For Solving The Homelessness Crisis, New Homes Might Not Be Enough
New apartments to benefit unhoused people are going up around Los Angeles. L.A. City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson loves the sound of construction. There will be roughly 300 units of housing coming online this year in his South L.A. district.
“Every nail hit by a hammer will result in some family or person coming off the street," he said, "and moving out of that 24 hours a day seven day a week trauma that people are suffering at this moment."
A 2020 count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found there are more than 48,000 unsheltered people in L.A. County. Voter approved measures, such as Proposition HHH, are financing new construction for unhoused people. But the process is slow, and neighbors complain about seeing tents everywhere. Harris-Dawson says it’s not fair to focus critique on the measures themselves because all housing in the city takes a long time to build.
If your momma wouldn't live there, that's not housing.
“The city won't give you money unless you have the state money, but the state won't give you the money unless you have permission from the city to build at this site, and then, the city won’t give you permission until you’ve done the environmental review,” said the council member.
Although the region is building affordable housing, it’s left city council members scrambling to find immediate housing solutions for unhoused residents, such as Tiny Home villages or safe-camping sites. Many of those solutions are under threat of criminalization because of the city’s anti-camping ordinance.
Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA, says those types of solutions aren’t good enough.
“Housing means: Would your momma live there?,” Abdullah said. “If your momma wouldn't live there, that's not housing. You would not put your mother in a parking lot stall. The answer is permanent supportive housing for our people — and it's not hard to figure that out.”
Abdullah says L.A. is a city of abundance, not scarcity.
“If there was nowhere for people to live I would understand. You know, okay, maybe you only get a tiny home or a transitional space,” Abdullah said. “But we don’t have to relegate people to transitional spaces. There’s enough for people to have permanent supportive housing.”
An unhoused man at a Hollywood encampment who didn't want to be identified out of fear of retaliation, said there should be more of an effort from outreach workers to connect with them instead of people experiencing homelessness having to shoulder the burden of follow-up and constantly going to places to get services, because “sometimes people can’t move around.”
When asked what type of housing he would take, he responded: “real” housing. Unhoused residents often take the temporary solutions only to find themselves back on the streets again.
Harris-Dawson also agrees with Abduallah’s sentiment, but said there is a difference between transitional facilities and housing.
“I don't think a tool shed is housing, but I do think it's a suitable transition,” said Harris-Dawson, referring to the tiny homes that are becoming more prevalent. “I think the shed is better than the street. And if it turns out it can be done quickly and more cheaply, I'm all for it.”
L.A. City Councilmember Curren Price, whose district includes neighborhoods such as Exposition Park and much of South L.A., is struggling to find places for sheltering unhoused people in his district. He disagreed that safe camping sites or tiny home villages aren’t a good temporary solution. But Price said he understands critics who say the options don't constitute housing.
“But compared to what?,” he asked. “Under the freeway? On the corner? It would be nice if folks could move from the streets into a nice furnished shelter, but we don't have enough. There's a lot of folks who aren't ready for that. We've seen folks go from the streets into a nice apartment and then two weeks later they’re back on the street.”
Price said he believes temporary, supportive and affordable housing options add up, but also understands people's frustrations with the homelessness crisis. he made his comments as we walked the historic Angels Walk to the famed Lincoln Theater, which will be the site of a new safe camping area for unhoused people in the vacant lot next door. The site will be used to build affordable housing in two years.
“It’s a challenge and we have got to come up with new strategies,” Price said. “We’ve got to be more creative [and] sensitive, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do in my district.”
Price's district currently has more than 300 permanent supportive housing units completed since 2018, with nearly 700 expected to be available by the end of 2023. There are almost 1,200 shelter beds expected to be available this year in his district alone, according to Price. His district is expected to have nearly 9,000 total units completed in the next two years.
Price also said safe parking where individuals can sleep overnight and have access to restrooms is part of the puzzle.
“Clearly not enough, but it's more than we had,” Price said. “We are building more housing now than ever before and people are [still] saying, What's the difference?”
Catering To A Few
Mark Vestal, co-author of a report on the history of homelessness in L.A., said people with money or access to vast amounts of loans to obtain housing don't want to live around unhoused or people who were formally unhoused.
“We have a real estate market that caters to a very small slice of white people who have access to this kind of debt,” Vestal said. “It's effectively ruined our prospects for building housing in this country for the last century.”
California’s attorney general recently sent a warning letter to the city of Pasadena for unlawfully blocking new housing through an ordinance that circumvents new state laws to increase density. The mayor says the city is trying to protect areas that are deemed to have unique architectural or historic value.
A study found that 78% of L.A.’s residential land is reserved for single family homes and that L.A.’s cities have used zoning as a tool to hoard resources and keep certain people out.
Abdullah said that the primary force against permanent supportive housing comes from land developers who want to use space for profit rather than for what’s right. She used the mall in downtown Crenshaw, which advocates wanted to see turned into affordable housing for people experiencing homelessness, as an example of how common sense development ideas are killed.
Abduallah said there needs to be more of a focus on ending speculative real estate practices and figuring out ways to guarantee housing for the city’s fastest growing unhoused population: adults over the age of 50.
Lisa Chilton, a 63-year-old Black woman who couch surfed for five years, was on waiting lists for affordable housing for years before her current apartment was offered through the Ariandne Getty Foundation Senior Housing, a charitable nonprofit.
Looking For Innovative Solutions
Vestal said solutions for unhoused people can be found through EcoHood Sustainable Housing, an effort led by the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN). The micro homes would provide stable homes for unhoused people faster and cheaper, while protecting the environment, according to LACAN. Vestal said the homes are an alternative to tiny home villages that he says unhoused people refer to as prisons.
“Unhoused people would at least be elevated in the eyes of those who have the power as being full-fledged political subjects who have ideas about how they want to live,” Vestal said. “They ought to have control or some participation. Just like those who have the privilege of negotiating a contract, we should have a housing system that respects their needs and their wants.”
It's a way to get the units that are available and get the people that need to be housed or rehoused – housed quickly. This is where our system needs to shift and move the bureaucracy to get folks off the streets faster.
Other solutions include a new citizen-led ballot measure proposed by United to House LA that would generate the largest, long-term funding for the city. If it passes in November, the group says it would provide consistent financial support to build non-market rate affordable housing and fund renter stability programs to keep more people in their homes and off the streets.
Veronica Lewis, director of the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (HOPICS), said the past couple of years have been tough for her nonprofit, but she’s proud that her team was able to move over 400 people in permanent supportive housing since Sept. 2020.
Lewis said they’ve had to get creative with limited resources to solve the homelessness issue. She said the organization has begun obtaining master leases of apartment buildings or single family homes to combat hesitant landlords who may want to help people experiencing homelessness, but are fearful of unhoused people damaging their properties. Master leasing is a process where nonprofits can pay upfront for an entire building and have total control over who gets to live there.
“Providers have been master leasing for a long time,” Lewis said. “It's a way to get the units that are available, and get the people that need to be housed or rehoused, housed quickly. This is where our system needs to shift and move the bureaucracy to get folks off the streets faster.”
In February, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the housing authority for the city was awarded nearly $37 million to buy multifamily rental housing projects. The project will provide 126 units of permanent supportive housing. Another $10.5 million was awarded to buy a newly constructed apartment building that will provide an additional 34 units.
The state also announced a $2.75 billion extension of Project Homekey in Sept. 2021, the program that allows local jurisdictions to buy motels to be converted to permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness. In total, the program has provided 7,700 new units.
Lewis also pointed to the hoops that unhoused people have to jump through to access services, which include tracking down social security numbers, trips to the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, and dealing with various other government agencies. It got to the point where HOPICS began doing "document days," where they would transport unhoused people once a week to complete these tasks.
“Why haven’t we figured out a way to streamline that process to get that documentation for people who are trying to move forward to get long term subsidies and get permanently housed?,” she said, adding there should be hubs that people experiencing homelessness can access all over the city, much like current COVID-19 pop-up sites that have appeared.
“We spend hours in meetings talking about this,” Lewis said. “Yes, it will take money, but that is the answer. We know what to do, but we just haven’t done it.”
Megan Kirkeby, deputy director of housing policy for California’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said their office is responsible for ensuring city and county zoning plans are meeting their housing needs. Kirkeby said she hopes officials are seriously considering all innovative solutions, because a lack of affordable housing is the main reason for homelessness.
“I think that can be hard for people to absorb, and there's a lot of blame to go around, but if you want to address homelessness you’ve gotta start from a place of getting more affordable housing out there,” Kirkeby said, adding that the agency has been working to help cities and counties speed up the housing approval process.
“We’re in a better position when people are acting with a sense of urgency, getting their rezoning done as quickly as they can," she said, "setting that table for housing to happen so we can start to feel some relief from the situation we’re all in."