Fri, Jun

LA: Land of DIY Advocacy


iAudit! - When we bought our first house in the late 1980’s, I quickly learned to become a do-it-yourselfer. The house was quite the fixer-upper and needed work.  We needed a long, low bookcase to fit an odd space, and we couldn’t find any affordable ones in stores.  So, I decided to build my own. I taught myself to use power tools and to design furniture.  Ever since then, I’ve been an avid—if minimally talented—woodworker and repair person. I learned you can’t always get what you need from the usual sources, so sometimes you must do it yourself.

When it comes to community advocacy, LA is becoming a DIY project writ large.  Residents have found themselves on the wrong side of many local government initiatives, undertaken with little or no public input, and often in spite of vocal community opposition.  Besides ignoring the public they swore to represent; government officials approve projects despite of a history of objective failure.  As I wrote in LA: Panic City, housing and shelters are being approved with minimal oversight, and noncompetitive contracts are being granted to nonprofits that show no ability to properly manage the facilities under their control. With no public outreach nor notice, State and local officials supported a  grant request for a feasibility study for a useless project to close a freeway for a mythical “great park”; a study that will financially benefit only those who support the project. Effective, community-based homeless intervention programs receive no government funding because they don’t adhere to failed Housing First/Harm Reduction policies, while corporate nonprofits make millions on contracts virtually devoid of performance requirements. In all these cases, and many more, residents are either ignored or told their voices have no place in the discussion. Indeed, we are told by our own government our concerns are wrongheaded, and with a little more “education” we’d learn how wonderful all these projects and programs are.

A recent example is Mayor Bass’ speech at the grand opening of an affordable housing project on November 6. Her speech, which begins at about six minutes in, is really a lecture to all those ignorant of the virtues of affordable housing.  According to the Mayor, anyone who questions Housing First thinks all homeless people are crazy, drug addicts, criminals, or just plain lazy.  She then lists the characteristics of the homeless population—many are seniors, many have children, etc.  We just need to be educated about who the homeless really are.

The speech is incredibly offensive to anyone who dares speak truth to power that No Barrier Housing First and Harm Reduction have failed miserably and cause far more suffering than they alleviate.  Mayor Bass failed to mention that, according the to UCSF/Benioff survey, 65 percent of unhoused people they surveyed said they’d had periods of serious substance abuse, and of those, 64 percent had problems before becoming homeless. Eighty-two percent reported having serious mental health issues. She failed to mention that only four percent of the County’s Measure H funding for mental health support services in housing facilities is actually spent on services.  She failed to mention ‘harm reduction” has resulted in increasing death rates from overdose among the unhoused. In a May 2023 report, LA County said, “After increasing by 29% from 2014 to 2019, the crude mortality rate among LA County PEH increased even more sharply--by 55%--from 2019 to 2021. The primary driver of this recent increase was drug overdoses, which comprised 37% of all PEH deaths in 2020-21 combined and was the leading cause of death among men and women, all racial/ethnic groups, and all age groups under 60”.

People who question the way shelter and housing are provided and point out the lack of services for the homeless are accused of being ignorant or of hating the homeless.  Anyone who supports reform is labeled as having no compassion, while 55,000 people spend the night unsheltered in LA County because of the “compassionate” policies our government embraces.

Likewise, those who question the panicky race to build high-density housing throughout the city are labeled as NIMBY’s or entitled old people who just want to maintain their wasteful single family home lifestyles.  It doesn’t take much time to search the Internet for those who condemn single family homeownership as wasteful and privileged, and who accuse homeowners of unfairly benefiting from the increase in home prices. (Never mind they also accept the risk of losing value, as millions did in 2008).  In fact, as Dick Platkin explains here it is the government’s own policies that drive up housing costs.  In a fascinating demonstration of cognitive dissonance, the City has proposed upzoning wide swaths of single family housing while also espousing the virtues of homeownership, the very thing housing advocates like State Senator Scott Weiner call evil. Apparently, nobody in city government understands destroying single family homes makes buying them more difficult—and expensive. Again, residents have been put in the position of opposing their own elected representatives, and of defending themselves from unwarranted accusations of bias, ignorance, and privilege, when in fact it is city, county and special interest leaders who are pursuing ideologically-driven agendas that benefit a tiny privileged minority with unfettered access to decision-makers.

Given the lack of support from elected officials., many residents have taken to do-it-yourself community advocacy. In the last year or so, groups have risen up not just to oppose, but to offer reasonable alternatives, to their governments’ overreaching and overbearing programs.  After the attempt to fund a biased and unnecessary “feasibility study” for converting the 90 freeway into a great park was finally made public, residents of communities from Ladera Heights to Marina del Rey forcefully rose up in opposition, forming Keepth90.com and have so far gathered nearly 8,000 signatures on a petition to deny support for the study. Rather than merely opposing the park and housing, Keepthe90 articulated several objective arguments for keeping the freeway, including the fact it takes almost 100,000 daily vehicles trips off local streets, provides ready access to Cedars-Sinai medical center and the coast for inland residents, and serves as a County-designated tsunami evacuation route. After realizing the seriousness of opposition to the study, Mayor Bass, (who had off-handedly dismissed the 90 as the “freeway to nowhere”) withdrew her support.  But several other elected officials continue to support it, and the leader of Street for All, the organization that initiated the study, has accused opponents of being selfish NIMBY’s, an argument devoid of value in a public debate.

Likewise, various groups are joining forces to oppose unbridled upzoning.  Small neighborhood-based groups like Preserve Westchester and Kentwood Concerned have combined to expose the lack of empirical support for huge housing programs in a city slated to lose more than 100,000 residents in the next decades. Again, these groups don’t just oppose the overwhelming upzoning.  Organizations like United Neighbors have created plans that will meet state housing goals while preserving the character of various neighborhoods, from city centers to suburbs.  Needless to say, local leaders and their developer supporters have been dismissive of such plans in their dogmatic, (and profitable), pursuit of placing huge apartment complexes wherever they can.  The logical fallacy of that approach is best illustrated by a recent LA Times article on a man moving from LA to Indiana.  He isn’t moving to rent an apartment.  He’s moving to buy a house. People want their own homes, not boxes in huge developments.  And yet single family homes are the type of housing condemned by affordable housing advocates and being obliterated by city policies.

When it comes to homeless programs, organizations like Union Rescue Mission, SOFESA, and Solutions for Change are cut off from federal and state funding because they do not adhere to official Housing First policies.  The agencies have shown great success helping people end the cycle of homelessness, usually more successfully than much larger corporate nonprofits.  Yet they get scant recognition from government because they don’t hew to Housing First’s obsessive devotion to construction.  This is the other side of government’s failure to be advocates for change.

Government agencies, such as LAHSA and the County of Los Angeles, as well as City departments like Housing and the Mayor’s Office, could be powerful voices for reform.  They could present ample evidence to state and federal funding agencies of Housing First’s failure.  They could challenge the State’s deeply flawed Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) numbers and promote reasonable affordable housing targets that would be far more likely to be accepted by residents.  Instead, they offer no challenges to failed policies and simply follow the funding, while hoping semantics and political posturing can substitute for actual change. The legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neil famously said “All politics is local.” Local government is where policy and citizens interact most intimately. When local officials turn their backs on their constituents, they force residents to become their own advocates.  This is why so many people have lost faith in Los Angeles’ government.  Local officials spend more time lecturing residents, catering to special interest groups, and embracing theoretical solutions than assessing the results of 30 years of failure.  Developers and nonprofit executives have more access to elected officials than taxpaying citizens.  The rights of the unhoused seemed to have usurped residents who want to live and shop in their own communities. When advocates hurl insults and epithets at people who demand change, government officials often join the chorus, or at best remain silent.

It is no wonder many residents feel abandoned by local government and have taken the time and made the effort to form their own advocacy groups.. In this environment, it is little wonder so many have taken to DIY advocacy, so they can do the job their elected officials refuse to do. These are true grassroots organizations.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)