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.