One ray of hope on a bleak election night in November 2016 was the overwhelming support that Los Angeles city voters gave to a bond measure to build housing for the most vulnerable homeless people. By a 3-to-1 margin, Angelenos passed Proposition HHH to authorize $1.2 billion in bonds to help finance the construction of 10,000 units of housing, most of it designated for the chronically homeless.
All of the money has now, essentially, been allocated. The last round of housing projects recommended by the city’s Housing and Community Investment Department was due to be presented to the HHH Citizens Oversight Committee last Friday. Those projects still have to get the blessing of another city committee and the City Council, but for all intents and purposes, the HHH money has been spent or committed.
Yet two years and nine months since voters approved HHH, not one unit of housing financed by the measure is open. A single project with 62 units is scheduled to open in late November. Meanwhile, the landscape of the city, literally and figuratively, has only gotten more grim. Homelessness surged 16% in the city this year to about 36,000 people, 27,000 of whom are unsheltered. Encampments and trash proliferate across sidewalks and curbs.
To city residents, this is maddening — they’re spending more than a billion dollars on housing, and all they see are more people camped on sidewalks.
But here’s what they can’t see: Including this last round of recommendations, the city will be helping to create more than 8,000 units of housing. That includes 5,873 supportive housing units for homeless people who need social services, 1,641 affordable units for very-low-income Angelenos, and 975 smaller units being constructed of innovative materials for homeless residents. There are 1,400 units in construction right now, 1,000 of which are expected to be ready to occupy in 2020. An additional 3,713 are forecast to open in 2021.
The slow pace of these projects is to some extent unavoidable. It takes years to build any kind of multi-unit project in this city, especially subsidized housing with funding cobbled together from nearly half a dozen sources. These are not trailers and tents being pitched. These are permanent housing developments designed to fit the neighborhood.
But things could have moved faster. Although the mayor’s office has tried to streamline some of the bureaucracy that developers go through to get projects ready to build, that hasn’t meant speedier approvals and inspections for developers. The office just recently designated one official as a kind of concierge to get projects through those processes more rapidly. That should have been done two and a half years ago.
On the plus side, the slow pace spurred officials to look for unconventional ways to build housing. A total of 975 units spread over half a dozen innovative projects have been recommended for HHH funding. The units are still permanent housing, but made of materials that would allow them to be built faster and cheaper.
So what happens now is the big question. Even if all goes as planned with those 8,000-plus units, that’s still short of the 10,000 that voters were told HHH would fund. City officials insist that the city’s Housing and Community Investment Department will be separately funding 3,000 additional units; so far, the department says, it has 1,259 supportive housing units in its pipeline.
The troubling news is that even after everything opens, there still won’t be enough units to house every chronically homeless person on the streets right now. And with each year that passes, more people stay on the streets longer and become chronically homeless. Meanwhile, Angelenos will continue tumbling into the ranks of the newly homeless until there is an adequate supply of affordable housing. That means prevention in the form of rapid rehousing funds and rental subsidies for people on the verge of homelessness is crucial. Otherwise, we will never get ahead of the homelessness problem.
Even after the HHH well runs dry, the city has to keep building housing at a steady pace. Los Angeles County is finally beginning to get some of the $700 million it’s due from the state’s No Place Like Home funds, which can be used to house mentally ill homeless people. And the city needs to encourage more developers to come up with innovative housing projects. Many homeless people need services to enable them to stay housed — but first they need the housing.