Amid a Pandemic and Housing Shortage, Can LA Find Homes for 15,000 People?

Amid a Pandemic and Housing Shortage, Can LA Find Homes for 15,000 People?

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority plans to provide housing to “highly vulnerable" homeless people throughout and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tents set up along a freeway in Los Angeles

(Photo by Laurie Avocado / CC BY 2.0)

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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Los Angeles County, more than 66,000 of its residents were experiencing homelessness, and almost 600,000 low-income people were spending 90 percent of their income on housing. The city ranked near the top of the list of places where renters experienced the highest cost burdens. And the state of California had one of the worst shortages of affordable housing in the country.

The pandemic, which has already killed more than 4,000 Angelenos, threatens to turn the housing crisis into a catastrophe. In many senses it is already a disaster, and officials are applying the principles of triage to mitigating its consequences. Of the 66,000 people experiencing homelessness in the county, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) has identified some 15,000 who are “highly vulnerable to hospitalization or death should they contract COVID-19,” says Heidi Marston, the authority’s executive director. Last month, LAHSA released a COVID-19 Recovery Plan Report, laying out its goals for rehousing all 15,000 of those people during the crisis and beyond, and how it hopes to achieve them. The plan builds on previous work like Project Roomkey, a state program that houses people in hotel rooms. The Authority’s ultimate goal now is that no one who’s housed during the pandemic should return to living on the street after the emergency is over.

“Now the shift really needs to happen,” Marston says. “Before it was really just emergency efforts to get people inside and now it’s like, let’s take the moment to get them indoors permanently so that we’re actually resolving their homelessness as opposed to just getting them inside temporarily.”

The plan is meant to quickly house 15,000 people, stop “inflow” into homelessness of currently housed tenants, prepare the homelessness and housing systems for future crises, and ensure that all of the authority’s efforts are completed with a racial-equity lens. The steps are split into immediate, short-term, medium-term, and long-term actions, from “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 cases to preventing evictions and placing people in permanent supportive housing. And the budget is sizable — $805,595,604 over three years, of which more than $609 million would be new funding.

In addition to the pandemic-related urgency of the homelessness crisis, Los Angeles is subject to a federal court order, released earlier this spring, requiring the county to find housing for 3,000 to 4,000 people who had been living near the city’s freeways. That order was in response to a suit filed by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights over unsafe conditions for people experiencing homelessness. Marston says there is “some overlap” between the people who were the subject of that order and the 15,000 high-risk people who are the target of LAHSA’s recovery plan.

“What we need to figure out is how do we do all of it … and make sure we’re not losing focus on the lifesaving measures that we’re undertaking through COVID-19, but that we’re also being responsive to what’s coming forward from the judge,” she says.

Of the additional $609 million needed to implement the plan, Marston says that around $300 million has been allocated from various government sources, and the authority still needs to find another $300 million. Even with the total budget in place, how realistic is it that the city can quickly house 15,000 people in a notoriously tight housing market? Through existing programs like Project Roomkey and other efforts since the recovery plan was announced, LAHSA has housed some 6,000 people of its total goal of 15,000, Marston says. Getting the additional 9,000 people into units requires acquisition of new properties and working with landlords that the authority hasn’t worked with before.

“We have seen the market soften a bit through COVID-19,” Marston says. “People aren’t moving around as much. But also there are vacant units available, and we have the capacity to pay security deposits, holding fees, and subsidized rents … Anything that’s available in the existing market, we want to make sure we’re capturing.”

The three-year budget of the recovery plan doesn’t show what will happen to rent subsidies after Fiscal Year 2023. Partially for that reason, Gary Blasi, professor of law emeritus at UCLA School of Law, says that LAHSA’s plan, like the response to housing needs during the pandemic generally, is lacking.

“It’s at such a level of generality, except for the budget,” Blasi says. “The budget is there, but how they would spend the budget, and what it would be used for, is very unclear … What I don’t actually see is a plan. What I see is some ideas about what a plan might contain.”

Blasi is co-author of a series of reports called “Housing Justice in the Time of COVID-19” from the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy. The reports, focused on impending evictions, acquiring hotels for permanent housing, and creating temporary settlements for unhoused people, warn of “a potential humanitarian disaster of hunger and homelessness on a scale not seen in any urban area of any industrialized country in the past 90 years.” Given the scale of the crisis, Blasi and his co-authors argue, elected officials at the city and county level should consider using extraordinary measures to provide housing, including commandeering properties temporarily and acquiring them by eminent domain permanently. It’s good that LAHSA is willing to request and spend $800 million to house people, but it should do so with an eye to being able to provide that housing permanently, Blasi says.

“To the maximum extent possible, they should have something left to show for this expenditure at the end of it,” he says.

In addition to spending on new properties and ongoing subsidies, the authority’s plan calls for new tenant protections and changes to zoning and land-use policies. So it’s likely to face many of the same political challenges as other efforts to establish new affordable housing in California cities. And the authority also wants to make sure that it’s providing housing in a racially equitable way. Marston says that in the early days of Project Roomkey, officials found that they were housing white people at a higher rate than Black people. That turned out to be a function of where hotels and motels were placed, she says. Black people in L.A. are four times likelier than white people to be homeless, but many of the areas where Black people experiencing homelessness live have few hotel facilities, Marston says. So officials had to be more intentional about how they were moving people into housing rather than just selecting people from the direct vicinity of hotels, she says. And they’ll have to be intentional about how they acquire more permanent housing and rental units as well, she says. That means the authority can’t just find new housing in disadvantaged areas, she says, and will have to overcome typical resistance in more exclusive neighborhoods.

“We need all neighborhoods to say yes to affordable housing, to say yes to shelters, and not think that it’s us versus them,” Marston says. “These are our neighbors, regardless of where they’re experiencing homelessness. So collectively, we all have a civic responsibility to say yes to that.”

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: affordable housinglos angelescovid-19homelessnesscalifornia

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