LA Renters Are Being Priced Out

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I’m not a big fan of TV news, but I was impressed by this report from CBS. The title, Priced Out, says it all. Tenants are being displaced because real estate investors are buying multifamily buildings and jacking up the prices so they can cash in. This means working people are being forced out of their homes. The idea that we can build our way out of this crisis is ludicrous. Yes, we need to build housing, but the people who argue that high housing prices are simply the result of short supply don’t know what they’re talking about. According to the CBS report, median rent in LA increased 84% from 2010 to 2018. This is a direct result of a massive expansion in real estate speculation, and the impacts on LA households have been devastating. Click on the link to view the video.

Priced Out: LA’s Hidden Homeless

Jailing the Mentally Ill Doesn’t Help Anyone

Mens Central Jail Photo by Mark Ibirby

Does this look like a good place to send people who are mentally ill?  Photo by Mark Ibirby.

Here’s some disturbing info from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)….

“In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help. As a result, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition.”

Throwing mentally ill people in jail doesn’t help anybody. It certainly doesn’t help the person who’s stuck behind bars, because getting locked up just adds one more layer of trauma, and will most likely prevent the person from getting the help they need. And it isn’t good for society at large, because instead of hooking mentally ill people up with treatment that will help them get back on their feet, it makes it more difficult for them to find employment and housing, meaning they’re more likely to end up homeless.

Over the past several years there’s been a push to rethink the way we care for people dealing with mental health issues. Last week the LA Board of Supervisors approved a plan to tear down the Men’s Central Jail and build a mental health care facility instead. At first glance, this looks like progress, but local activists fear the plan may only offer cosmetic changes. For more details, read the story in the LA Times.

LA County Will Replace Men’s Central Jail with Mental Health Hospital for Inmates

At this point it’s hard to say how this will all play out. The plan approved by the Supervisors could be a step in the right direction, or it could be a way to defer meaningful action that would lead to real progress. But however this plays out, we should all be thinking about how we can push for change in this area. If you’ve lived in LA for any time at all, you’ve seen mentally ill people wandering the street. Many of these people have spent time in jail, and were released with little or no support to help them transition back into society. If we don’t change the way the system operates, we’re certain to see the number of mentally ill homeless increase.

I’ll leave you with another quote from NAMI.

“Jailing people with mental illness creates huge burdens on law enforcement, corrections and state and local budgets. It does not protect public safety. And people who could be helped are being ignored.”

The Poor People’s Campaign Comes to LA

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Last month the Poor People’s Campaign came to LA. Led by Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the campaign has been travelling all over the country advocating “a national call for moral revival.” Can anyone deny it’s needed?

If the Poor People’s Campaign sounds familiar, it’s probably because Revs. Barber and Theoharis are building on the efforts of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King back in the 60s. After the Civil Rights Movement achieved important advances, Dr. King argued that it was time to turn to human rights, focussing on housing, jobs and health care.

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The sanctuary was packed.

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A close-up of the crowd.

On its stop in LA, the campaign landed at McCarty Memorial Christian Church in West Adams, where Rev. Eddie Anderson serves as pastor. The place was packed with people, and a number of different organizations were there representing labor, immigrants, and tenants. One speaker emphasized that the Poor People’s Campaign was happy to embrace people of all faiths, and even people who don’t belong to any faith tradition. They welcome everybody. A variety of speakers took turns at the pulpit, including some ordinary folks who talked about how hard they’re struggling just to survive.

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The crowd overflowed into the aisles.

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A close-up of the balcony.

Finally Rev. Barber stepped up to speak. He made it clear that he believes our country is in a moral crisis, citing rampant inequality and economic oppression. He talked about poverty in Los Angeles and California, decrying homelessness and lack of access to healthcare. In Rev. Barber’s view, our society is afflicted by four ills that we must challenge: racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy.

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Revs. William Barber, Liz Theoharis, and Eddie Anderson

It was an inspiring sermon, and the crowd ate it up. I have to admit I didn’t stay til the end, because I had a long bus ride home. But it was exciting to be in a room full of people who believe the country needs to change.

Interested in joining the Poor People’s Campaign? Here’s the link….

Poor People’s Campaign

During his sermon, Rev. Barber insisted, “It’s time for a breakthrough!”

I couldn’t agree more.

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It is definitely time for a breakthrough.

Speaking Out on the Housing Crisis

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Housing is the hottest issue in California right now. Here in LA housing costs continue to climb, the pace of evictions is quickening, and the number of homeless is increasing by leaps and bounds. The folks at City Hall talk a lot about taking action, but nothing they’ve done so far has had any significant impact. The situation just keeps getting worse.

So a group of housing advocates, homeless advocates, and renters’ rights advocates decided to stage a protest on Fairfax last Friday. They put up a line of tents along the curb to dramatize the plight of those who are currently homeless, and also the thousands more who will likely become homeless in the next few years.

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Protesters lined up on Fairfax.

The media showed up with their cameras to cover this tent city press conference. The organizers called on Mayor Garcetti and the City Council to develop a plan to create affordable housing, ensure responsible development, and expand rent control.

A number of people spoke about different aspects of the crisis. Victor García, a recent graduate of UCSB, talked about the invisible problem of student homelessness. He told the crowd about UCLA students living in their cars because they couldn’t afford student housing and apartments in Westwood were way beyond their reach. García would like to see an end to California’s Costa-Hawkins act, which the limits the expansion of rent control.

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Victor Garcia speaks about student homelessness.

Emily Martiniuk told her own story, a harrowing account of being evicted at age 59 and having nowhere to go. Contemplating suicide, she had the presence of mind to check herself into Olive View Medical Center, and eventually was able to move into a permanent supportive housing facility. She escaped long-term homelessness, but there are tens of thousands of people on the streets of LA right now who weren’t so lucky. Martiniuk has travelled the US in recent years, speaking about the importance of creating more permanent supportive housing.

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Emily Martiniuk is a vocal advocate for permanent supportive housing.

As cars drove by on Fairfax, protesters stood at the curb holding signs and chanting slogans. Just before I left I heard them shouting, “Tent city! Do something, Garcetti!” Hopefully somebody at City Hall is listening. It would be great if the Mayor and the City Council finally did decide to do something about this crisis.

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How Do We Help the Homeless?

Notice outside of vacant homes on Roscoe Blvd. in Panorama City.

Notice outside of vacant homes on Roscoe Blvd. in Panorama City.

If you live in LA, by now you’ve gotten used to the fact that homeless people are part of the landscape. No matter where you go, Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, Van Nuys, you see people living on the streets. It used to be that homelessness was one of those things you could escape by running to the suburbs, but not any more. Nowadays Burbank, Glendale, Encino, all have their share of people living in tents and cardboard boxes. The homeless are everywhere, and there’s no simple solution.

The homeless population in Panorama City has been growing for a long time. For a while there was a large encampment off of Van Nuys Blvd. over by Smart & Final. Not too long ago the City dismantled it, but of course, that didn’t solve the problem. The residents of the camp were dispersed, but they didn’t go away. They just bundled up their stuff and moved it somewhere else.

Homeless encampment near Roscoe and Lennox.

Homeless encampment near Roscoe and Lennox.

Another shot of the makeshift shelter.

Another shot of the makeshift shelter.

At the corner of Roscoe and Lennox there was a row of houses that were empty. A developer had bought them intending to tear them down, but since work on the project hadn’t started yet, the homes just stood there, vacant. It wasn’t long before a group of homeless people decided to move in. The police chased them out, but instead of leaving the area, they simply created a makeshift shelter on the parkway in front of the houses. As weeks went by the shelter grew larger and longer, until it was difficult to pass on the sidewalk.

Vacant houses near Roscoe and Lennox.

Vacant houses near Roscoe and Lennox.

A view from the alley behind the vacant homes.

A view from the alley behind the vacant homes.

I was curious to find out what was going on with the empty houses, so I contacted Councilmember Nury Martinez’ office. I got a call back from her Communications Director, Adam Bass, who told me that the developer had pulled a demolition permit for the houses, though he wasn’t sure when they’d actually be bulldozed. I asked how Councilmember Martinez was dealing with the homeless situation in her district, and he informed me that earlier this year a new program had been launched in CD 6. The Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement (HOPE) initiative brings together the LAPD, the Bureau of Sanitation, and the LA Homeless Services Authority to engage with those living on the streets. While the City still clears away illegal encampments, the idea is to offer assistance to those who want it. Bass told me that since May, the HOPE initiative had helped dozens of homeless people in the Valley, in some cases finding them space in shelters and in others giving a hand to those looking for jobs. Over the summer the program expanded into the LAPD’s Central and West bureaus, and next month it’ll move into South LA.

This is a big improvement over the City’s past efforts. Some of City Hall’s recent attempts to deal with the homeless have been outrageously heavy-handed. Their efforts were so draconian that they were challenged in court three times, and the City lost every time. So the idea of a multi-pronged approach that brings different agencies together to offer assistance is a welcome one, and I’m glad it’s been successful so far. But unfortunately, the problem is so big and so complex that it’s going to take a lot more to bring about real change.

There are no easy answers. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this issue, and everybody’s got ideas, but there’s no consensus. In November there will be a measure on the City ballot to approve a $1.2 billion bond which would pay for construction of permanent supportive housing. At the same time, the County is expected to ask voters to approve a quarter cent sales tax increase which would help provide new services to the homeless. These initiatives could make a big difference, but really they both have to pass in order to make things work. To construct new housing without expanding staff to provide support for the homeless would be a waste of money, and the same goes for offering additional support without getting people off the streets.

And it could be that both of these measures will go down. In this upcoming election, the City, County and State are asking voters to approve billions in taxes and bond measures, and it seems possible that many voters, overwhelmed by the flood of initiatives, won’t be in the mood to approve anything.

As for other ideas on how to help the homeless, some people have suggested that the City use existing vacant housing to provide shelter. My feeling is that without support services, this would be futile. The idea of gathering tens of thousands of homeless together in empty buildings without offering mental health services, help for addicts or counseling seems like a recipe for disaster. Another proposal is to get the state and/or federal government to kick in more money. Garcetti already tried that. It went nowhere.

Personally, I think the most important thing is to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. This probably sounds so obvious you may ask why I’m even mentioning it, but it’s important to keep in mind. One of the leading causes of homelessness is eviction, and thousands of LA tenants have been kicked out of their homes in recent years. In part, this is because the City offers incentives to developers that make it very tempting for them to take advantage of the Ellis Act. If City Hall really wants to make a dent in the homeless problem, our elected officials need to stop rewarding landlords who throw their tenants out. The recent passage of an ordinance to crack down on “cash for keys” scams is a good start, but City Hall needs to do more. If you don’t want people living on the streets, then you need to do everything possible to keep them in their homes.

Demolition of the houses on Roscoe.

Demolition of the houses on Roscoe.

Earlier this month, the homeless encampment on Roscoe was dismantled. Around the same time, the houses that had been standing empty were demolished. But it’s only a matter of time before another makeshift shelter springs up in the neighborhood. This problem isn’t going away any time soon.

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1939 Meets 1984

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Not too long ago I was taking the train to visit some friends. I got to Union Station a little early, so I thought I’d buy a paper to read on the trip. But as I was walking in the direction of the newsstand, I got a small shock. It wasn’t there any more.

The place where the newsstand used to be.

The place where the newsstand used to be.

Now, I know people don’t read papers like they used to, so maybe I’m just a dinosaur living in the past. This newsstand did have a pretty good selection of newspapers and magazines, but it’s not like it was a historic landmark. It was just a tiny little shop that sold the kind of stuff you buy when you’re waiting for a train.

But that isn’t the only thing that’s changed at Union Station. In fact, the whole feel of the place is changing, and I can’t say I like it.

Completed in 1939, Union Station was designed by a group of architects led by John and Donald Parkinson. It brings together a number of different styles that were popular at the time, including Streamline Moderne, Mission Revival and Art Deco, and it has the feel of a massive museum devoted to a bygone era. It used to be a great place to chill. I liked hanging out there. I’d show up early if I was taking the train and relax in the old leather chairs. Read a paper. Have some coffee. Watch the sunlight streaming down through the huge windows.

These days it doesn’t feel so relaxing. In the first place, the chairs are now cordoned off and there are guards making sure that only people with a ticket get in. I know there have been problems with homeless people camping out there and asking travellers for spare change. And I still remember the time I was waiting for a train and there was a guy who kept screaming really loud. He sat on the floor against one of the columns while two guards tried to talk to him, and he just kept on screaming. So I know there’s a reason for maintaining some restrictions, but it makes the place feel a whole lot less inviting. And let’s be honest, this approach is typical of the City of LA. Rather than actually trying to deal with the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill, the City just shuts them out. Putting up another barrier doesn’t solve the problem. It’s just a way of avoiding it.

Waiting areas are now cordoned off.

Waiting areas are now cordoned off.

And what about the bagel shop? There used to be a little mom and pop place that sold a wide variety of bagels, and often when I was taking the train that’s where I’d stop to pick up some breakfast. It disappeared a while ago. What do we have in its place? You guessed it. Starbucks. We lost a little independent business that sold good bagels, and now we have another corporate coffee house. In fact, more and more Union Station has been taken over by chains.

Corporate coffee...

Corporate coffee…

...corporate sandwiches...

…corporate sandwiches…

...corporate snacks.

…corporate snacks.

I used to like hanging out in Union Station, but not so much any more. These days it’s kind of like spending time in a detention center that’s attached to a strip mall. The vibe of the place has changed. It feels colder. More corporate.

But I shouldn’t be surprised. Isn’t that what’s happening to the whole country?

Homeless Emergency? Stop Evictions!

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The Mayor and the City Council recently declared that LA is in the throes of a homeless emergency. While I’m glad that our elected officials have finally decided to acknowledge how serious the problem is, they still haven’t offered any concrete plan of action. The promise of a hundred million dollars in funding is worthless until we know where that money’s coming from and how it’s going to be spent.

But I’d like to offer a suggestion on how to combat homelessness, and the people at City Hall should be glad to hear that they won’t have to spend a penny to implement it. My proposal is simple. I can give it to you in two sentences.

Stop Ellis Act evictions.

Stop the destruction of affordable housing.

Now, you may be saying, that’s ridiculous. The City doesn’t have the authority to do either one of those things. The Ellis Act, a state law, gives landlords the right to evict tenants if they decide they don’t want to be landlords any more. And the City can’t prevent a property owner from demolishing rental units if the owner does so within the boundaries of the law.

But the City can stop giving landlords incentives to do these things.

As the housing market heats up again, the potential to reap huge profits has drawn a slew of developers to LA. Speculators swoop into neighborhoods offering wads of cash to landlords, but they don’t just want to buy existing buildings. They’re interested in maximizing their profits, which often means kicking tenants out of rent-controlled apartments and either converting the units to condos or knocking the building down and putting up something larger.

And here’s where the City comes in. For developers to accomplish their goals, they often need to get the City to grant variances. They might ask the Department of City Planning to reduce the required setbacks from the sidewalk or neighboring buildings. Or maybe to relax the height limit. In some cases they ask the DCP to change the way an area is zoned, which could allow them to turn an apartment building into a boutique hotel.

All of these entitlements granted by the City increase the value of the property because they increase the potential for profit. The more money there is to made, the greater the attraction for investors. The more money investors offer, the greater the temptation for landlords to evict their tenants and sell the building. During the last housing bubble, this trend peaked in 2005 when over 5,000 rental units were taken off the market. When the recession hit, property values plunged and evictions dropped. But as the market heats up again, we’re seeing this practice becoming popular once more. In 2013, landlords took 308 units off the market. That figure more than doubled in 2014, rising to 725. And as long as housing prices continue to rise, you can bet that evictions will rise as well. For more details, take a look at this article from the KPCC web site.

Ellis Act Evictions in LA on the Rise

While there’s usually some negotiation involved when developers seek variances from the Department of City Planning, they usually get most of what they want. And as long as the DCP continues to hand out entitlements like candy, developers will feel confident that they can make tons of money by converting existing buildings to condos, small-lot subdivisions or boutique hotels. This means more people will be evicted, and more affordable housing will be taken off the market.

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I’m not claiming that everybody who gets evicted ends up living on the street, but a significant number do. While I couldn’t fine any data on evictions leading to homelessness in Los Angeles, in New York the data shows that it’s a leading cause. Check out this article from CityLimits.

Evictions Are Top Driver of Homelessness

So if the City of LA is really serious aout tackling homelessness, our elected officials need to stop making it so attractive for landlords to evict their tenants. The Department of City Planning needs to start asking if the needs of wealthy developers outweigh the needs of renters on a limited income. Yes, we are dealing with a homeless emergency. The people at City Hall must start looking at the policies that have contributed to this situation, and think about the changes that need to be made.

Building shelters for people living on the streets is fine. But an even better approach would be to prevent people from losing their homes to begin with. As long as City Hall continues to put the needs of developers over the needs of its citizens, the homeless situation will only get worse.

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