential buildings, not just LA apartments built before 1978, were subject to rent control, LA’s supply of affordable housing could stabilize.  
  • Reform the Ellis Act.  Larry Gross, Director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, has called for major reforms in the Ellis Act. According to Gross, Los Angeles has lost over 24,000 rent stabilized units since 2001. 
  • Resuscitate eliminated HUD public housing programs.  Beginning in the early 1970s, Congress and the White House systematically abolished nearly all Federal public housing programs. To address the current housing crisis, including homelessness, they must be restored. While Section 8 housing remains, it is so severely underfunded that in LA less than .1 percent of the 600,000 Angelinos who want Section 8 housing manage to secure a voucher and an apartment.   
  • Restore CRA Housing programs. Prior to their dissolution in 2011, California’s redevelopment agencies spent 20 percent of their budgets on affordable housing.  

In addition to these basic programs, former Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch has offered a 14-point program to increase the supply of low-income housing, including his call to address the root cause of the housing affordability crisis, income inequality, through a corporate wealth tax.

Brad Kane, President of the South Carthay Neighborhood Association, has offered a 12-point affordable housing program, including these programs: 

  • Adopt the Vancouver solution, a progressive tiered vacancy tax on unoccupied residential units. 
  • Verify the affordable housing requirements imposed on developers. 
  • Preserve local communities, including existing affordable housing units. 
  • Address the need for infrastructure upgrades. 
  • Calculate LA’s unused zoning capacity. 

In addition, Better Way California released its own extensive list of California-specific affordable housing programs.  

Finally, at the national level, the Biden Administration has proposed an intricate set of housing programs. Some, like municipal grants contingent on zoning deregulation should be scrapped. But the other Biden proposals would allow homelessness to be addressed as part of the housing crisis, especially if the final legislation restores public housing programs. 

The time has come for the up-zoners and SWAT team fans to focus on the underlying causes and genuine solutions to the housing crisis.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch.  He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and co-chairs the new Greater Fairfax Residents Association. Previous columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives.  Please send questions and corrections to [email protected].) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.