Editorial: L.A. County needs a new agency dedicated to affordable housing

A building is under construction in Lake View Terrace.
A 49-unit project for homeless and disabled veterans under construction in Lake View Terrace.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The root of Los Angeles County’s homelessness crisis is the lack of affordable housing.

For decades, the county and its 88 cities have failed to build enough housing to keep up with the region’s needs, creating a shortage that has pushed up prices for all homes. Housing costs have risen much faster than wages. Low-income households have borne the brunt of rising rents, particularly in properties and communities that do not have rent control or tenant protections. An estimated half a million households in L.A. County are severely rent burdened, meaning they pay more than half their income on rent. Four out of five extremely low-income households — those earning $35,500 or less for a family of four — spend half their income on housing.

When people spend so much on rent, they have little cash left over for savings, healthcare, transportation or other essentials. With a temporary loss of income or unexpected expense, they can easily fall behind on their rent and face eviction. No wonder Los Angeles County ranks lowest in the U.S. in housing affordability and highest in overcrowding and unsheltered homelessness.

While voters have supported taxes and bond measures to help ease the homelessness crisis and build more affordable housing, the existing public investments and safety net programs are simply not sufficient to meet the tremendous backlog of need in the region. The county is still short 500,000 homes that are affordable to low-income residents. It can take a year or longer to place a homeless individual into permanent housing because of the scarcity of affordable rentals. Nearly half of people who get a Section 8 voucher to help pay their rent are unable to find a vacant unit or a willing landlord. Even as the county has housed a record number of homeless individuals in recent years, more people lost their housing during the same period, outpacing the heroic efforts to ease the region’s homelessness crisis.


And it all comes down to the same problem: There are not enough low-cost housing options for people struggling on the margins.

Now, a bill pending in the Legislature would lay the groundwork for a big expansion of the housing safety net in Los Angeles County. Senate Bill 679 by Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) would create an independent affordable housing agency to provide the countywide vision, foster the cooperation between cities and, perhaps most importantly, secure the funding to ensure that the poorest residents have stable housing.

The new agency, dubbed the Los Angeles County Affordable Housing Solutions Agency, or LACAHSA, would build new affordable housing, preserve existing affordable housing and provide renter protections and support. The agency would have a governing board made up of elected officials and appointees representing the county and cities. And the agency would have bonding and taxing authority — although any tax increases would go on the ballot.

Indeed, the housing and social justice advocacy groups behind the LACAHSA proposal are already working on a November 2022 ballot measure to enact a countywide tax on multimillion-dollar property sales. If passed, the tax could raise more than half a billion dollars a year for affordable housing and tenant aid programs. Advocates think LACAHSA could build or preserve 100,000 affordable units over the next decade with the funding and new authority. They also argue the agency’s funding could make it cheaper to build new affordable units, which now cost $500,000 per unit or more because developers have to navigate a labyrinthine public financing process.

That’s important because since the state’s redevelopment agencies were dissolved a decade ago, there has been no comparable program or permanent source of funding to build affordable housing. Instead, the production and preservation of low-income housing has been carried out on an optional, ad hoc basis. Case in point: Fewer than 10 of the L.A. County’s 88 cities budget local dollars to produce or preserve affordable housing.

That has to change. To meet the state’s fair-share housing law, L.A. County is required to plan for 340,000 affordable units by 2030, or about 42,500 affordable units per year. That’s a huge increase over the roughly 3,000 units a year the region has been building. Many smaller cities don’t have the money or expertise to reach the new affordable housing targets on their own.


It’s fair to ask if we need yet another government agency. In this case, yes. There is no entity in L.A. County capable or willing to take a comprehensive approach to funding and prioritizing affordable housing. There is no equivalent of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or the Air Quality Management District that can take a bigger-than-my-backyard approach to housing, which is what the county needs.

Despite the need and the deadlines, SB 679 will still be a tough vote for lawmakers. While LACAHSA wouldn’t necessarily override city councils’ control over housing development (although that is being debated as an amendment to the bill), local elected officials generally don’t like having another layer of government looking over their shoulders and telling them how to house poor people.

Too bad. It should be clear by now that L.A. County will never meet its affordable housing obligations without pressure, accountability and ambition. Legislators should pass SB 679 and Gov. Gavin Newsom should sign it into law.