Showdown in Echo Park

Photo by Elizabeth Chou, Southern California News Group

The conflict over the homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake seems to be over.  For now.  After months of growing tension, things came to a head this week when the City of LA announced that it planned to close the park and that all persons living on the premises had to leave.  Protests began on Wednesday morning.  Later that day city workers showed up and began erecting a fence, while the LAPD announced that those remaining inside the park would be cited.  Representatives of the LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) offered temporary housing for those who wanted it, and while there were many takers, some declined. 

After a couple of chaotic days, the LAPD announced on Thursday night that anyone remaining in the park would be subject to arrest.  Apparently by Friday the park was closed and all those who had been living there were gone. 

Of course, this is just the latest episode in the ongoing story of housing and homelessness in LA.  Nothing has been resolved, and really there’s no reason to think anything will be resolved any time in the near future.  The forces that are driving LA’s homeless epidemic are still at work, and the LA City Council is doing nothing meaningful to change the situation.  A renter relief program and a temporary eviction moratorium are just band aids on a gaping wound.  As long as the City Council continues to prioritize the wishes of real estate investors over the needs of LA’s renters, things will just keep getting worse. 

As an LA Times editorial pointed out earlier this week, while LAHSA’s stats show that in 2019 an average of 207 homeless people were housed each day, the daily average of people who become newly homeless was 227.  There are a lot of different factors that lead to people living on the street, but the biggest factor is that they can’t afford housing. 

While Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council constantly tell us that their number one priority is providing housing for the people of LA, the facts tell us something completely different.  According to the LA Department of City Planning’s Housing Dashboard, from July 2013 through December 2020 the City approved 162,706 new units.  Of those units, 87% were for Above Moderate Income households.  The remaining 13% is the total for Moderate Income, Low Income and Very Low Income households COMBINED.  During this period, the City of LA has produced more than double the number of Above Moderate Income units required by the State’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA).  It has not come anywhere near meeting the goals for the other three RHNA categories. 

And let’s take this further.  The Housing Dashboard says that the total number of affordable units approved during this period was 20,591.  But according to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (which gets its data from the City of LA), during roughly this same period, January 2014 through December 2020, 9,444 rent-stabilized (RSO) units were removed from the market under the Ellis Act.  This leaves us with a net gain of 11,147 units accessible to Moderate and Low Income households. 

Right about now some of you may be saying, “Well, if we just ramp up allowable density the free market will solve our housing problem for us.  We need to upzone LA.”  My response is, take a look at New York City.  New York City has been on an upzoning binge for the past decade.  What have they got to show for it?  A bunch of super-tall skyscrapers that have created a massive glut on the luxury housing market, while the Coalition for the Homeless reports that in 2020 there were 122,926 different homeless men, women, and children who slept in New York City’s shelters. 

Getting back to Echo Park Lake, about the only positive thing I can say is that there was some really good reporting by the local press.  I was impressed by Elizabeth Chou’s work for the Daily News, and I’d like to link to the story, but it’s restricted by a paywall.  LAist also did a solid job.  Actually, one of the best commentaries on this mess was in an e-mail I got from LAist, their Morning Brief written by Jessica P. Ogilvie.  I couldn’t find it on their web site, so I’ll quote an excerpt….

The Echo Park tent community has found itself at the center of several heated debates over how to handle the city’s dire housing crisis. In January of 2020, a planned sweep of the encampment, which can lead to residents losing their belongings and being left with no place to go, was met by protesters who blocked city vehicles and stood near tents.

The following month, protesters once again joined residents to defend their right to be there.

Many who oppose officials’ plan to clear the area say that it’s a public relations maneuver, and blame the area’s city council representative, Mitch O’Farrell, for not doing more to ensure the safety of those living in the encampment.

Recently, officials and advocates have announced plans to ease the plight of L.A.’s unhoused residents by building community land trusts, making it easier to construct granny flats, and establishing communities of tiny homes.

But these efforts, while no doubt well-intentioned, are only the latest in an exhausting series of projects to get the problem under control. Some ideas have also included government-funded campsites, vacant hotel rooms, empty parking lots, neighborhood shelters, new legislation, emergency shelters, RV parks, prevention efforts, and more.

Mitch O’Farrell claims he cares about the homeless and wants everybody to have secure housing.  But this is the same man who recently voted to approve the hotel project at 1719 Whitley which involves the demolition of 40 rent-stabilized units.  And all the rest of his fellow Councilmembers, with the exception of David Ryu, joined him in voting to greenlight the project.

That should give you an idea of how much the LA City Council really cares about solving our housing problems.

Still from video posted on Twitter by Services Not Sweeps

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