LA area residents fanned out last week to help complete the 2018 Greater Los Angeles Homelessness Count. It is worth celebrating efforts to make all Angelenos count- but it is also hard to feel optimistic that the number of people lacking homes will decline after steep rises in recent years.
LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, who has written about the multi-faceted challenges of homelessness in Los Angeles, just published a hard-hitting round up of current public and private efforts to reduce homelessness.
While acknowledging progress and complexities, Lopez draws particular attention to the lack of political will that prevents enough permanent supportive housing from being built:
“we're not trying hard enough, and that goes for every City Council member and every county supervisor, and for every resident who says fix this problem, but whatever you do, don't let them get back on their feet in my neighborhood.”
To contribute to the discussion on ‘How do we fix it?,’ I want to suggest and support a few policy reforms that can help speed up construction of housing for the homeless. To open and operate permanent supportive housing that can help chronically homeless residents, you need at least four things to align: land, money, permits, and outreach/ services. I’ll limit my discussion on services paired with housing, because I want to focus on key land use and planning issues:
To create permanent supportive housing, the non profit agencies and developers who want to provide these homes need sites to construct new housing and/or adapt existing buildings to house residents and services. They can identify land already owned by service providers or public agencies or buy land on the market. The City of Los Angeles recently identified a number of publicly owned sites as “affordable housing opportunity sites” that could could include a mix of PSH, income restricted affordable housing, and market rate housing. This presents a good opportunity to allow more PSH units to be built because the cost of acquiring land is reduced. But unfortunately, some local residents have opposed use of sites near them for PSH or affordable housing. Council members from their districts have blocked or stalled approval of use of these public properties.
Policy Fix: City Council should vote on a package of proposed affordable housing opportunity sites annually or semi-annually. This would help give council members plausible deniability that they cannot micro-manage what happens on sites in their district, and encourage them to vote based on the citywide need for more PSH. City departments and staff should also be more aggressive in identifying and releasing more opportunity sites.
The passage of Measure HHH in the City of LA to fund permanent supportive housing, combined with LA County Measure H to fund services for the homeless, promised to increase development of PSH. There are however, political strings attached to the process. Proposals to receive HHH funding to buy and improve property must include a letter of support from the council office in which the project is located. This requirement was NOT included in the text of HHH (which was passed by 77.14% of those voting). It creates another political veto point that could slow PSH construction.
Policy Fix: Remove the requirement for a letter of support from council offices. City Council appoints three of the seven members of the Citizen Oversight Committee that recommends annual spending plans for HHH funds and the City Council also gets to vote whether to approve the annual allocation plan. They do not need to individually ok or block individual sites in their districts.
After a site and funding are obtained, a proposed permanent supportive housing facility still needs to obtain permits from the department of city planning (and other city departments). Focusing on planning approval, if a residential project includes fewer than 50 units AND does not need to seek variances for building height, setbacks, parking, allowed uses etc it can often proceed more quickly. This is because the project does not need to get political approval from the planning commission and City Council and cannot be sued under the state Environmental Quality Act. Delays to permanent supportive housing can arise if a project is adding more that 49 units of PSH or if it trying to transform a building where PSH units are not already allowed.
Policy Fix: The LA Department of City Planning has written two ordinances to help streamline approval of PSH. One is the Permanent Supportive Housing Ordinance, which raises the threshold for stricter review from 50 units to 120 units (200 in downtown LA) and also allows more units and less parking and construction of PSH on property zoned for public facilities. The Interim Motel Conversion Ordinance allows motels to be converted to PSH facilities as long as an agreement for services is in place (it does not allow extra units to be built on the motel site). These are both great ways to accelerate badly-needed permanent supportive housing. (We agree with our friends at Abundant Housing LA that the PSH ordinance should be strengthened to raise the threshold higher in more areas, allow PSH units on land zoned for parking, and make the city make any determinations about historic properties.)
Changing the rules to make it easier to build permanent supportive housing will not solve LA's homelessness crisis, but it will help. We also need to improve services; innovate in ways that we can temporarily house the homeless; allow more homes of all types and more housing subsidies to prevent people becoming homeless; and support proposed PSH when it does run up against opposition.