Los Angeles Is in Crisis. So Why Isn’t It Building More Housing?

Rising rents are feeding a surge in homelessness.

Mike Blake / Reuters

A few short months ago, Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, was giving serious consideration to running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Now he finds himself in the midst of a homelessness crisis that could doom his political future.

If you were to conjure up the ideal California politician, you could do worse than Garcetti, a Jewish Mexican American Rhodes Scholar with a gift for gab, in English and Spanish, and a winningly unpretentious style. As if channeling a young Barack Obama, the mayor is fond of invoking storied moments from the American past—the Great Depression, the Second World War, the civil-rights movement—to suggest that if previous generations were able to turn daunting challenges into historic accomplishments, then we ought to hold ourselves to the same exacting standard, a welcome alternative to the sourness and fatalism of other politicians on the left and right. But when it comes to Los Angeles’s long-running battle with homelessness, the mayor’s rhetoric looks more delusional than inspirational.

A month after Garcetti delivered his rousing State of the City address, California released its annual homelessness count, revealing that after an encouraging 4 percent drop from 2017 to 2018, Los Angeles’s homeless population grew by 16 percent in 2019, bringing post-2011 growth up to 52 percent. These numbers would be alarming in any city, but in Los Angeles they are especially so, because the city is the epicenter of a particularly brutal style of homelessness. Seventy-five percent of the city’s homeless population is unsheltered, typhus and typhoid threaten to create a public-health emergency, and a growing number of homeless people are either the perpetrators or the victims of violent crime.

The mayor’s response has been to increase public spending on homelessness sharply, but he’s had frustratingly little to show for it. When the homelessness issue burst onto front pages a few years ago, Garcetti jumped into action with an ambitious plan to build emergency shelters in all 15 districts of the city. But as the mayor soon discovered, the issue with an “emergency” plan oriented around construction is that Los Angeles is a far cry from Bob Moses’s New York. Eighty percent of the shelters have been held up by red tape and community resistance. The short-term measures, then, must take the city’s built environment as a given.

A new sales tax boosted the city’s budget for dealing with homelessness to more than $600 million, or $20,000 per homeless person, while a bond issuance brought in $1.2 billion to go toward constructing an estimated 10,000 housing units over the next decade, all of which would be preserved for people transitioning off the street or in danger of ending up there. Los Angeles has taken about 16 percent of the funds from its recent sales-tax increase and packaged it as vouchers to offer to a share of its homeless population, allowing them to buy into the rental marketplace with the understanding that their subsidy will fade over the course of a year, shifting the burden onto the new renter.

While Los Angeles is right to want a program that moves people toward self-sufficiency—both for the sake of the homeless themselves and to protect the city’s coffers—the steep monthly increases as the vouchers fade out often outpace the low-wage, part-time work the recipients are able to find. Unsurprisingly, for an alarming share of recipients, the program is more of a one-year reprieve than the start of a new, stable life. Short of doing something serious about the underlying cost of housing in Los Angeles, a limited pool of voucher dollars will forever chase rising rents.

Before the city’s new homelessness count was released, the mayor had been touting the 20,000 people the city had moved off the street and into some form of housing. What we now know, however, is that while the Garcetti administration was helping to move 380 people off the street each week, some 480 others were joining the ranks of homeless Angelenos. Put another way, until someone does something about the city’s larger housing crisis, homelessness will be as much a part of the city’s landscape as Runyon Canyon.

Would building more housing bring an end to homelessness in L.A.? That might be too much to ask. As in most U.S. cities, a large share of the city’s homeless are thought to be mentally ill. The slice of Los Angeles’s homeless population dealing with mental illness is believed to be about 25 percent—relatively modest when compared with San Francisco, where an estimated 35 percent are struggling with mental illness, but still a substantial portion of the total.

Moreover, the city’s mild climate makes living outdoors a more viable option than in colder communities. The notorious encampments at Skid Row and in Venice Beach do not have counterparts in Manhattan, and it is safe to assume that a large number of seriously mentally ill people live in these parallel communities. Los Angeles also attracts an enormous number of homeless young adults from elsewhere in the United States and abroad. Among the 18-to-24-year-olds living on L.A.’s streets, whose numbers grew by nearly 25 percent this past year, a disproportionate share are newcomers to the city, who don’t have strong ties to the region.

These populations present knotty issues for city officials. Still, the fact that these populations are a distinct minority ought to give us hope that the majority of the city’s homeless can be reached through conventional public policy—that is, through reforms designed to increase the supply of housing, including low-cost, no-frills housing that can meet the needs of the very poor. If 10 years down the road, Los Angeles’s median rent has been pushed downward as a result of denser building, Skid Row might very well still exist as a home to people facing down hellish battles with mental illness and addiction. But at that point, the city would have the breathing room to focus on helping the hardest cases. Getting there is the hard part.

One of the ironies of this unfolding humanitarian disaster is that homelessness is a problem most pronounced in successful cities, where dynamic economies all too often meet rigidly regulated housing markets. As my Manhattan Institute colleague Stephen Eide observed in National Affairs, homelessness is not the product of poverty per se. Rather, homelessness is in no small part an artifact of being poor in a place where ferocious competition for a severely constrained supply of homes drives up rents. To offer one example of this dynamic at work, Detroit’s poverty rate is twice that of New York City’s, but because of its notably inexpensive real estate, it maintains a homelessness rate a third the size.

Los Angeles offers an example of this dynamic in extremis. In his incisive American Affairs essay on L.A.’s homelessness crisis, Jacob Siegel highlighted a study by Zillow that showed that you start to see a rising rate of homelessness once a city’s average rent reaches 22 percent of median income, and an even more rapid rate of increase once that number hits 32 percent. In Los Angeles, the average rent is 49 percent of median income. Some studies have shown that the city has as many as 600,000 people who regularly put as much as 90 percent of their monthly income toward rent. Simply put, these people need a lucky bounce to not end up homeless.

This lucky bounce might have come from California’s state government, where ambitious fixes to the statewide housing shortage have been in play. Earlier this year, to his credit, Governor Gavin Newsom set the goal of building 3.5 million new housing units in California over the next seven years, an implicit acknowledgment that insufficient housing supply was the driving force behind the state’s ruinously high rents.

This was a controversial stance for a progressive politician whose ideological allies often prefer to blame profit-hungry landlords and absentee owners. The substance to make good on Newsom’s promise was to be found in Senate Bill 50, an ambitious proposal from Scott Wiener, a state senator from San Francisco with unimpeachable left-wing credentials. In essence, S.B. 50 would have preempted local restrictions on density within neighborhoods that are well served by public transportation or in close proximity to employment centers.

In a nod to political reality, Wiener and his allies softened some of the bill’s more controversial provisions as it made its way through the legislature. Both its supporters and detractors understood that the bill would have done a great deal to boost California’s housing stock over time. But the bill died in committee, sunk by anti-growth legislators who denounced it as a threat to local control.

When a bill to help the most vulnerable people in California fails, one can hardly blame Sacramento’s dwindling band of conservative legislators, because they are very much on the margins of the state’s political life. They can hardly muster the votes to name a park bench, let alone decide the fate of California’s housing regulations. As Michael Hendrix, also of Manhattan Institute, has observed, the real culprits are self-described progressives, such as Paul Koretz, who represents most of the west side of L.A. on the Los Angeles City Council and suggested that S.B. 50 would take his district’s neighborhoods of single-family homes and make them “look like Dubai in 10 years.”* Then, from the other side of town, Damien Goodmon, the president of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, suggested that the potential gentrification of his neighborhood amounted to a “Twenty-first century Trail of Tears.”

I sympathize with Koretz’s and Goodmon’s devotion to the built environment they know and cherish. Many of the sprawling single-family neighborhoods of Los Angeles are quite beautiful. It is hardly surprising that they’d want to fight against what they perceive to be disruptive change. The trouble is that their resistance to one form of disruptive change, as represented by the gradual replacement of single-family homes with higher-density apartment buildings that could house many more families at far lower cost, is contributing to another form of disruptive change—the transformation of large swaths of Los Angeles into unsanitary homeless encampments, where women, men, and children are forced to spend much of their waking hours fending off vermin.

And what did Garcetti have to say about S.B. 50? Though he refused to sign a Los Angeles City Council resolution denouncing the bill, the mayor didn’t come out in favor of it either, choosing instead to triangulate. In an exchange with Liam Dillon of the Los Angeles Times, Garcetti suggested that while he favored allowing the construction of duplexes and triplexes in keeping with the character of existing single-family neighborhoods, which he claimed had the potential to boost the city’s housing supply by as much as 50 percent, he felt Wiener’s bill went much too far.

It was exactly the sort of statement one would expect from a shrewd politician. By touting the virtues of duplexes and triplexes, Garcetti sounded righteous without committing himself to anything concrete enough to anger the likes of Paul Koretz. Meanwhile, L.A.’s homelessness crisis rages on.

* This article originally stated that Paul Koretz represents West Hollywood on the Los Angeles City Council. In fact, he represents District Five. West Hollywood is a separate city.