Does LA Actually Have More Vacant Units Than Homeless People? Our Mea Culpa

Homeless encampments on Skid Row, photographed on June 30, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (James Bernal for KPCC)

Last Wednesday we published a story headlined: "LA Has More Vacant Homes Than Homeless People, Report Finds." Shortly after publication, we identified some problems with the methodology behind the report. Within days, the authors took the report down from the internet and said they would issue a revised report sometime in the future.

LAist/KPCC takes transparency seriously. That's why we are explaining what happened and apologizing for falling short on our commitment to maintain the highest standards of accuracy and truth.

The reality is that we messed up. We should not have published the story without fully vetting the methodology first. We did not contact third party experts to scrutinize the report's claims and only attempted to verify them after publishing. We did so after reading comments from readers that raised questions about the report.

THOSE QUESTIONS

At issue? We found multiple data points and conclusions in the report were based on outdated information, particularly related to high-end apartment buildings in downtown Los Angeles. Likewise, claims made about condominium vacancy did not account for the potential that those condos are being rented to other tenants, as we noted in our original post.

Here's what we know:

On Thursday morning, we reached out to real estate research firm CoStar and requested the most current information on the 10 luxury apartment buildings in downtown L.A. that the report claimed were mostly vacant. CoStar sent us a spreadsheet on Friday morning showing that the current, average vacancy rate in those buildings is 30%, down from the 70% stated in the report, which was based on April 2019 data.

We updated the original story on Friday to reflect these more recent numbers.

We then asked the advocacy organizations that authored the report, SAJE and ACCE, to explain why they published a report with outdated figures. They responded they had used the most recent numbers that had been made available to them.

A BROKEN LINK

On Saturday morning, we independently noticed that the report had been taken offline. None of the authors or their respective organizations had notified us of their decision. We confirmed with ACCE Los Angeles director Joe Delgado via email that the report had been retracted. He wrote that we should "Stay tuned!" for an updated version.

Again, we should've taken a harder look at the report's methodology in the first place. But practically speaking, both vacancy rates and homelessness are very challenging issues to quantify, even for experts without a political agenda.

WHAT'S REALLY VACANT

The latest five-year estimate from the American Community Survey (2013-2017) found 93,535 "vacant housing units" in the city of L.A.

By this metric, there are almost certainly more empty homes than people on L.A. streets and in shelters — 36,165 people, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). But ACS's numbers include short-term vacancies, for example, apartments between leases.

The authors behind the report we wrote about, "Who's Buying Los Angeles?" were attempting to quantify the portion of vacancies that are long-term, and more specifically, owned as what they consider a "speculative investment." Their numbers, ultimately, didn't hold up under scrutiny.

That said, we are desperately in need of accurate numbers. City leaders have ordered their own study of vacancy in L.A. It matters because without clear definitions for these persistently difficult-to-define words — "homeless" and "vacant" — we are doomed to miscommunication and confusion on what is arguably Southern California's most urgent concern.

Who is considered homeless can also prove complicated.

Here's one scenario that illustrates how murky it can get. Consider a formerly rent-stabilized building in East Hollywood from which all 14 tenants were evicted after the owner invoked the Ellis Act, a state law that gives landlords a way to get out of the rental business without running afoul of tenant protection rules. That building is now literally vacant of tenants. The units no longer count as rentable. However, squatters bold enough to break in can continue to stay there — at least until the owner starts paying for on-site security to keep people out.

Those squatters living inside a literally "vacant" or "derelict" building technically no longer in the housing market would not show up in the annual point-in-time homeless count. LAHSA does not count squatters in vacant buildings in its annual homeless count because the buildings are considered too dangerous to survey.

At the same time, emergency personnel respond to call after call of disturbances or fires inside such buildings, as they did Sunday at a boarded up five-story building in Van Nuys.

Also not included in L.A.'s annual homeless count: People crammed into overcrowded apartments, those sleeping on a friend's floor and the families eking out a life in dingy motels. Under the methodology for the count, none of these people are considered "homeless" because, although their living situation is precarious, they're still inside an actual building.

Local school districts, however, would consider them homeless. School districts use a different federal definition of homelessness, set by the Department of Education.

A BIG GAP IN THE COUNT

While LAHSA estimates 58,936 people are homeless in Los Angeles County, the county's office of education counted 70,545 "homeless" K-12 students during the 2017-18 school year.

That figure — 70,545 homeless children — is alarming. Few of these children physically live on the street, but many of them do live in vehicles — typically considered the most common (and most undercounted) form of homelessness in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, there are vacant homes and storefronts and underutilized land that could hypothetically be used for shelter.

The problem of homelessness and housing insecurity in Southern California requires reliable information so we can propose appropriately scaled solutions. The report we cited was intriguing because it proposed to give us reliable information on long-term vacancies and thereby open a conversation about the idea of a vacancy tax as a way to alleviate the housing shortage.

But that conversation opener was undermined by obsolete data that doesn't accurately reflect reality.

We anxiously await the next version of the report and will fully vet it when it arrives.