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

Rent Strike

LATU Rent Strike Vine Selma 2005 SM

Things are heating up. The Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) has called for a rent strike. And they’re not alone. According to a graphic posted by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, there are tenants withholding rent in the Bay Area and San Diego. The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) seems to be on board, too. Here’s an excerpt from a statement they released….

Today on May 1st, millions of tenants and homeowners across the country will be unable to make their housing payments. Many of us are choosing food and groceries over rent – a choice no one should have to make

We are turning our economic reality into political action, by going on strike today to demand rent and mortgage forgiveness! Governor Newsom has the power to cancel rent and mortgage payments for those impacted by the COVID crisis – join us in urging him to do it!

The health and well-being of our children, our seniors – all of us – is at stake. Together we have the power to force the politicians to recognize our reality. Together we need to make them recognize that housing is a basic human right.

Rent Strike Graphic from ACCE 200501

Rent strike graphic from ACCE web site.

Other groups are taking a different approach. Here’s part of a press release from a group called Street Watch LA….

An unhoused Los Angeles resident, Davon Brown, has gained access to an empty hotel room at the Ritz Carlton in Downtown Los Angeles with the intent to stay to shelter in place during the COVID-19 crisis. He entered the room after asking to see one before booking, and with the support of community organizers from Street Watch LA (an initiative by the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America) he has refused to leave until Mayor Garcetti commandeers vacant hotel rooms for the unhoused during the pandemic.

Obviously the pandemic is pushing people to take extreme measures, but it would be a mistake to think this is just about the coronavirus. Housing prices have been soaring for years. Millions of people are rent burdened. There are tens of thousands of homeless people in LA County. We’ve been moving closer to a tipping point for years, and the virus may be pushing us over the edge.

I have mixed feelings about the rent strike. On the one hand, there are a number of landlords out there who work hard to provide decent housing at a fair price. I know some of them personally, and I worry that they could be impacted if their tenants stop paying rent. On the other hand, there are also a lot of predatory real estate investors who have been snapping up multi-family housing, kicking out tenants and then raising rents so they can flip the building. I’ve seen many of them in action, and honestly I think they should be in jail. They have no interest in providing housing. To them apartment buildings are just an asset, and all they care about is jacking up the value so they can make a quick profit.

To make things even worse, most of our elected officials either turn a blind eye or actively encourage this kind of real estate speculation. Over the past few years the City of LA has been granting permits to legally convert residential units into hotel rooms. Last year the City passed its Home Sharing Ordinance to prohibit landlords from offering apartments as short-term rentals, but the practice still seems fairly widespread. Mayor Eric Garcetti has tried to convince people that he’s concerned about the housing crisis, but in fact, first as a Councilmember and now as Mayor, he’s shown over and over again that he’s a fervent supporter of predatory real estate investment.

LATU Protest at Mayor Mansion 1 CROPPED

Image posted on LATU Facebook page from a protest outside the mansion in Hancock Park where Mayor Garcetti lives.

I don’t know how the rent strike will turn out, but it seems to me that this is only the beginning. Middle and low income households have been hurting for years. While wages have mostly remained stagnant, the cost of living has continued to climb. Young people who can’t find a decent job have been forced into the gig economy, which in most cases means they don’t get sick time, they don’t get vacation days, and their employer can cut them loose by sending them a text.

The pandemic isn’t the problem. It’s just the catalyst. Things have been messed up for a long time. It’s just now that people are getting desperate enough to take action.

LATU Rent Strike Sign in Boyle Heights from LATU FB Page 2005

Photo of rent strike banner over freeway in Boyle Heights, also from LATU Facebook page.

 

Local News Is Dying

 

Newspapers SM

Obviously, the impacts of the pandemic we’re experiencing have gone far beyond just threats to human health. It’s devastated numerous industries, and in many cases we can’t even predict the long-term effects.

Local newspapers are getting hammered by the outbreak. As businesses have been shuttered, they’ve stopped spending on advertising, and this has been catastrophic for newspapers small and large. The loss of revenue has forced the LA Times to close down three local papers it published, the Burbank Leader, Glendale News-Press and La Canada Valley Sun. No doubt we’ll see more closures in the not-too-distant future.

Publications that report local news have been declining for years, and as that has happened, Americans are less and less aware of what’s going on in the cities they live in. Did you know that the City of LA was facing annual budget shortfalls of $200 million to $400 million before the pandemic even hit? Did you know transit ridership in LA County has been declining for years and is down about 20% since 2013, in spite of the fact that taxpayers have spent billions to build new rail lines? Did you know that the State requires cities to recycle 50% of their solid waste, but that the RecycLA program hasn’t even hit 35%? If you didn’t know these things, it may be because you’re relying on TV or social media to get your information, instead of experienced journalists who know how to report hard news.

Local news is crucial to keeping people informed. If you don’t know what your elected representatives are up to, there’s no way you can make an informed decision when you go to the polls.

The LA Times has done an excellent breakdown of this frightening situation. I urge you to read it. And then, if you don’t already subscribe to a local paper, get on-line and sign up.

Coronavirus Crisis Hastens the Collapse of Local Newspapers. Here’s Why It Matters

Life in LA Under Lockdown

C19 PlaBoy Sign

Many people have been documenting how life has changed in our cities since stay-at-home orders were issued. Sorry if this post seems redundant, but because this blog is about reporting on life in LA, I felt like I had to write something about this episode.

Life is definitely pretty strange these days. I’m fortunate in that my health is good and none of my family or friends have been infected with the virus, but it’s heartbreaking to read about those who are dealing with the worst impacts. In addition to those who have been infected, there are so many people who’ve been hammered by the shutdown. What’s going to happen to the folks who have lost their jobs? While some may return to work when the stay-at-home orders are lifted, it’s clear that the economy is getting pounded, and it seems like many jobs will just go away. In LA the City Council took action to stop evictions during the pandemic, but there’s still no certainty as to how affected households will make up rent over the long term. I’m concerned about the pandemic, but I’m actually much more worried about what comes next. The news from the US and abroad seems to point to a global downturn.

But right now I can only focus on what’s in front of me, and that’s getting through the day during the lockdown. I can’t say it’s been especially difficult for me personally, but, as I’m sure everyone has noticed, life in LA is pretty weird these days.

Last week I was out to get groceries, and on my way home I saw a young woman standing on a street corner waving a styrofoam head that was wearing a black mask. I had no idea what it was about. Then yesterday I went out again and realized that there are a number of street vendors selling masks, and many of them are waving styrofoam heads at passersby. It does look kind of surreal, but I guess that’s just a part of the landscape right now.

C19 Panorama Mask Vendor

Street vendor selling masks in Panorama City.

One of the strangest things about the pandemic is the contrast between the businesses that have shut down and the businesses that must remain open. Grocery stores are so busy they can’t keep the shelves stocked. But many other businesses are shuttered. Here are a couple of photos to illustrate how this looks in Hollywood.

C19 Hlwd Market Line

People waiting to enter Trader Joe’s at Vine and Selma.

C19 Hlwd Storefronts Closed

Businesses shuttered on Hollywood Boulevard.

The closure of the newsstand on Cahuenga is one of the things that worries me most. Obviously, print journalism has been getting hammered for years. This newsstand has been shrinking steadily for over a decade. Will it ever reopen? And even more troubling is the question of what will happen to newspapers. I heard that the LA Times has lost one third of its advertising revenue and could be laying off 40 people. I’m sure other papers are getting hit as hard or harder. Will more papers fold as a result of the pandemic? Probably. And if that happens, we’ll see even less local news than we do now. This is very scary. The internet has pushed local news reporting to the brink of extinction. (Aside from TV news shows that focus on murders, fires and sports scores.) Already the vast majority of LA’s citizens have no idea what’s going on at City Hall. As a result, the Mayor and the City Council have been letting the City go to hell for years. Corruption is rampant at City Hall, homelessness is out of control, and we’re facing huge budget deficits. If the LA TImes and/or other local papers go under, we’ll have even less local reporting and less oversight. This is very dangerous.

C19 Hlwd Cahuenga Newsstand Closed

Will this newsstand on Cahuenga ever reopen?

Of course, signs are popping up all over the place. Stores are posting their rules, restaurants want you to know they’re open for delivery, and public notices tell you what you can and can’t do.

C19 Orange Line Bus Sign

You have to use the rear door when you board a bus.

C19 NoHo Groundworks Sign

Groundworks is North Hollywood is only open for take-out.

C19 Hlwd Hlwd Wilcox Signal Sign

You’re not even supposed to push the button to get a walk signal.

One of the strangest changes for me is the disappearance of rush hour traffic. Ordinarily during rush hour in Hollywood, Cahuenga northbound is jammed, often to the point where traffic is backed up several blocks. For the past few weeks, Cahuenga has been wide open, even at peak commute times.

C19 Hlwd Cahuenga Rush Hour Empty

Rush hour traffic on Cahuenga is no longer a problem.

But cars haven’t disappeared completely. In fact, given the stay-at-home order, I’m kind of surprised at how many cars are on the road. Here’s a shot of Highland north of Hollywood.

C19 Hlwd Highland Traffic

Even during a pandemic, there are still plenty of cars on the road.

And speaking of Hollywood and Highland, that’s one spot that’s been completely transformed by the outbreak. Ordinarily the sidewalk on the northwest corner of that intersection is crowded with people. Even at two in the morning you’d find a collection of vendors, partiers, rappers, cops and costumed characters parading around. Here’s what it looked like yesterday in the middle of the day.

C19 Hlwd Hlwd Highland Deserted

The corner of Hollywood and Highland is nearly deserted.

When will we get back to normal? Impossible to say. And you have to ask what “normal” is going to look like. Even when the stay-at-home order is lifted, life is not going to snap back to the way it used to be. As I mentioned before, LA’s budget was a mess even before the pandemic. With the global economy tanking, you can bet that LA will get hit hard. I wish I could end on a positive note, but there’s not much reason for optimism in LA these days. The city was in bad straits before the virus hit. Our elected officials have shown a frightening inability to address LA’s problems even when the economy was supposedly going strong.

Right now this city’s future looks pretty bleak.

C19 Hlwd Homeless on Hlwd Blvd