Nobody Knows What to Do About L.A.’s Homelessness Crisis

Ahead of the first presidential debates, the nationwide squeeze on affordable housing has barely registered on the campaign trail.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

LOS ANGELES—The problem is anything but invisible. Tent cities line freeway underpasses mere blocks from some of the richest zip codes in the nation. Rat infestations and human waste from makeshift encampments—such as those just outside city hall’s iconic Art Deco tower and the main downtown police precinct—are suspected in cases of flea-borne typhus and typhoid fever spread by contaminated food.

Those are the Joe Friday facts.

Yet the news this month that Los Angeles County’s homeless population grew by 12 percent last year—to just under 59,000 people, enough to fill Dodger Stadium to overflowing—still managed to shock this city’s civic and political establishment. Within the Los Angeles city limits alone, the increase was 16 percent, to more than 36,000 people. Overall, about three-quarters of homeless residents are living completely outside, without adequate sanitation, sparking fears of a public-health crisis and the spread of medieval diseases.

And all of this after the previous year’s census showed a slight decrease in homelessness here—and after local officials spent some $619 million on housing and other services over the past 12 months, managing to bring more than 20,000 people off the streets and into some kind of shelter or transitional housing.

“To say it’s been a real wake-up call would be putting it mildly,” says Raphael Sonenshein, the director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University’s L.A. campus. “It continues to be the No. 1 issue voters keep pointing to. This is going to be the issue of our time for the next few years out here. I think it’s going to dominate the rest of the mayor’s administration.”

Homelessness is by no means a problem unique to Los Angeles, of course. It’s a national crisis of varying degrees in cities from San Francisco to Boston, and one that officials at all levels of government seem hard-pressed to know how to address. Ahead of the first presidential-primary debates, the issue has barely registered, if at all, on the 2020 campaign trail, even as the bursting field of Democratic contenders issues policy proposals to address a wide range of other social and economic problems. But the candidate’s may be forced to confront the issue before long if the crisis continues to spread across the country.

For the moment, the latest numbers here have provoked outraged press releases, mournful editorials, and millions of dollars for emergency street cleanup to attack the growing health risks, but not so much in the way of bold new ideas.

“It’s not an emergency like an earthquake,” Sonenshein says. “But it’s not something you can ignore. It’s something where the symptoms have to be addressed while you’re getting at the root causes. I think it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for elected and appointed officials. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an issue where there’s more money, more public support, and it’s still so difficult to carry out a fix.”

When Mayor Eric Garcetti announced in January that he would not run for president, in the aftermath of a contentious public-school teachers’ strike, he was likely spared a raft of negative campaign ads that could have surveyed a local landscape that too often looks like a slum. But just as surely, the latest numbers—which Garcetti called “heartbreaking”—have given national Republicans, already contemptuous of deep-blue California as the seat of resistance to Donald Trump, a handy new way to paint Los Angeles as the capital of a dystopian liberal culture.

“One of the great ironies is that the worst poverty and the greatest inequality is all in the city where the social-justice warriors live,” says Joel Kotkin, a prominent demographer at Chapman University in neighboring Orange County, which recorded a 43 percent increase in the homeless population over the past two years, after officials changed their counting methodology by sending survey teams to blanket the entire area. “California is becoming feudal.”

“This is a different kind of homelessness than we have seen before, and I don’t see that the politicians are doing much to solve it, because the housing situation is insane and the whole blue-collar industry in L.A. is disappearing,” Kotkin told me. “All that’s left is hospitality and tourism, which pays very badly.”

Historically, Kotkin said, median house prices have run about three times the median income, but now someone making $100,000 a year in Southern California would have to spend $900,000 to buy a median-priced house—three times the multiple in Texas and Florida.

Indeed, the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles is only one part of a massive statewide housing shortage, fueled by rising home prices, the booming Silicon Valley economy, chronic NIMBYism, and local zoning regulations that protect single-family homes. Or, as the Los Angeles Times’ streetwise populist columnist Steve Lopez recently put it, “California’s wealth, in a way, is driving its poverty.”

California’s problem may be especially acute, but the lack of affordable housing, like homelessness, is a widespread problem in a national economy where income inequality has grown steadily for years. Yet of the leading presidential candidates, perhaps only Elizabeth Warren has outlined a detailed national plan to address the lack of affordable housing. She has proposed a program that would encourage states and localities to drop restrictive zoning laws that limit multiple dwellings and drive up housing costs in exchange for grants that could finance parks, roads, and schools. Her plan is comparable to a state proposal floated by California’s new Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom.

One major problem is widespread public opposition to greater density; a city like Los Angeles epitomizes urban sprawl, but it also enshrines the ideal of a backyard swimming pool and garden. The California state Senate recently shelved a bill that would have allowed the overriding of local zoning laws to permit construction of mid-rise apartment buildings near transit hubs and employment centers, even in neighborhoods currently limited to single-family homes. The bill fell victim to intense opposition from local neighborhood groups and some progressives, who feared it would benefit developers but not create more affordable housing. A study published in February by researchers at UCLA found that Newsom’s goal of 3.5 million new homes by 2025 is unrealistic because no more than 2.8 million could be built under current zoning laws.

Gary Painter, a public-policy professor at the University of Southern California and the director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute, a consortium of local academic institutions and nonprofit social-service agencies, says the problem is not that political officials are ignoring the issue. “More and more people are receiving services, and more and more people have been moved into housing who were formerly homeless, and yet the number hasn’t really gone down,” he says. “It hasn’t structurally changed in any way despite more money being spent.”

Yet at the same time, Painter adds, “we see so many communities pushing back against interim or permanent housing for the homeless. At some point, it causes you to scratch your head, because it implies you want them to live on the street.”

In 2016, with Garcetti’s strong backing, city voters passed Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure to build about 10,000 units of supportive housing for the homeless, and the first units opened in May. In 2017, county voters approved Measure H, a separate provision that imposed a quarter percent county sales tax for the next 10 years and will raise about $350 million a year for homeless services. Garcetti has also committed to opening shelters in each of the 15 city-council districts, but only three have opened so far.

According to a recent report by the California Housing Partnership, L.A. County needs about 517,000 units of affordable rental housing to meet demand. As it stands, a renter would have to earn more than $47 an hour, more than triple the minimum wage, to make the median monthly rent of $2,471.

“I think the issue has gotten so bad that there’s paralysis in the system,” says Karla Lopez del Rio, a longtime affordable-housing advocate in Orange County. “People don’t know what to do anymore. It has been neglected for so long that we’re now in a situation that will be extremely hard to turn around. I used to be an optimist. But it’s like shoveling sand against the tide, putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage.”

Other cities have fared better. More than 30 years ago, under Mayor Ed Koch, New York City began a comprehensive capital-construction program that ultimately built more than 100,000 units by the early 1990s. But until recently, Los Angeles undertook nothing like a comparable effort, even as the crisis built for a decade or more.

New York had tens of thousands of units that the city cheaply acquired in blighted areas such as the South Bronx. They could be renovated relatively quickly and turned over mostly to management by nonprofit groups, including the Catholic Church, recalls Abraham Biderman, who was New York’s housing commissioner at the time. Most of those apartments are still “in very excellent condition,” he says. “Few reversions. People got something nice, and their sense of pride meant that it was maintained. That really was a very successful story—not just for the homeless population, but for neighborhoods that were stabilized.”

But Biderman concedes that while New York made great strides in housing homeless families, it has never really solved the problem of homeless singles, many of whom have mental-health or addiction issues, or both, and require much more in the way of supportive services. Then, too, he notes, “in New York, for four or five months a year, it becomes unbearable to live on the streets outside. In L.A., the weather accommodates that virtually year-round.” On either coast, there may be no foolproof model to follow for public officials grappling with the intertwined crises of homelessness and affordable housing. But if the problems only get worse, more voters around the country may soon start expecting their leaders to come up with answers—fast.