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LA’s Mayoral Candidates Huff And Puff, But Still Can’t Solve The Homeless Crisis

PLANNING WATCH - In last week’s Planning Watch column I explained why LA’s mayoral candidates are mum on the climate crisis

For them climate change is an acceptable price to pay for City Hall’s devotion to new, automobile-intensive apartments and commercial buildings. 

Unlike the climate crisis, however, the mayoral candidates are not silent about the housing crisis.  Instead, they pander to likely voters with vague focus-group-refined promises to battle homelessness.  But according to a recent Loyola Marymount (LMU) poll, few Angelinos buy their message.  64 percent of those polled expect LA’s homeless crisis to get worse, and only 19 percent expect it to get better.  The public appears to understand the housing crisis better than the candidates and their well-compensated campaign whisperers

Although the LMU survey did not ask about the causes of homelessness, we minimally know the public does not expect the candidates’ nostrums to make a difference.  This is why. 

Since the polls and focus groups confirm that the public’s most pressing worry is homelessness, the candidates know they can’t dodge the topic.  But since they know so little about the housing crisis and have even less curiosity about its root causes, they resort to cliches.  Sometimes they even sound like each other.  For example: 

Councilmember Joe Buscaino says, “A safer and stronger L.A. begins with solving homelessness.  In practice this means shutting down homeless encampments in all public areas when shelter is available and at all times within a 1000 foot radius of interim housing.”  He does not mention the causes of homeless, nor the corresponding solutions. 

Congressmember Karen Bass has pages of upbeat text on her website about strategies to end homelessness, such as building temporary and permanent housing by cutting red tape, politician-speak for deregulating zoning codes, building codes, and environmental laws.  While this unexpectedly sounds like Ronald Reagan, she also mentions poverty and income inequality, but not why it is increasing and could be reversed. 

CEO Rick Caruso, well known as a developer of upscale shopping centers and luxury apartments, blames incumbent officials for the homeless crisis.  When elected, he promises to declare a state of emergency that would somehow end the crisis.  As for the City Council, their role is to get out of his way.  Tough talk from an executive used to ruling by fiat, but like the other candidates, he does not explain why there is a homeless crisis and how he would get the same programs to finally end it. 

City Attorney Michael Feuer also wants to “declare a homelessness state of emergency, cut through regulations, and implement swift and decisive solutions.”  His solutions include building more affordable and market rate housing.  Like the other candidates, he, too, does not ask or answer why there is a housing crisis. 

City Councilmember Kevin de Leon, who previously served in the California State Senate, also presents himself as an accomplished leader ready to tackle the homeless crisis.  Like the other candidates, he vows to build thousands of homeless housing units and declared, “Los Angeles needs strong, experienced leadership capable of bringing all levels of government together around a set of clear and attainable goals.”

For those who want more details on the homeless platforms of these candidates, the links are above.  But a warning!  If you open the links, this is what you will NOT read: 

The underlying causes of the housing crisis.  The housing crisis is nationwide and longtime in the making: 

  • Its history dates back to the Nixon administration (1969-1974). It is based on defunding the Federal Government’s public and publicly-subsidized non-market housing programs.  If these HUD housing programs had continued, there could be one million more low income public housing units in the United States – or nearly double the number (600,000) of homeless people.  Until public housing is restored, the local fixes checked-off by the Mayoral candidates will make little difference because they treat symptoms, not underlying causes.  
  • In California the main local source for public subsidies of non-market affordable housing was the state’s 400 Redevelopment Agencies. They devoted 20 percent of their budgets to low income housing program  When the State Legislature dissolved them in 2011, the housing crisis substantially worsened (See chart below.), yet no mayoral candidates have proposed restoring this funding source.  

  • An additional factor directly responsible for the housing crisis is increasing economic inequality. At one end of the economic divide are those whose wealth and incomes have soared, and who real estate investors target with their upscale projects.  At the other end of the economic divide are the millions whose standard of living has steadily declined over the past half century, and who can no longer afford a place to live.  They constitute the bulk of the homeless, those who have been priced out of housing.
  • Contributing to financial inequality is Congressional inaction to index wages to inflation or to increases in either productivity or the cost of housing. If the latter were the case, the minimum wages would be about $35/hour, not the nationwide minimum wage of $7.25/hour or in California, $15/hour.
  • A supplementary approach, which could be enacted at the state and local level, is the preservation of existing low-priced housing. If cities, like Los Angeles, modified their Rent Stabilization Ordinances by changing the cutoff date from 1978 to 2007, and if they ended vacancy decontrol, many low-priced residential units would be saved the wrecking ball. 

Abandon solutions that make the housing crisis worse.  The other part of the equation is to end “solutions” that make the housing crisis worse: up-zoning and density bonuses.  It is not an accident that neighborhoods, like Hollywood, Koreatown, and Miracle Mile, have high concentrations of new market rate high-rise apartments and many homeless encampments.  They are two peas in the same pod.  

The new market rate apartments pull up the cost of remaining apartments, pricing more people out of housing.  Furthermore, the two incentives work at cross purposes.  If cities, like LA, truly wanted to use zone changes to promote low-priced apartments and reduce homelessness, they would down-zone, not up-zone.  This would force developers to apply for density bonuses, conditioned on the mandatory inclusion of inspected low-priced units in their new buildings.  

Don’t expect the mayoral candidates, however, to advance such a common-sense approach because their covert agenda is green-lighting real estate speculation.  For them, homelessness is an inconvenient cost of doing business.  Their tactic is to generate a tsunami of vague promises so the homeless and fed-up public will stay in their lane until the next election. 

Final words.   I wish I could recommend a mayoral candidate who understands the housing crisis and who offers genuine solutions.  But at this point no one fills this bill.   If you don’t want to be hoodwinked by their high-priced campaign consultants, you need to devote your political time and energy to bottoms-up solutions instead of the stop-gap fixes they offer from on high.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA.  He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and co-chairs the Greater Fairfax Residents Association.  Previous Planning Watch columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives.  Please send questions and corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.)