Asking voters to OK homeless funding would take L.A. into uncharted waters

Outreach workers talk to a homeless woman named Sandy as she seeks shelter from the rain beneath the 405 Freeway in Venice.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A report released by city analysts this week set the cost of confronting Los Angeles’ surging homelessness over the next decade at nearly $2 billion, a stark acknowledgment of the money and work required to help the nation’s largest unsheltered population.

Almost as remarkable as that sum is the method of raising it that the report suggests could be necessary: A ballot initiative that would probably require supermajority approval from city voters.


Homeless funding: In the Jan. 9 California section, an article about providing funding to help Los Angeles’ homeless was accompanied by a photo of a homeless woman that identified her location as beneath the 405 Freeway in Venice. She was beneath the 405 on Venice Boulevard in Palms. —

Such a measure — which could take the form either of a bond or a tax increase — could reshape the city’s political landscape next year, forcing elected leaders to take sides in a campaign with scant local precedent. They would do so in an atmosphere of greater than usual uncertainty, as voters weigh whether to open their wallets for a humanitarian issue very different from the infrastructure projects that typically occupy the ballot.


“This is kind of new territory,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “Usually the selling point for a bond or a tax is that you’re going to get something from it, not that you’re doing the right thing for someone who is not you.”

That assessment was echoed by former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who campaigned for one of the few human-service measures to succeed on the ballot in recent years: Measure B, which taxed some forms of construction to help fund emergency medical care at public hospitals and passed with more than 73% approval in 2002.

“The elected officials are going to have to appeal to the better angels of the middle-class voters who tend to be the swing voters on these issues,” Yaroslavsky said. “It’s not going to be easy.”

The political challenges of selling the public on a large outlay of government funds for the homeless were evident in the mixed and sometimes cautious responses to the report that city leaders offered on Friday, a day after its release.

Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council members praised the report’s thoroughness and appeared to agree with its cost estimates and policy prescriptions. Yet among those who spoke to The Times, only a few on the council expressed unqualified support for a bond or tax increase.

“There’s nothing that’s off the table, whether it’s possibly going to voters, whether it’s looking at the growth of our budgets or shifting some priorities from some things that we fund today that while important may not have the same urgency as homelessness,” Garcetti said, adding that a specific funding mechanism for addressing homelessness could be debated in the months ahead.

The city’s 233-page report, prepared by City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana and Chief Legislative Analyst Sharon Tso, comes as the plight of the more than 26,000 people who live on L.A.'s streets is preoccupying City Hall as it rarely has before. Makeshift encampments have sprung up across the city, prompting a flood of complaints to council offices.

The report lays out a broad array of strategies for reducing the number of homeless over the next decade, centered on the building and leasing of long-term housing where the homeless can live with access to social services.

Paying for such housing could be done in a variety of ways, the report concluded. The city could cut funding to other services and departments, or seek state and federal aid. Nevertheless, given the size of the necessary investment, the report suggested city officials also consider options including a bond or tax hike. The report increases hikes to the sales tax, hotel tax, billboard tax and others as possible sources of revenue.

Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, whose district spans Hollywood to Echo Park, said he was open to a voter-approved bond or tax hike but that city officials should also try to identify other ways to build housing for the homeless — such as creating mandates that such housing be created as part of new developments — before asking city residents for money.

“Voters are going to demand that we are also doing our part and we’re not just saying, ‘Oh, we’ll just take it to the voters,’” O’Farrell said. “If we do some of these policy initiatives that I’m talking about and we follow through on them, voters are going to have a lot more confidence. And perhaps if we do think of some sort of ballot initiative, it will be more reasonable, and it will be more palatable and more affordable.”

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Minimizing the amount of money asked of voters could be all the more important if a measure to raise money for the homeless jostles for attention on the ballot with other tax initiatives. L.A. County transportation officials are widely expected to seek a sales tax increase in 2016 to raise as much as $120 billion for roads and public transportation.

Nevertheless, some city leaders said that with an energetic campaign, the ballot measure envisioned in the report could pass.

“I’m willing to go to the voters to ask for this. This is the No. 1 issue I hear about from all over my district,” said Councilman Mike Bonin, whose Westside district has one of the largest concentrations of homeless encampments. “I think if we can show that we have an actual strategy, they’d be willing to invest in it.”

Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents parts of South Los Angeles and co-chairs the Homelessness and Poverty Committee, said the road map laid out in the report “requires an investment of the voters” and that he would support a ballot initiative to generate new revenue.

“I think if something is put before the voters that actually can solve the problem and has transparency and accountability, I think voters will support it,” Harris-Dawson said. “I think the electorate in Los Angeles … has shown a willingness to invest in building the kind of society that we all want to live in.”

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