Sat, Jul

The Failed Foundation of L.A.’s Homelessness and Housing Policies

Collapsed Saint Francis Dam


iAUDIT! - Angelenos familiar with the City’s history know the tragic story of the Saint Francis Dam, built by the precursor to L.A.’s DWP. Late on the night of March 12, 1928, the dam north of L.A. suddenly and catastrophically failed, sending more than 12 billion gallons of water roaring down the narrow San Francisquito Canyon and southwest to Ventura County’s coastal communities.  The collapse was so sudden no alarm could be broadcast.  The wall of water and debris killed at least 450 people, including 64 of 67 workers in a powerhouse downstream from the dam.  The debris flow was so thick, human remains were still being discovered as late as 1992.  The disaster wrecked the career of the city’s legendary water czar, William Mulholland, and spurred major changes in dam construction.

Investigators determined the dam was built on porous rock that didn’t provide a proper foundation.  Leaks that started almost as soon as the dam’s reservoir began filling were dismissed as “natural and expected seepage.”   City engineers made superficial improvements to control leakage, including piping some of the water for use at the dam keeper’s house. While experts disregarded signs of impending failure, water was eroding the dam’s anchorage to the canyon walls and undermining its footings. Eventually, the weight of billions of gallons of water was too much, and the dam collapsed in on itself, sending a huge wave of water, concrete, mud, and bodies down the Santa Clara River channel, racing toward the ocean 54 miles away. Among the dead were many migrant and transient laborers at farms and construction sites in the flood path who were never identified.

In several ways, the failure of the Saint Francis Dam eerily mimics local government’s current approach to homelessness and housing policies.  Like the dam, policies are built on shaky foundations. Local officials ignore or dismiss clear signs of failure and insist everything is working as it should, and small changes or more funding will hold back the overwhelming tide of people living on the streets. Like the dam’s death toll, people pay for government’s complacency with their lives.

The foundation of current City/County policy is an entrenched belief the primary cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing.  This belief forms the core of the Housing First approach to homelessness and is used to justify the billions spent on housing construction, as well as Harm Reduction policies regarding substance abuse and mental illness. It is also the main reason the City is pushing massive high-density projects all over town. Advocates claim L.A.’s high housing costs drive many people, especially the working poor, into homelessness.  It seems to make sense; by some measures, housing costs here are nearly double the national average, while wages, after inflation, have barely budged in several years.  Reduce housing costs by increasing supply and homelessness will decrease.

While affordability affects housing security, the data on who the homeless are and why they’re unhoused undermines the belief that housing costs drive homelessness.  Surveys from RAND, The California Policy Lab, and UCSF show high rates of substance abuse and untreated mental illness among the homeless population.  While advocates want us to believe these are effects of, rather than causes of, homelessness, the data show the opposite.  Many respondents reported problems with drugs and/or mental illness before their first period of homelessness. They also reported both issues caused problems in other areas of their lives, such as keeping a job or maintaining family connections. Unstable employment and dysfunctional family life are major contributors to homelessness.

If housing costs were the primary factor driving people into homelessness, L.A. wouldn’t be the epicenter of the nation’s unhoused population.  New York real estate is even more expensive than Los Angeles, yet it has a fraction of our city’s unsheltered homeless.  In the last few months, I’ve seen videos complaining about high housing costs in London and Edinburgh, yet neither city has anywhere near L.A.’s homeless population.  It’s not housing costs driving homelessness—it’s the emphasis on the wrong solution.

Housing First advocates tell us stable housing is the key to successful reintegration into mainstream society.  Support services such as mental health counseling or drug abuse recovery programs are more effective if they are provided in a secure housing environment.  Unfortunately, the same surveys cited above tell us what a poor job homeless agencies are doing housing and treating the people on the streets.  Less than half of homeless people have ever been offered any type of shelter and few receive the consistent services they need to recover from what may be years of substance abuse or mental illness. Service providers, most of them large corporate nonprofits, do a notoriously poor job both managing transitional housing and delivering support services. Despite claims of great success, many unbiased studies of Housing First, including those from Stanford University and the American Psychological Association, have shown Housing First has very limited positive effects on long term health outcomes, as Mark Dutton details here.

Advocates try to spin the data to meet their mythical narrative.  One especially obvious example is the recent UCSF/Benioff survey, touted as the most comprehensive survey of homelessness and its causes in California.  As detailed by Christopher LeGras here, here, and here, the survey was riddled with methodological flaws that make its conclusions questionable at best.  Despite survey results that show well over half the respondents have a regular history of drug abuse or mental problems, the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Margot Kushel, concluded most of the homeless just need housing, based on a single question about how people claimed they became homeless.  Dr. Kushel stated that in many cases all that was needed would be a few hundred dollars per month to help pay the rent, as if someone in the grip of a serious methamphetamine or fentanyl addiction would be able to make a coherent decision to use the money for rent. Dr. Kushel failed to mention in the report that she is a vociferous Housing First proponent, so the study is hardly unbiased.

One of the worst consequences of treating homelessness solely as a housing issue is that it emphasizes expensive and time-consuming construction over shelter and treatment.  The belief that housing is the sole cure for homelessness is drives the City’s mania to build high density housing all over the city.  As City Watch’s James O’Sullivan explains here, the mania has no foundation in reality and will not result in a substantial increase in affordable housing.

The myth that homelessness is a housing problem is destructive to the unhoused because it denies the reality of the services they need.  The myth that only huge increases in multifamily developments will solve the housing shortage is destructive to the entire City because it would homogenize L.A. into a vast sea of high-density, high-rise buildings. If you think that’s hyperbole, read the facts of the State’s housing plan, explained by Mr. O’Sullivan here, or the example of very real possibility of a 50-story apartment building in the middle of a residential area in San Francisco, here.  Using buzzwords like “economic justice” and “balanced living patterns”, the State is requiring nothing less than major relocation of entire populations to achieve a nebulous ideal of a perfectly balanced housing market. Of course, the only way to achieve this “balance” would be by building large soulless apartment blocks all over the city, virtually guaranteeing a future of perpetual renting for younger generations.

The irony is that a massive increase in housing construction will do virtually nothing to make it more affordable for workers, because only about 10 percent of the units must meet affordability requirements, which are pretty liberal in their definition of affordable, as explained in this revealing interview with a registered engineer and land use commissioner from northern California. Most of these complexes will be built and managed by corporate developers, who have the deep pockets to use “cash for keys” and other options to rid themselves of lower-income tenants as soon as possible, returning even those few units to market rate. Zelda Bronstein, writing for the independent San Francisco news outlet 48 Hills, provides a devastating  overview of just how ineffective all of the state’s overbearing housing laws have been.

If housing were the solution to homelessness, we would have seen some results from the billions of dollars spent on construction. Instead, despite the City’s, County’s and LAHSA’s claims of great increases in the number of people housed, homelessness increased by at least nine percent between 2022 and 2023, (and most likely more since the 2022 PIT count was deeply flawed).  More people than ever joined the ranks of the unsheltered and unhoused, and more people than ever are chronically homeless. 

The obsession with building our way out of the homeless crisis has robbed treatment and intervention programs, as well as other more cost-effective forms of shelter, of funding.  A review of the County’s budget shows only a fraction of Measure H funding, which was supposed to go to services, is spent on intervention programs, with the majority going to housing programs like rent subsidies.  Someone with a serious mental illness or fentanyl addiction doesn’t need a rent subsidy; they need treatment.

Again, looking at other cities, those with high density are also among those with the highest cost of living.  In the US, New York and San Francisco have very high-density housing, and both are more expensive than L.A. Tokyo and Hong Kong have astronomical density and are among the most expensive in the world.

The entire structure of homelessness and housing programs in Los Angeles is built on a foundation of assumptions, biased data, and outright lies. The costs are staggering: $4 billion per year spent on homelessness programs yet the unhoused population continues to grow. Billions spent on housing while the State runs roughshod over local land use prerogatives, yet few affordable units are built.  The Saint Francis Dam disaster killed 450 people. Local government’s refusal to deal with the reality of homelessness and housing repeats that toll once every 75 days. Like the unnamed victims of the dam’s failure, many of the homeless die in anonymity, alone in tents or squalid hotel rooms euphemistically referred to as housing. 

Speaking to the integrity and honesty of today’s public managers compared to those responsible for the dam collapse, during an investigation of the disaster in 1929, William Mulholland said, "Whether it is good or bad, don't blame anyone else, you just fasten it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the huma. I won't try to fasten it on anyone else."  Compare that to statements from our current leaders, who are quick to throw out epithets like NIMBY and “criminalizing poverty” when they are the ones who have wrought this disaster on their own communities. After the tragedy, Mulholland withdrew entirely from the public eye. Our modern-day Mullhollands trumpet their failures as victories, taking chummy photos with each other while the equivalent death toll of five Saint Francis Dam catastrophes plays out on our streets every year.

(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.)