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Housing and Homelessness

Making Good On My 30-Year-Old Vow To Take A Hard Look At Affordable Housing Programs In LA

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The genesis for this series on affordable housing in Los Angeles was a more than 30-year-old conversation with a stranger as we watched our children playing baseball in an L.A. Rec and Parks league.

About this series

I don’t remember a thing about the game that day, nor much about the details of our talk. But I do remember the head-scratching feeling I got as I tried to follow his description of work for a nonprofit housing developer on Skid Row.

As he unspooled some of the intricacies of what was then a fairly new government program to build affordable housing for people of low and very low incomes, I quickly became confused.

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As my seatmate went into detail, I gave up trying to follow him. My mind went to a whimsical image produced by the cartoonist Rube Goldberg.

All I remember clearly is that, instead of directly funding construction, Congress had chosen to fund it indirectly by offering income tax credits to private investors who would agree to spend some, but not all, of their dollar-for-dollar tax savings on construction.

As my seatmate went into detail, I gave up trying to follow him. My mind went to a whimsical image produced by the cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who was famous in the last century for, as Wikipedia put it, “cartoons depicting complicated gadgets performing simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways.”

I vowed to someday look into this program to see how efficient it was.

But in a career that included a long stint as an investigative reporter for the L.A. Times, I somehow never got around to it.

Late last year, when I came out of retirement to report for LAist part time, I told my editors I wanted to try to determine how effective the program has been, and they were game.

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The reporting led to a lot more head-scratching. To understand the program, I talked to developers I knew who wouldn’t go on the record, and read and read and read — dense government tracts and academic studies that debated whom the program benefited most, investors or tenants, as well as passionate writings by the program’s advocates and detractors.

I interviewed housing economists who have studied the program and scoured government and private databases for statistics about its performance. I read Internal Revenue Service laws and California laws governing how state officials implemented the program that ran to 99 single-spaced pages.

I attended webinars in which housing developers described their roles, filed Public Records Act requests about specific projects, talked with legal aid lawyers, and found obscure reports that shed light on the extent of investor and developer profits, including evidence that big portfolios of these humble properties were trading for billions of dollars.

On-the-record interviews with developers and tenants proved hard to come by. But finally, I had enough to put human faces to stories that relied heavily on numbers and to offer an overall assessment of the efficiency of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program.

There was no denying its essential achievement. It was responsible for having helped to finance construction and rehabilitation of more than 3 million apartments that were supposed to be affordable to low-income households.

But across the U.S. more than a million of these apartments were actually not affordable by the government’s own standard. Here in L.A., that’s about 17,000 households of families, and people living alone or with roommates.

For more, check out my series, and thanks for your support during our Spring member drive.

Part 1: Even 'Affordable Housing' In LA Isn't Affordable. Why A Key Program Is Falling Short

What questions do you have about housing in Southern California?

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