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Housing and Homelessness

LA Won’t Have To Find Housing For People On Skid Row By Next Month After Appeals Court Strikes Down Ruling

The downtown LA skyline at dusk from San Pedro St. on Skid Row. Tents are visible on the sidewalk.
The downtown L.A. skyline at dusk from Skid Row.
(Ethan Ward/LAist)
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A federal appeals court on Thursday struck down U.S. District Court Judge David Carter’s order that said the city of Los Angeles had to shelter everyone on Skid Row by next month.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found the district court had “abused its discretion” and that the plaintiffs — the L.A. Alliance For Human Rights — didn’t provide enough evidence that they, or people with disabilities, were denied the benefits of using the city’s sidewalks, and that no members of L.A. Alliance had sufficient standing for the lawsuit.

The suit was initially brought by the alliance and eight individual plaintiffs against the county and city of Los Angeles, alleging they were moving too slowly to get people off the streets and into housing. The L.A. Alliance included current and formerly unhoused residents on Skid Row, business and property owners, and a real estate professional who had interests in the downtown neighborhood.

Elizabeth Mitchell, an attorney with Spertus, Landes & Umhofer, representing the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, said the ruling was vacated “in the best possible way” because it was done so on procedural grounds, which can be quickly addressed.

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“We’ll be filing an amended complaint in the next few weeks and we will be right back in Judge Carter’s court,” she said. “I think the reports or talk that this is a bigger deal or that the alliance case is over is absolutely false and couldn't be further from the truth.”

U.S. District Judge David Carter has likened the homelessness crisis in L.A. to "a significant natural disaster in Southern California with no end in sight."
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

Mitchell said the alliance would have welcomed a negotiated settlement with the city and county, and only filed the motion when it became clear any possible agreement was going nowhere.

“The city, I believe, is trying to get there, but the county needs to engage with real offers that will help solve this crisis,” she said, adding that they could have fixed things a year ago.

Judge Carter’s initial order was based on the fact that structural racism, in part through freeway construction, discriminatory lending and redlining, is one of the reasons why the homelessness crisis disproportionately affects Black people.

The court found that the L.A. Alliance didn’t present any evidence that any individual plaintiff or alliance member was Black, unhoused, a parent, or at risk of losing their children. The panel also found that the plaintiffs couldn’t provide evidence that unhoused residents in Skid Row were experiencing “restraints of personal liberty,” and that they didn’t sufficiently make clear that any plaintiff “had standing for race-based claims.”

Mitchell said the appeals decision regarding race wasn’t one of the alliance’s initial causes of action for the injunction, but several of their clients are Black. That wasn’t included in their initial declarations, which can be amended before they return to Judge Carter’s courtroom.

Skid Row Housing Options Are Dwindling

According to a 2021 report by the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy, Skid Row has been a target of real estate interests for decades when the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) launched a campaign to clean up the area in 1955, which led to increased policing in the neighborhood.

By the 1970s, Skid Row’s housing options had decreased by 20% and the displacement that came from the reduction in housing led to the city approving Municipal Code 41.18 (d), better known as the anti-camping law, according to the report. The law was modified in July by the city council, which adopted the first-ever street engagement strategy that will focus more on outreach and housing placements before infractions are issued.

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Mitchell believes there’s a perception that the lawsuit is about wanting to gentrify Skid Row, but she said that’s not true.

“The only thing we are trying to do is get people off the street immediately,” she said. “We don’t have any vested interest in development. The alliance isn’t in that fight. We are here to save lives and get people off the streets. It's not about property values. It never has been.”

But Shayla Myers, a senior attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who represents the Los Angeles Community Action Network, said the representative members of the L.A. Alliance, which include large property owners in Skid Row, do have a vested interest in gentrification.

“It’s disingenuous to say they don't have an interest in development,” she said.

Myers said LACAN’s intervention in the case was because the L.A. Alliance wanted to “double down on failed policies” that include only having the city and county provide emergency shelter instead of permanent housing, and making arrests if the shelter isn’t accepted.

“You can’t ask for those things and say you’re advocating for unhoused folks,” Myers said. “It’s just about erasing visible signs of homelessness.”

L.A. City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, who chairs the Homelessness and Poverty Committee, said in a statement that the council has taken steps to address the crisis by establishing a “Housing Now Fund” that will provide 10,000 additional rent subsidies and services for unhoused people with “complex” needs.

You don't solve homelessness in a courtroom, you solve it on the streets
— L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas

“You don't solve homelessness in a courtroom, you solve it on the streets,” Ridley-Thomas said. “The City Council is demonstrating unprecedented leadership to surmount the status quo … In partnership with the County — not the courts — we can and should make housing a right, not a privilege.”

Skip Miller, partner at the Miller Barondess Law Firm and outside counsel for Los Angeles County on this case, issued this statement:

“We are grateful the Ninth Circuit has ruled in our favor by vacating the district court’s sweeping injunction based on an abuse of judicial discretion. Nevertheless, the County will continue with its massive efforts to address [homelessness] as it has all along. We appreciate where Judge Carter is coming from and look forward to working with him to find a solution to this lawsuit.”

City Attorney Mike Feuer, who is running for mayor, said in a press release that the city “won an important victory,” but that L.A. “remains in the grips of a homelessness crisis.”

“All officials need to share Judge Carter's intense sense of urgency,” Feuer said. “With today's ruling, the ball is now squarely in the court of elected leaders.That means deeper collaboration between the City and County, additional state and federal resources, fundamental improvements in engaging people experiencing homelessness, and more--driving to real solutions that reduce street homelessness and make our public spaces once again safe and accessible for everyone."

Mitchell was incredulous at Feurer’s statement.

“To call this a victory is shocking to me,” she said. “Is it a victory that five people continue to die a day while we have people like Mike Feuer and Mark Ridley-Thomas who have had decades to solve this and haven’t?”

Better Neighbors LA, a coalition of Southern California property owners, tenants, housing activists, hotel workers and community members, filed an amicus letter in August that provided the court with recommendations to address the homelessness crisis. They include enforcing the city’s existing home-sharing ordinance, which would return thousands of housing units to the market, according to the letter.

L.A. City Councilmember Nithya Raman introduced a motion last month to enforce the ordinance after discovering more than one-third of short-term rentals were operating illegally.

Updated September 23, 2021 at 3:40 PM PDT
This story has been updated with additional details.