Proposition H, on the November ballot in Los Angeles, is a well-intentioned but flawed $1.2-billion bond measure to fund the development of new housing for the homeless.
When interest on the bond is figured in, the proposition will cost residents almost $2 billion, to be paid for in new taxes. Despite that massive expenditure, the region's homeless will not see new apartments for at least three years and the crucial services required to truly solve their problems will not be part of the deal.
Although polls conducted in the spring indicate that more than 75% of voters support Proposition H, we suspect this reflects a lack of understanding that the bond will be paid for through an increase in the property tax.
Because the tax increase is based on Proposition 13 reassessments, which differ dramatically by year of purchase, it will be inherently unfair. The bulk of the burden will fall on those who purchased property in recent years or who have made recent additions to their homes. And because city rent control law prohibits passing on property tax increases, renters — even wealthy renters — will pay nothing.
The inequities in the bond funding mechanism are just one reason to oppose Proposition H. Because bond money can only be used for land and buildings, the measure cannot and does not provide funding for the operation of homeless shelters, counseling domestic violence victims, or mental health and substance abuse treatment — the kinds of supportive services necessary to truly attack the problem of people sleeping in the streets.
Los Angeles County — not the city — is legally responsible for providing these kinds of services for the homeless. But so far, the county remains largely AWOL when it comes to finding a means to pay for the programs required to make Proposition H's "permanent supportive housing" functional.
Proposition H is also inadequate when it comes to oversight. The measure calls for a citizen committee to watch over the project, but the committee members will be appointed by the mayor and the City Council, which won't ensure the committee's independence. Nor are the members required to have specific expertise, such as construction management experience, and nothing in the measure would prevent representatives of the developers and nonprofits who stand to benefit from Proposition H from sitting on the committee.
Instead of pushing Proposition H, the city should respond to the homelessness crisis with a rapid rehousing effort. It should create its own rent-voucher program to augment the tapped-out federal Section 8 program, and it could quickly convert existing structures such as motels, run-down apartments and even commercial buildings to homeless housing.
These efforts could be paid for without recourse to a bond and a property tax increase. The city's special tax counsel estimates Los Angeles' revenue will increase by almost $600 million over the next four years. If only a portion of those increases were earmarked for housing the homeless, existing buildings could be converted, rent vouchers could be supplemented and no new taxes would be necessary.
Los Angeles could also attack homelessness by once again making use of its law against sleeping on sidewalks. A legal settlement — the Jones settlement — prevents the LAPD from moving people off the streets at night until the city increases its stock of permanent supportive homeless housing by 1,250 units. According to a report issued in November by the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, L.A. has more than met that requirement. Now, to avoid a new legal challenge, the city has only to offer a shelter bed before any citation is handed out. But the law isn't being put to use. Until it is, how will the city persuade the thousands of "service resistant" homeless to accept any new housing?
Voters should reject Proposition H. It reflects a panicked rather than a reasonable response to the increase in homelessness in the city. It requires an unequal tax increase, and without county funding for services, it won't do enough to solve the roots of the problem. City Hall and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors must in tandem commit to a better, fairer plan that can be implemented more quickly.
Mark Ryavec served as chief deputy assessor for Los Angeles County and is president of Venice Stakeholders Assn. Jack Humphreville is the budget advocate for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. Jay Handal is co-chair of the citywide association of Neighborhood Council budget advocates.