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L.A. lawmakers pledge 222 units of homeless housing in each of their districts

L.A. lawmakers pledge 222 units of homeless housing in each of their districts
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson speaks at a news conference Wednesday at the New Genesis Apartments in downtown L.A. (Emily Alpert Reyes / Los Angeles Times)

A group of Los Angeles lawmakers pledged Wednesday to avoid not-in-my-backyard battles over where destitute residents should be housed, promising to back a minimum number of new supportive housing units for homeless people in the districts they represent.

The City Council resolution would not be binding, but lawmakers stressed that they were making a public commitment — and throwing down the gauntlet for others on the council to do the same.

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“We have to build this housing everywhere in the city of Los Angeles,” City Council President Herb Wesson said at a news conference outside the New Genesis Apartments on Main Street. "And we feel as though the council should make a commitment that we’re all going to do that.”

The resolution calls on each council member to back the approval of least 222 units of supportive housing in his or her district before July 1, 2020, including any units approved since last July.

Homeless advocates say that if all 15 members of the council do so, it would put the city on track to reach its goal of creating 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing in a decade.

The proposal was introduced Wednesday by Wesson and council members Nury Martinez, Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Jose Huizar. Councilmen Mike Bonin, Paul Krekorian and David Ryu seconded the resolution, which will now head to a council committee for further review.

“We see too much fearfulness by elected officials and neighborhood leaders and others that if you provide services to the homeless, if you build housing for the homeless, somehow that‘s going to create additional problems for the neighborhood,” Krekorian, whose district stretches from Studio City to Sun Valley, said at the news conference. “I’m here to say, this is the solution to problems in the neighborhood.”

Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly backed a $1.2-billion bond more than a year ago to build new housing — Proposition HHH — and later voted for a countywide tax to fund services. But as that money has started to flow in, the homeless population has grown much more quickly than the supply of new housing, according to a new report from the regional homelessness agency.

Faced with swelling frustration over a crisis felt from Chatsworth to San Pedro, L.A. city lawmakers are already vetting new ordinances meant to speed up city approval for new housing equipped with supportive services and make it easier to temporarily turn motels into homeless housing.

The pledge announced Wednesday is meant to help break down another possible barrier: Council members sometimes face pressure to turn down homeless housing projects in their districts. Such projects must get a letter of acknowledgment from the local lawmaker before they can secure Prop. HHH funds from the housing department.

Bonin, who represents coastal areas, said he was approached at the recent Women’s March by two residents — one upset about homeless encampments on the Venice streets, the other concerned about proposals for homeless housing in Venice. He said he told them that it was an “either-or situation,” and “we either have encampments or we have housing.”

Bonin added that the second resident raised concerns that Venice was being singled out for such housing. Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson said he had heard similar concerns from South L.A. residents who told him, “It’s right to build housing for the homeless, but you know that they’re going to try to build every one of those units in our neighborhood.”

Harris-Dawson said that ensuring some “geographic equity” could ease pressure on council members. “I think all of us would get a lot of relief if our constituents could pick up the paper and say, ‘Oh, this is happening everywhere!’ as opposed to, ‘Why here?’ ” he said in an earlier interview.

In Los Angeles, homeless housing has been disproportionately concentrated in some council districts that cover downtown, Hollywood and some parts of the San Fernando Valley, according to an analysis by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

The group cautioned that the analysis does not include all kinds of supportive housing for homeless residents, but said it had examined developments that were funded through the city housing department or a county development commission.

Huizar, whose downtown district includes skid row, described the pledge as a key step to “roll back the containment policy” that had effectively restricted homeless services to certain areas. Martinez lamented that the United Way analysis showed that nearly three quarters of existing supportive housing is located in just five of the 15 council districts.

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The pledge will not erase all neighborhood concerns about where such housing is located: Christian Wrede, a co-founder of the community group Venice Vision, said the resolution was a good step, but that the city also needs to ensure that neighborhoods within each council district have their “fair share” of supportive housing.

Doing so, he said, would also ensure accountability for lawmakers. “If they concentrate everything in 5% of their council district, there's no chance of electoral blowback,” Wrede said.

Council members are also facing growing impatience from Angelenos who backed the bond measure and county tax to confront the homelessness crisis.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit that has clashed with city leaders over real estate development, has erected billboards across Los Angeles that feature the word ‘HOMELESS’ in the style of the Hollywood sign. The billboards direct people to a website with dire statistics about homelessness where they can contact Mayor Eric Garcetti and other officials.

“It’s not even a drop in the bucket,” foundation President Michael Weinstein said of the pledged number of new units in each district. “If Herb Wesson and Eric Garcetti are serious, they should declare a state of emergency. They should back a right to shelter. And they should come up with an emergency plan to offer a roof over everyone’s head this year.”

Earlier this week, Bonin and Harris-Dawson called for such a plan, one that would provide everyone living on L.A. streets with an alternative to encampments by the end of December.

They complained there was “no institutional or organizational sense of urgency” to provide immediate shelter for tens of thousands of people while housing is under construction, calling the situation “unacceptable and intolerable.” The two lawmakers also want a comprehensive list of public facilities that could legally be used as shelters, temporary housing or “safe parking” areas.

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Huizar, in turn, has pressed city staff to come up with new recommendations specifically for quickly getting people off the streets of skid row. At a meeting Wednesday, a council committee backed his proposal to ask staff to analyze the costs of funding and managing emergency shelters for its homeless population.

“The result of the city’s policies is that we are telling people to live on city sidewalks,” Bonin said after voting to back that proposal. “We had, and have an opportunity, to provide shelter, and instead all we provide is sidewalks.”

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