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Mon, Jul

Homelessness and the New Luddites

LOS ANGELES

iAUDIT! - In early 19th-century Britain, a radical reactionary movement embraced by a group known as Luddites rose within the textile industry.  Until the Industrial Revolution, textile weaving was a labor-intensive skilled craft.  Weavers needed years of apprenticeship to learn their trade, and limited production meant skilled craftsmen could demand top wages, at least in terms of working-class incomes.  The advent of industrial machine-based weaving meant unskilled low-paid laborers could produce vast quantities of good-quality cloth at a fraction of the cost of hand weaving.  Perceiving a threat to their livelihood, weavers created the Luddites and, under the command of the fictional “General” Ned Ludd, staged public demonstrations against the new machines; the more radical among them carried out nighttime raids on textile factories, destroying machinery and attacking workers and owners.  Typically for the British government of the time, the movement was repressed with brutal efficiency, using troops under the command of the Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo.

The Luddite movement lasted less than ten years.  It wasn’t military intervention that doomed the movement, it was the reality of world economics. Because machines could produce huge quantities of material, Britain quickly dominated the world’s textile market.  Instead of unemploying skilled weavers, hundreds of thousands of semi-skilled workers found jobs in the exploding textile industry and would go on to form powerful labor unions in the following decades.  Already a world power, Britian’s political and economic empire greatly expanded, fueled by revenues from the textile trade.  Luddite became a pejorative term for any person or group who opposes new technology or new solutions to old problems.

In 21st century Los Angeles, some so-called Progressive groups are the new Luddites when it comes to homelessness.  Like their 19th-century ancestors, they oppose anything that threatens the status quo of Housing First/Harm Reduction policies. The similarities between Luddites and Progressives are quite striking.  Just as Luddites wanted to keep the textile industry—and its income--limited to a small group whose membership was tightly controlled, advocates insist a select group of corporate nonprofits, government agencies, and developers, all of them hewing to Housing First policies, are the only ones who can solve this crisis.  Nonprofit organizations receive no-bid contracts worth millions, while being required to show scant meaningful outcomes. Developers build housing at costs far above market and at a glacial pace.  Government agencies justify their existence by burdening homeless intervention programs in a smothering blanket of rules and regulations that do nothing to promote innovation or accountability.

Just as the original Luddites reacted violently to a perceived threat to their livelihoods, the new Luddites can activate a cadre of aggressive advocacy groups to shout down any opposition on the street and in City Council meetings.  Encampment clean-up projects like Echo Park devolve into clashes between cleaning crews, police and inflamed activists, with the homeless themselves caught in the middle. In more refined (and hidden) environments, well-connected advocate leaders maintain a steady flow of income by ensuring local governments adopt policies friendly to their business models.

There are two critical areas where modern-day activists differ from the first Luddites.  First, rather than being fictional, their leaders are all too real—and active.  Housing First advocates occupy key positions in government and intervention agencies, where they control the priorities and narratives around homelessness. They also effectively shut down any discussions of alternative approaches.  LAHSA’s executive board consists almost exclusively of members who benefit from Housing First’s failed policies. There is no incentive to change business as usual.

The second difference stems from the first. Rather than being opposed by the government, Housing First’s new Luddites enjoy the full-throated support of political leadership and are government leaders themselves. From the Governor to the Mayor, the discussion starts and stops with Housing First.  To advocates, nearly 20 years of failure are just proof more money needs to be spent, and critics need to be shouted down more vociferously.  Housing First’s siren song is so powerful, it drives a multibillion dollar homeless industry, and justifies the panic-driven rush to build far more housing than the City will ever need.  According to a 2022 report from the California State Auditor, the State Department of Housing and Community Development cannot justify the numbers it used to determine the housing needs for many cities in California. In any other time, with any other subject, using such specious data to make decisions that will affect the lives of million of Californians would be regarded as madness.  In the overheated world of homelessness, it’s considered progressive.

On October 27, I had a chance to meet some new Luddites. I was a member of a panel discussion on housing and homelessness for the Valley Industry and Commerce Association’s annual Business Forecast Conference.  My fellow panel members were Tanaz Goshen from Hope the Mission, a homeless services nonprofit in the Valley, Jenna Hornstock, Deputy Mayor for Housing, Jan Perry, a former Council member and current head of Shelter Partnership, Inc, and State Senator Scott Weiner. I will state up front, with the exception of Weiner, the panel members are sincerely dedicated to solving the homelessness crisis;  Weiner came off as aloof, arrogant, and pedantic.

During the discussion, it became clear that despite their good intentions, none of the other members can see any other way of dealing with homelessness except through Housing First.  All of the responses centered on how to build more housing faster, despite overwhelming evidence that untreated mental illness and substance abuse both cause homelessness and have been grossly neglected in the current system.  When I said only about four percent of Measure H funds targeted at providing support services in housing environments are actually spent on services, panel members tried to turn it into justification for spending even more.  I’ll go into more detail on the use—or lack thereof—of Measure H money in a future column.

When a member of the audience pointed out the outrageous cost and time consumed building housing, panel members were literally at a loss for a substantive answer.  The audience member (a builder) said the fixed costs of construction—materials, labor, etc.,--would not magically decrease because the City is fixated on building housing, and the costs wouldn’t decrease from what City Controller Ron Galperin called “unacceptable” in 2022.  The best the panel could do was deflect by saying more housing should be coming online as Measure HHH funds are applied to more projects—an answer that obviously failed to address construction costs.

Scott Weiner spent most of his time lecturing the audience about the virtues of destroying single family homes and mocking community advocates who want to preserve home ownership. The panel discussion was at once depressing and affirming.  It was depressing because, despite more than two decades of failure, Housing First continues to be the official policy at all levels of government.  But it was also affirming because it exposed Housing First’s fundamental flaws; it is expensive, time consuming, ineffective, and consumes resources better spent on shelter and services.

Interestingly, at an earlier panel discussion on city government reform, a panel member made a compelling argument there is sufficient existing housing stock in Los Angeles, but government policies make the commodification of housing an attractive market for corporate investors who perpetuate the upward pressure on housing costs through constant sale and resale.

What will become of the modern-day Luddites and their refusal to admit Housing First should be tossed into the dustbin of history?  There’s little hope the government will suddenly turn on them and demand results and accountability.  The panel discussion made it clear government intends to continue down the Housing First path even if it is a dead end.   Change will have to come from the bottom up.  Residents must band together, as some are beginning to through organizations like United Neighbors California to oppose overreaching zoning laws and propose sane affordable housing policies.  As with the original Luddites, perhaps real-world economics will lead Housing First’s demise. Back in March 2023, I wrote a column on why Housing First cannot sustain itself. It already consumes 10 percent of the City’s budget and a combined $4 billion in city and county funds, yet homelessness increases every year. Whatever the cause, Housing First’s failure is an inevitable as the original Luddites’ attempt to save a dying industry. The only question is how much more failure we are willing to accept before we demand change.

(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.)

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