Fri, Jun

Emergencies, Bad Ideas, and Secret Deals. Is This How We Solve Homelessness?

iAUDIT - In the little-known but classic 1959 British comedy, “The Mouse That Roared”, the tiny fictional European Duchy of Fenwick declares war on the United States with the intent of immediately surrendering and receiving American aid, much like the former Axis powers after World War II.  It’s a clever take on Cold War politics and how leaders manufacture crises to advance hidden agendas.  A more modern real-world example is the US’ involvement in Iraq, which was predicated on false evidence of “weapons of mass destruction” and mired the nation in its longest and costliest war.

The politics and policies behind Los Angeles’ homelessness programming continue the tradition of the Duchy of Fenwick.  For years, the City and County have done much of their homelessness financial business behind closed doors or with minimal community outreach.  Just a few examples include:

  • Councilmember Yaroslavsky’s botched public roll-out of a proposed shelter on Midvale, using the city’s emergency declaration as an excuse to circumvent public comment.
  • The proposed upzoning of several Westside communities, supposedly with input from a 52-member community advisory committee that was handpicked by the city, and consists mainly of nonprofit leaders, housing advocates and builders, with few actual members of the community.
  • The City’s and County’s habit of awarding no-bid sole-source contracts to corporate nonprofits for outreach and shelter management, again based on “emergency needs”.

It would be quite an understatement to say most of these decisions and policies are ethically dubious.  For example, Councilmember Yaroslavsky’s first announcement of the Rancho Park-Midvale interim shelter was a general email on July 24, 2023, less than two weeks before a purported “informational session” with the Councilmember and Mayor Bass. That email claimed there had been previous community outreach, but as reported in the Westside Current, that outreach consisted of a few notification emails the night before the email blast. The “informational session” was quickly shut down when residents had the temerity to oppose Yaroslavsky’s predetermined plan.  As the Current’s article also points out, the Councilmember got herself into an ethical problem because her lead staff person for homelessness is a recent former employee of Los Angeles Family Housing, the nonprofit that happens to have received the sole source contract for managing the Rancho Park facility.  

Things south of CD-5 are just as murky.  As has been reported earlier, some—but not all-communities in CD-11 are undergoing updates to their community housing plans, with some areas proposed to absorb tens of thousands of units while others are unaffected. As reported by City Watch’s James O’Sullivan, nothing about this process has been transparent. A “community advisory committee” with 52 members has been front-loaded with Housing First advocates and nonprofit service providers.  Very few of the 52 are true community representatives.  Once again, “community outreach” consisted of hand selected representatives who could be counted on to deliver the desired results. At a September 5 Neighborhood Council meeting, Councilmember Park and the Planning staff were confronted by large crowd of residents who wanted details on the proposed upzoning—details the City appeared unable or unwilling produce, including the total number of units to be shoehorned into the Westchester/Playa community, (but not the wealthier and whiter Pacific Palisades and Brentwood, which conveniently aren’t subject to this year’s update).

Despite assurances the upzone plan is still conceptual, the fact is the City is only willing to discuss plans it’s already produced, with virtually no community input. As O’Sullivan points out, the City has already set the rules and established the playing field, stacking the odds in its favor. That became obvious when City Planning staff left the meeting before the community group Concerned Westchester/Playa presented a more realistic plan that meets State housing targets without massive expansion of multifamily housing into residential areas.

The City tried this kind of opaque planning, using questionable data and zoning exemptions that violated its own codes, in its Hollywood Community Plan Update, resulting in a lawsuit from Fix the City, which the City lost in 2013.  Significantly, the city intended to use the Hollywood Plan as a template for the Westside’s upzoning plan. 

The excuse City officials use for the rush to sign contracts and implement plans that the public hasn’t seen is that homelessness is an “emergency”.  Mayor Bass signed an emergency declaration on her first day in office, giving her broad powers to circumvent normal contracting procedures, and the Council has dutifully renewed those powers each month. But homelessness has been increasing every year since Housing First became the state’s official policy in 2016.  Apparently, it wasn’t an emergency until January 2023.  But why?

Consider who was advising her just before and after her inauguration. Va Lecia Adams Kellum was one of her chief homelessness advisors, and she just happened to be CEO of St. Jospeh’s Center at the time, one the largest recipients of City and County money for service provision.  Like the so-called community advisory committee in CD-11, our elected leaders tend to favor representatives of organizations that profit from the obsession with construction that is Housing First’s lynchpin.  LAHSA’s Board of Directors is full of “community advocates” and Housing First cheerleaders, with the exception of Rev. Andy Bales, who unfortunately is retiring at the end of the year. Only one member has a medical background, even though well over half the unhoused have serious mental or substance abuse problems—and she is a public health administrator, not a medical professional.

If there is a homeless industrial complex, it starts here.  The entire structure of homelessness programs in the City and County is heavily loaded with No Barrier Housing First advocates and corporate nonprofit executives who depend on a failed system for their existence.  In keeping with false emergencies of the past, these leaders keep a relatively small but fanatical cadre of self-appointed “activists” in an eternal  state of agitation, ready to be unleashed on anyone who dares to speak truth to power.  Elected leaders, even those with good intentions, are trapped in a system where the only voices they hear tell them more housing and using the same small cabal of ineffective service providers are the only answers to homelessness. 

All of this is done in the name of a homelessness “emergency” that’s existed for years and is only getting worse. City and County leaders claim the need to meet this emergency is why so many projects and contracts are kept out of the public limelight.  The emergency is why millions of dollars are awarded to the same group of providers with no bidding and virtually no performance standards. An “emergency” is why the Council narrowly approved a seven-story apartment complex in the middle of a residential neighborhood, even though they admitted the ordinance that initially allowed it was poorly written.  At least two Council members breathlessly declared we “desperately” need to build hundreds of units and the city’s current housing situation is “disastrous”. But instead of rationally and calmly taking a comprehensive view, the City is approving questionable projects piecemeal, in an effort to look like they’re doing something.  People who question this system are branded “NIMBY’s” and shouted out of most discussions about homelessness.

But here’s a couple simple questions.  If these projects are so wonderful, why are they hidden from public comment until the last minute?  Is it really NIMBY-ism or is it because many shelters are surrounded by vast tent cities, and crime in the surrounding communities is higher?  If only a small number of large nonprofits can provide needed services, why hasn’t homelessness decreased, and why can’t anyone tell the public what the real long-term outcomes of their efforts have been? Doesn’t the public have a legitimate expectation that the $4 billion in taxpayer money spent on homelessness in 2023-24 will have a positive effect? Who is profiting from new development, when only 10 percent of the units in many developments are required to be affordable?

To whom are our leaders accountable? A small but loud group of advocates, cynically supported by developers and self-interested nonprofits. Or the public at large, including those who are homeless and who are left to languish on the streets while they’re waiting for housing that will never be built?

But things may be changing.  There is a growing sentiment on the LA City Council that LAHSA must be held accountable for failing to implement meaningful performance measures and producing real results. More Council members are speaking up about unbridled multifamily development in residential areas.   Fix the City had filed a suit to reign in the City’s authority to grant no-bid sole source contracts to favored nonprofits.  A true grassroots effort has sprung up to stop the destruction of the Marina Freeway for a housing development. Across the state, United Neighbors is working to combine the voices of dozens of local community groups who want well-planned, rational affordable housing in their cities, rather than the one size fits all overreach of state laws like SB-9, which is little more than a gift of public assets to corporate developers.

It is important to note these efforts aren’t intended to stop homeless relief or affordable housing.  Quite the opposite; they are being made to bring accountability and real results to the homelessness and housing narrative.  For example, United Neighbors has a comprehensive plan that offers several options for affordable and multi-family housing in different kinds of areas, from dense urban to suburban. Rather than the overbearing, monolithic plan thrust upon communities by the state and developers, United Neighbors’ plan is nuanced and sensitive to individual neighborhoods. Numerous groups are trying to force the City and County to use the resources at hand to deliver desperately needed services to people on the street.  For far too long, the service models and narratives around homelessness and housing have been controlled by an insular group of government officials, nonprofit executives, and special interests.  The results can be found in encampments and on sidewalks all over the city. It’s time to change the structure and demand an end to secrecy, panicky decision-making, and failure masquerading as success.

(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.)