Now Leasing

Scene from the corner of Ivar and De Longpre in Hollywood.

I was on my way to the market when something caught my eye at the corner of Ivar and De Longpre.  Actually, it was two things.  The first was a massive new apartment building on Cahuenga, with a huge banner that exclaimed “NOW LEASING”.  The second was a homeless encampment on Ivar.  Seeing the pricey new apartments and the row of makeshift shelters so close together struck me as a perfect image of what’s happening in Hollywood these days, and really what’s happening across so much of LA.  The City keeps telling us that building expensive new housing will alleviate the housing crisis, but upscale units like these are completely out of reach for the people who need housing most. 

Part of what makes the scene so perfect is the banner shouting “NOW LEASING”. I have no idea how many of the units have been rented, and maybe it’s almost full, but I doubt it.  A June 2020 report to the LA City Council from the Housing + Community Investment Department offers data on vacancy rates in various LA neighborhoods.  While it uses multiple sources to assess vacancies, the report’s authors state that data from the LA Department of Water & Power is probably the most reliable.  Does it surprise you that according to LADWP the vacancy rate in Hollywood is 10.7 percent?  That’s 1,372 empty apartments in the Hollywood area, and I bet most of them are in new buildings like the one you see in the picture.  You know, the ones where the rent for a single starts around $2,000. 

Now, the US Census says that the average household size in LA County is 2.8 people.  So if we multiply 1,372 units by 2.8 we find that you could house about 3,841 people in the apartments that are sitting vacant in Hollywood right now.  Interestingly, the 2020 Los Angeles Homeless Count found that Council District 13, which covers much of Hollywood, has a total of 3,907 people experiencing homelessness.  (A 22% jump over 2019.)  In other words, you could fit almost all of the homeless people in CD 13 into the units that are sitting empty in Hollywood. 

Of course, none of those homeless folks could afford $2,000 for a single.  Let alone $3,000 or $4,000 for a one-bedroom or two-bedroom unit.  But the LA City Council keeps telling us that if we just keep building housing, any kind of housing, even housing that the average Angeleno couldn’t possibly afford, it will help alleviate the housing crisis. 

So they keep on approving high-end apartment complexes.  And the homeless population keeps on growing larger.

LA’s Future Is Homelessness

Homeless Encampment

Yesterday the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) released the results of the 2020 count of the homeless population in Los Angeles. Once again, he results are shocking. In 2020, a total of 66,433 people experienced homelessness in LA County, a 12.7% increase over last year. In the City of LA, the total was 41,290, a 14.2% increase. But it’s not just the overall numbers. Digging into the statistics is disturbing on so many levels….

  • Blacks make up about 8% of LA County’s population, but they make up 34% of the homeless population.
  • The number of homeless people over age 62 increased by 20%.
  • There was a 19% increase in homelessness among Transition Age Youth Households and Unaccompanied Minors, which includes both individuals 18-24 years of age and members of families headed by persons 18-24.

The press release highlights some of the positive work that LAHSA is doing, and I don’t doubt the agency is trying hard to address the problem. But it can’t. The real problem here is that housing is growing increasingly unaffordable, not just in LA but across the nation. Over the last several years real estate has become a huge draw for speculative investment. This isn’t just a local phenomenon, it’s a global one. The investors who have been buying up both single-family and multi-family housing in recent years have only one goal: To extract as much profit from their assets as quickly as possible. They have no interest in providing housing, and they don’t care how many people are homeless. (Unless, of course, those homeless people are camped out in front of their latest acquisition. Then they’re very concerned.) If you’re skeptical about these claims, I suggest you read Capital City by Samuel Stein. The author lays out the facts in horrifying detail.

But if you think the homeless numbers are bad now, brace yourself. It’s gonna get way worse. At the end of May, UCLA’s Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy released a report outlining the impacts the pandemic will have on housing. The report’s author, Gary Blasi, offers two estimates….

The most optimistic estimate is that 36,000 renter households, with 56,000 children based on U.S. Census figures for Los Angeles County, are likely to become homeless. If […] support networks have been severely degraded by the pandemic, those numbers could rise to 120,000 newly homeless households, with 184,000 children.

Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? The report offers some good recommendations for policymakers and lawmakers, such as providing legal counsel for renters facing eviction and expanding rapid rehousing programs, but these will only mitigate the damage.

The root of the problem here is that many of our elected officials are basically pawns working for real estate investors. The Department of Justice’s ongoing corruption investigation in the City of LA has so far produced four guilty pleas, including one former councilmember. It’s almost certain that at least one current councilmember will be indicted, and the evidence released clearly indicates a widespread conspiracy that has turned the project approval process into a high-stakes pay-to-play game.

According to the LA Department of City Planning’s (LADCP) annual reports to the State of California, about 90% of new residential units approved in the City of LA from 2013 to 2018 were for Above Moderate Income Households. This means that the combined number of Low, Very Low and Moderate Income units approved each year comprised about 10% of the total. The LADCP, the Mayor and members of the City Council have repeatedy claimed that the high-end high-rises they’ve been greenlighting in Downtown, Koreatown, the Valley and elsewhere were going to help solve the housing crisis. At the same time, they’ve pushed for policies that incentivize the destruction of existing rent-stabilized housing. This appalling combination of greed, stupidity and denial has led us to where we are now.

I know they’re tough to look at, but I strongly urge you to read both the press release on the homeless count and the report from the Luskin Institute. The only way we’re going to get out of this situation is to take a long, hard look at the brutal facts.

2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count Results

New Study Warns of Looming Eviction Crisis in Los Angeles County

LA Renters Are Being Priced Out

Priced Out Image

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.”