L.A. councilmen will campaign for $1-billion ballot measure to house the homeless

Two key members of the Los Angeles City Council say they have decided to push for a November ballot measure authorizing a bond of at least $1 billion to build housing for the city's growing homeless population.

Councilmen Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Jose Huizar, the chairman and vice-chairman of the council's homelessness and poverty committee, made their announcement Tuesday armed with a new poll suggesting that such an initiative would enjoy broad support among city voters. Their statements mark the first time city officials have committed to a specific plan for generating most or all of the money needed to carry out their adopted strategy for reducing homelessness over the next decade.

"Voters are prepared to make an investment," Harris-Dawson said in an interview with The Times. "What's different now than what I think it's been in the past is that there's no part of the city that doesn't experience homelessness."

Huizar, whose district includes skid row and the city's most extreme concentration of the homeless, said the campaign for the bond would depend on city officials' ability to detail specifically what they would do with $1 billion or more in borrowed money. However, he said he doesn't doubt that Angelenos are willing to underwrite a long-term solution to homelessness, even at a high cost.

"We have a lot of explaining to do," Huizar said. "I don't think it's a lot of persuasion."

The pair said they have begun working with prominent L.A.-area political consultants Parke Skelton and Mike Shimpock on the preliminary details of a bond campaign. The full City Council must vote by the end of June whether to place a measure on the November ballot.

Connie Llanos, a spokeswoman for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said in a statement that the mayor "is open to any - state, county or city - initiative that brings our community more resources to tackle this crisis." She declined to say whether Garcetti thinks the bond measure proposed by Harris-Dawson and Huizar is the best approach.

For several months, city officials have been debating how to fund their homelessness plan, which calls for spending at least $1.8 billion over the next 10 years on new housing and shelters for the estimated 26,000 people without a home in Garcetti has commissioned a study for a potential fee on developers that according to budget analysts could generate between $38 million and $112 million a year toward that effort.

But with the city's budget still recovering from the economic downturn that followed the 2007 collapse of the housing market, most agree that an additional new revenue stream -- either a bond or tax -- is necessary to house the homeless. In California, such initiatives must be approved by a two-thirds popular vote when intended to pay for a specific policy or project.

With high and predominantly Democratic turnout expected here for the presidential contest, November should theoretically offer an electorate hospitable to public spending on social services.

However, it also offers a crowded ballot, with voters potentially being asked to weigh in on other measures including a county sales-tax increase to fund transportation, a county parcel tax to pay for expanded parks and a statewide extension of Proposition 30, which hiked income-tax rates on the wealthy to pay for education.

County officials are also considering placing some form of new tax on the November ballot in order to fund homeless services.

A poll performed for Garcetti and City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana in March suggested scant appetite for one more ballot measure asking for money. That poll found that fewer than half of city voters would back a bond, sales tax or document-transfer tax to help reduce homelessness.

A new poll delivered to Harris-Dawson and Huizar late last week found similarly low support for new taxes but significantly higher support for a bond, with 68% of those surveyed -- just above the two-thirds threshold for approval -- saying they would "probably" or "definitely" vote to approve a bond.

An additional 6% said they were undecided but leaning toward voting yes; only 17% said they would probably or definitely vote against such a measure.

It is unclear what might account for the wide disparity between the two polls when it comes to voters' support for a bond measure.

Although both surveys questioned respondents about a $1-billion housing bond, the more recent poll went into more detail about how the money would be spent, asking about support for a bond dedicated to emergency shelter and housing for homeless people "including veterans, seniors, families and the disabled... with citizen oversight, annual audits, and all funds locally controlled."

Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said it wasn't necessarily unusual for two polls to reach such different conclusions about voters' preferences, especially when different versions of the same question were asked.

"You're only talking about two polls, which seems like a lot of information. But when you're looking at the presidential race, people will average 20 or 30 polls," Sonenshein said. Even assuming the higher level of support, he added, city officials still have their work cut out for them in campaigning for an initiative, since opposition to ballot measures typically grows as time passes.

"It's going to be a test of the ability to sell an altruistic measure in a tough, competitive political environment," Sonenshein said. "I think it will be closely watched."

peter.jamison@latimes.com

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