LA Wants To Quickly House 15,000 Homeless People. How?

A small homeless encampment near City Hall in downtown Los Angeles, March 24. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)

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The state's Project Roomkey has sheltered thousands of homeless people in hotels across California, protecting them during the pandemic.

L.A. County had a goal of moving 15,000 of the oldest and most medically vulnerable people into hotel rooms, but so far only 3,700 have been housed, mostly due to a lack of resources to manage such a large task.

So, as Project Roomkey begins to wind down, L.A. County officials are hoping to finish what they started. They are ramping up and developing an ambitious $800 million plan to not only house the original 3,700, but the entire 15,000 unhoused vulnerable residents.

How will they do it? It's pretty straightforward — leasing thousands of apartments and offering rental subsidies.

The L.A. Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) is the agency behind the effort, and its "COVID-19 Recovery Plan," will be one of the largest-scale projects ever proposed by the agency.

How will it take shape? Read on.

OKAY, SO HOW IS L.A. GOING TO TRY AND HOUSE 15,000 PEOPLE IF IT COULDN'T GET THEM INTO HOTELS?

Depending on who you ask, Project Roomkey in L.A. was either a resounding success, or a total failure. While it's true officials only housed one-quarter of their original goal, it's also true that the capacity of L.A.'s homeless shelter system expanded faster than at any time in the previous several years.

In public meetings, LAHSA and county staff have said the biggest bottleneck was staffing — they simply didn't have enough workers to arrange more rooms for people experiencing homelessness. (Each site includes meal service, round-the-clock security, health practitioners, plus case managers and other staff.)

WHAT'S DIFFERENT NOW?

Money. Thus far, Los Angeles County has identified approximately $300 million for the plan, mostly from federal relief money disbursed through the CARES Act, and some from Medicaid reimbursement. LAHSA says it has approximately $200 million in existing resources that can be applied to the plan, too.

Approximately $300 million is unfunded for now, though the agency has enough to begin work on housing people.


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EXACTLY HOW WILL IT WORK?

The government hopes to lease thousands of apartments and then subsidize rent for the occupants. In many cases, they will be leased off the regular rental market, such as studios and 1-bedroom units. But the plan also calls for the use of "shared-housing," which is basically a fancy term for a larger home with several roommates.

All of these homes will come with a case manager who will work with the client to secure ongoing income, and craft a plan for securing permanent housing.

LAHSA's plan banks on what seems to be a softening rental market, and cites a 3.3 percent decrease in rent across Los Angeles in the 12 months leading up to May. "Units should be able to be procured more rapidly than in prior years when the real estate market was considerably more competitive," the plan states.

Housing for the plan could be located anywhere in the county where there are vacant units, so long as a landlord is willing to participate.

Some permanent supportive housing developments, like those funded by L.A. City's Proposition HHH, are anticipated to open during the two years and will be utilized by the recovery plan.

Likewise, Gov. Gavin Newsom has also set aside more than $500 million for the acquisition of Project Roomkey sites across California. Some amount of this money will be spent in L.A. County, though that pot of money is not enough to purchase more than a handful of all the hotels used.

ARE THESE GOING TO BE PERMANENT HOMES?

The rental subsidies Los Angeles will provide to residents are temporary. Depending on the person, the subsidy could last as long as 18 months, though for the vast majority of clients it'll be shorter.

The idea is that these homes will be a sort of "bridge" between the street and a permanent home, which allows the client to stabilize and build income while working with a case manager. When the subsidy runs out, the hope is that the client will either have enough income to take over the lease, or have a move-out plan that doesn't result in homelessness.

Clients moved into permanent supportive housing will remain there indefinitely. LAHSA expects this for about one-third of the overall 15,000 target.

WHY HAVEN'T WE DONE THIS BEFORE?

Actually, we have. One of the many strategies piloted with Measure H funds is called "Rapid Re-Housing," which is similar to what LAHSA wants to deploy at a larger scale with its COVID Recovery Plan.

The idea is to get someone who falls into homelessness back indoors as quickly as possible, to minimize the trauma of actually being homeless. Over the past couple of years, Rapid Re-Housing has become one of the most commonly used tools to end homelessness locally. While it's being used more often, there are still questions about whether the strategy is actually sustainable and reliably ends homelessness.

The success of the program ultimately relies on whether or not the client can build enough income before the temporary rent subsidy expires.

IS THIS ACTUALLY GOING TO WORK?

The key factiors in the plan are LAHSA securing enough housing units, and securing enough funding to subsidize the rents in those units.

Those are some pretty substantial variables that, as of now, are not set in stone. But LAHSA is in a better position to execute such a plan than it has been in the past, thanks to the presence of flexible federal funds, as well as recent renovations to how the homeless services sector leases apartments from the rental market.

15,000 IS ADMIRABLE, BUT IT'S STILL LESS THAN A QUARTER OF THE HOMELESS POPULATION IN THE COUNTY

Even if the recovery plan meets all its goals, it will still only be able to (temporarily) house less than a quarter of L.A.'s overall homeless population of more than 66,000. Consequently, advocates for the homeless, and some academics, have criticized the plan.

A recent report authored by UCLA Luskin School's Institute on Inequality and Democracy called the recovery plan "a familiar combination of housing models and policies that have already proven insufficient to meet housing need in Los Angeles."

That report strongly argues for the use of eminent domain, where the government acquires private property for public use. Specifically, the report argues that the government should use eminent domain to acquire now under-utilized tourist hotels and convert those into permanent housing:

"In Los Angeles, eminent domain has been historically used to clear neighborhoods and make way for urban development. We argue that the time has come to flip the script of eminent domain and to use it for the self-evident public purpose of housing."