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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Skyscrapers Keep Rising in Downtown, and So Does Crime

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There were a couple of articles in the Downtown News that caught my eye this week. The first was a piece about a 67-story residential tower that’s been proposed for a parcel near Figueroa and Seventh. Developers are falling all over themselves in the rush to build high-end high-rises in the area, and City Hall has been bending over backwards to help them along. The article also mentions a few other skyscrapers that are currently in the pipeline, as the the Downtown development juggeraut keeps rolling along. While it’s conceivable that a few affordable apartments will be tacked on to some of these projects in the course of the bargaining process, the vast majority of these new units will be far beyond the reach of the average Angeleno. Here’s the article if you want to take a look.

Brookfield to Build 64-Story Condo Tower

The other article was about the sharp increase in crime Downtown. For those of you who haven’t been following this issue, crime has increased in many of LA’s neighborhoods in recent years, and Downtown is one of the areas hardest hit. Violent crime in the LAPD’s Central Division is up 8.3% through June 3 compared with the same period in 2015. This includes a 15.7% increase in aggravated assault. Property crimes are up 14%, with a 64% rise in burglaries and thefts from vehicles.

The article acknowledges that rising crime is at least in part due to the fact that the area is seeing an influx of well-to-do residents at the same time that the homeless population continues to rise. In Downtown these days the gap between cozy affluence and desperate poverty is glaringly, disturbingly obvious. As City Hall continues to approve one gleaming skyscraper after another, and takes every opportunity to advertise the booming Downtown scene, its efforts to deal with the growing homeless population are still outrageously inadequate.

It’s not just the current crowd at City Hall that’s to blame for LA’s ongoing homeless crisis. For decades our elected officials have preferred to ignore the problem rather than take steps to address it. Fifty years ago the City’s approach was to try to herd the unsheltered population into Skid Row and keep them contained there. In recent years our elected officials tried more aggressive tactics, confiscating the belongings of people living on the streets and criminalizing homelessness. City Hall only backed off on this approach after losing a series of legal challenges to these practices. And in the meantime, homelessness continued to rise.

Last year it seems the Mayor and City Council finally realized how serious the situation was and how bad it was making them look. There’s been a lot of fanfare about the passage of both Measure H and Measure HHH, which will build permanent supportive housing (PSH) and provide services to treat those with mental health and addiction problems. Certainly this is an important first step, but it’s only a first step. It’ll take years to put the housing and services in place, and it’s hard to say how many units will actually be created. Meanwhile, the 2017 homeless count shows that the population increased from last year’s record high of 28,464 to a new record high of 34,189. A staggering 20% jump.

It’s great that H and HHH passed, but this is far too little, far too late. And still City Hall continues to approve endless luxury high-rises, luring more upscale residents to Downtown. They say they’re concerned about rising crime in the area, but adding more police and encouraging the formation of neighborhood watch groups isn’t going to solve the problem.

City Hall needs to start doing some planning. It needs to step back from the mad rush to build luxury skyscrapers, and start thinking seriously about how to reduce homelessness in Downtown. By now it should be obvious that the “Build, Baby, Build” approach isn’t working. Filling the urban core with high-rises for the rich while people wallow in abject poverty on the streets below has created an unsafe environment for residents and stretched the LAPD’s resources dangerously thin. The Mayor and the City Council need to accept the fact that this strategy is seriously flawed, and scale back further construction until they’ve found a way to create a safer, more equitable environment for EVERYONE who lives Downtown.

You can access the article on rising crime by clicking on the link below. I should point out that the link will take you to an on-line tabloid version of the Downtown News, and you’ll have to flip forward to page 10.

Is Downtown LA Getting More Dangerous?

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Mayor Missing in Action

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On Wednesday, February 15, eight neighborhood councils sponsored a forum for candidates in the mayoral race. Almost all of them showed up to share their views on the state of the City and to present their vision for the future. Unfortunately, incumbent Eric Garcetti couldn’t make it. Certainly the Mayor is a busy guy, and it might be understandable if he couldn’t appear in person, but his office did tell the organizers that he would be sending a representative to speak in his place. Inexplicably, Garcetti’s representative didn’t make it either. Why is this?

As everybody who lives in LA knows, we’re facing major challenges right now. Nine of the eleven candidates for mayor felt it was important to show up and speak to the community. Apparently the Mayor didn’t feel like it was worth his time.

The neighborhood councils organizing this event spent a lot of time putting it together. Citizens concerned about their communities gave up their Wednesday night to learn where the candidates stood on the issues. But the Mayor couldn’t even send a representative to outline his agenda for a second term. Spokesman Yusef Robb didn’t offer an explanation for Garcetti’s absence, stating only that he was “unavailable”. Anastasia Mann, President of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council, said she was told by the Mayor’s office that Garcetti didn’t need to be at the event since the other candidates weren’t doing well in the polls. Mann expressed her disappointment at the Mayor’s decision. I’m disappointed, too.

While we’ve seen improvement in LA’s economy during the last four years, Garcetti seems unable (or unwilling) to deal with a number of problems that have only grown more pronounced during his tenure. Families are struggling to cover spiralling costs for housing. Homelessness has risen dramatically. Some of LA’s communities have seen huge spikes in crime. The City’s budget is awash in red ink, even though revenue is up. And in spite of the Mayor’s insistence that the City is promoting transit-oriented development, transit ridership continues to decline.

If you ask me, it’s clear that Garcetti’s tenure as Mayor has been a disaster for Los Angeles, and maybe this explains why he didn’t show up at the forum. If he had been there, he would have had talk about why the City is in such dire straits. So it’s really not surprising that he didn’t have time to appear at this event.

On the other hand, the Mayor does have time for events where he has a chance to suck up more campaign cash. He apparently flew to Sacramento on Wednesday to meet with state officials and attend a fundraiser. It’s clear he hopes to run for higher office, probably governor or senator, and doesn’t plan on serving the full term if re-elected. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t seem terribly interested in solving LA’s problems. Running a city can suck up a lot of time, and who needs the headaches when your number one priority is funding your political career?

Garcetti’s spokesman was right. He is “unavailable”. Also disinterested and disengaged. Apparently the only thing he’s really passionate about is fulfilling his political ambitions. It shouldn’t be hard to find a candidate who cares more than the Mayor about finding solutions to the City’s problems, because the Mayor doesn’t seem to care at all.

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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Criminalizing Homelessness

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Once again our elected officials have shown us how little they really care about improving the quality of life in LA. On Tuesday the City Council passed two ordinances to make it easier to get rid of homeless encampments. Gil Cedillo cast the only dissenting vote. All the others fell right in line.

I totally understand that there are serious health and safety issues with the homeless camps that have been springing up all over LA. I know we have to deal with this. But as usual, the City Council has chosen to attack the symptoms rather than try to address the cause.

The reason people are living in tents is because we have an appalling shortage of affordable housing. The Mayor and the City Council continue to back to developers that want to build pricy condos and high-end apartments, but they seem to have no interest in providing homes for anyone besides the rich. Their meager efforts to build affordable housing are pathetic. LA real estate is being sucked up by developers with deep pockets who only care about maximizing their profits. In the past few years they’ve created thousands of new units that go from $2,000 a month on up into the stratosphere. And these same developers have taken thousands of rent-controlled units off the market as they demolish or refurbish older buildings.

According to the LA Times, the City’s homeless population currently stands at 26,000, a 12% increase over the past two years. This problem is not going away. It’s getting worse. Councilmember Cedillo makes the point that the vast majority of the funds the City spends on homelessness go toward law enforcement. This is crazy. The police can’t solve this problem.

Now you may be asking, can anyone solve this problem? The answer is yes. Follow the link below to an article from the LA Times about how Utah is dealing with chronic homelessness. They’ve made huge progress, and the state is actually saving money by providing housing for people who’ve been living on the streets.

Utah Is Winning the War on Chronic Homelessness

Of course, LA is not Utah. And I don’t mean to imply that there is a simple solution. But we could do a hell of a lot more than we’re doing now. And we need to start by making a serious effort to provide affordable housing.

For more info on the ordinances passed by the City Council, here’s a link to the story in the Times.

Vote Makes It Easier to Clear Homeless Camps