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Mayor Vows Funds to Aid Homeless

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pledged Tuesday to spend $50 million on a new effort to find long-term solutions for the city’s chronically homeless.

The money, which would come by shifting funds from within the city’s coffers, would double the size of Los Angeles’ affordable housing trust fund. It also comes amid growing concern that the revitalization of downtown is threatening to push out the poor and homeless who have long been concentrated in the city center area.

Villaraigosa said the $50 million would be spent on developing service-enriched housing for people who can’t seem to get off the street. Many are mentally disabled, sick with HIV/AIDS or addicted to drugs.

The idea, city officials say, is to give them the beds and the help they need in one place -- improving lives, but also saving the government money by reducing trips to emergency rooms and jails.

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In a brief speech to members of the Los Angeles Business Council on Tuesday night, Villaraigosa said he would unveil more details today in a housing summit the group is holding at UCLA. Although the mayor had been promising to present a new housing plan for months, on Tuesday he also noted the impact of recent Los Angeles Times articles on the plight of skid row denizens by columnist Steve Lopez.

“We all felt a sense of shame and a burden and a responsibility to do something about that,” the mayor said.

City housing officials said that with loan programs and state and federal matching funds, the $50-million investment could be leveraged into $250 million in projects, including new housing units and the conversion of low-priced residential hotels like those in downtown Los Angeles.

“This is gigantic,” Villaraigosa said.

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But some homeless advocates were more guarded in their assessment.

Orlando Ward, spokesman for the skid row-based Midnight Mission, said that the mayor deserves kudos for “looking and learning” about the homeless problem. Ward said that the new investment will help, but only if it represents the first step in a broader program to combat homelessness. He said that of the county’s estimated 91,000 homeless, about 35,000 are considered “chronically homeless individuals.”

“We can’t have a one-shot deal,” said Ward, a former homeless drug user. “The housing-first solution that he’s presenting is just one piece of the puzzle.”

Ward said the city should expand medical and drug detoxification centers, and “disincentivize” the culture of street living.

“My personal experience is that when it started getting really uncomfortable for me on the streets ... I had to make a real hard decision on what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”

Some research shows the benefits of the service-enriched housing model, also known as “supportive housing.” In 2001, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania tracked 4,679 mentally ill homeless people who were put into special housing units and found that the reduced use of city services paid for 95% of the supportive housing and attendant services.

Other cities with historically intractable homeless problems have also looked for novel solutions of late. In San Francisco, a “care not cash” program slashed generous welfare checks to the homeless, but provides permanent housing along with medical care and other services.

Villaraigosa’s plan comes as the Los Angeles region struggles with the largest homeless population in the U.S., and a skyrocketing housing market that has made a median-priced home affordable to just 14% of county residents. There has been particular concern on skid row, where some fear that the boom in loft and condo conversions in downtown could push poor people out of the single-room-occupancy hotels in the neighborhood. Earlier this month, the City Council voted to draw up a temporary moratorium on condo conversion of residential hotels until the city can develop a comprehensive plan.

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The $50 million would be added to the city’s affordable housing trust fund, which has paid for 3,522 new units for the poor since its inception in 2002. The additional money brings its current total to about $101 million. During his run for mayor, Villaraigosa criticized predecessor James K. Hahn for failing to adequately fund the program.

Because Villaraigosa announced the plan after 5:30 p.m., it was difficult to determine which, if any, programs would be cut due to the shift in funds.

A mayoral news release said $10 million each would come from the budgets of the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Department of Water and Power and the Housing Authority’s share of federal housing funds. The remaining money would come from the Housing Department’s “Operation Clean House,” which collects on defaulted loans.

Villaraigosa’s office also announced Tuesday that the city would expand a new subsidized loan program to help middle-income home buyers who are priced out of the market.

In a program introduced this year, the city of Los Angeles began offering no-interest loans of up to $50,000 for families earning moderate incomes -- for a family of four, that means a household income of $78,600 or less.

The new plan would increase the maximum eligible salaries so that a family of four earning a little less than $100,000 could qualify. The city expects about 190 families to participate.

Villaraigosa acknowledged that there was more work to be done. He said he hoped the new plans would spark more ambitious ideas in both the private and public sectors.

He also said he wanted to find even more money for affordable housing.

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“It’s not enough,” Villaraigosa said. “And we need to go well beyond it.”


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