After a modest but encouraging decrease last year in the number of homeless people in Los Angeles County, it is extraordinarily frustrating that the progress has now been reversed, with homelessness climbing a grim 12% this year in the county and an even more alarming 16% in the city of Los Angeles. That means 58,936 people in the county were living on sidewalks, in cars and vans, in shelters or in parks when the 2019 count was carried out over three nights in January. The number of homeless people in both the city and the county is now higher than it was in 2017.
How can that be? Over the last decade, parts of Los Angeles have become a dystopian landscape of tent encampments, populated by the region’s most destitute, afflicted and addicted people, along with those who are merely down on their luck. But since the passage of Measure HHH in 2016 and Measure H in 2017, the city and county have been spending billions of dollars to create new homeless housing and to provide services for those who need them. So why are the numbers still going up? Is the money being misspent? Are our policies faulty? Are we addressing the right problems?
The meager bit of good news is that many homeless people are indeed being helped. Last year, the county says it housed 21,631 people — more than in any previous year. It also prevented an estimated 5,600 people from falling into homelessness.
But the frightening news is that as fast as the county bailed people out of homelessness, more fell in. There were 3,886 veterans who were homeless in 2018. About 2,800 got housing. And yet, this year the number of veterans counted as homeless was still 3,874. There are more people living in cars, vans and RVs, and there are 17% more people in tents and makeshift shelters on the streets than were counted in 2018. Of the 14,075 “chronically homeless” people on the street last year, 4,902 got housed. Yet those who remained were joined by so many more people who graduated into chronic homelessness — defined as having a disability and living on the streets for at least a year — that the overall number went up 17%.
At the heart of the problem is the desperate housing crisis that continues to plague Los Angeles and California generally. Los Angeles can’t stanch the flow of people into homelessness because housing here has become unaffordable to huge swaths of the population. Since 2000, the median rent in L.A. County has increased 32% while the median renter’s income has fallen 3%, according to the California Housing Partnership Corporation. Evictions, foreclosures, job losses and rent hikes drive people out of their homes, and they can’t find another affordable place to go. There simply is not enough affordable housing for lower-income and very low-income people in the county. (Or in the rest of the state, where homelessness is also climbing. In Riverside and San Bernardino counties, homelessness is up more than 20%. In San Francisco, it’s up 17%. In Alameda County, where Oakland is located, it’s up a staggering 43%.)
California and Los Angeles need to do more to fight homelessness even before it happens. That means supporting more tenant protection measures to hold rents at reasonable levels, stop rent gouging and prohibit unwarranted evictions — in order to keep people in their homes when they are at risk. For legislators across the state to lament the horror of homelessness today even while refusing to pass legislation that protects tenants on the verge of homelessness is irrational and, frankly, unconscionable.
Los Angeles must build more affordable housing for low-income people. If it does not, this will become a city of the affluent and the homeless. Others will be lucky if they can move to communities like Fontana and Chino from which they will spend their mornings and evenings on the freeway commuting into and out of Los Angeles. Among other things, city and state government must make it easier for developers of this kind of housing to clear bureaucratic hurdles at a rapid pace. The building of smaller units for lower-income people — efficiencies, micro-units, even updated versions of single-room occupancy buildings — must be encouraged.
The city must also pick up the pace of housing those who are already homeless. How can it be that Angelenos voted in November 2016 to create a $1.2-billion fund to finance as many as 10,000 units of housing for chronically homeless people in the city of L.A., yet not one unit of housing has come online? Nearly 1,400 HHH-funded units are expected to open in the coming fiscal year. Another 2,758 will open the following fiscal year. But that’s too slow. Even if the city can get to the 10,000 units it promised to build using HHH and other funds, that wouldn’t house all of its most desperate, chronically homeless people — and they account for only 28% of the total homeless population.
The supply of units created by HHH is in danger of falling short of expectations for a variety of reasons — the increase in construction costs due to tariffs imposed by President Trump, the decrease in the value of tax credits used to fund subsidized housing, constant NIMBYism — but there are steps the city can take to boost the numbers. About $120 million of HHH money is being set aside for an innovative-projects initiative spearheaded by the mayor’s office. Officials say they will consider building smaller units and using prefabricated materials that will bring down costs, allowing for more housing to be built without sacrificing curb appeal. The goal is to build 1,000 units.
When projects are chosen from the most recent round of applications, it will exhaust the remaining $204 million in the $1.2-billion HHH fund. Yet there were more than $350 million worth of competitive, viable projects proposed. Let’s find more funds to make those projects a reality. L.A. will soon have access to millions of dollars from the state’s No Place Like Home fund to use on housing for mentally ill homeless people. There is also homeless emergency funding the city received from the state.
And it’s time for our elected officials to get tough on these issues finally. City and county leaders should have been in Sacramento lobbying for strong tenant protections, like the anti-rent gouging bill. Instead the bill was watered down and barely got through the Assembly.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti was a big supporter of Proposition HHH and has led the fight to put bridge shelters across the city of Los Angeles. But it too has progressed at an appallingly slow rate. The idea was to have interim housing for homeless people in every City Council district. But too many council members have been slow to find sites or reluctant to proceed in the face of NIMBY opposition. That’s inexcusable, and the mayor needs to flex some political muscle to push them.