Who belongs in LA?

You can see it every time you go outside, on every sidewalk in the city.

Los Angeles is in the middle of a housing and homelessness emergency.

But you may not know all the details. Here’s the reality of our situation:

Since 2015, the number of people who are homeless in the city of Los Angeles has jumped by more than ten thousand. About a quarter of the unsheltered homeless population in the entire country lives right here in LA County.

The crisis is particularly severe in Council District 4. While homelessness grew by 16% overall in LA City last year, our district saw a rise of 53%, the largest increase in the city.

There are many reasons why people ultimately fall into homelessness, but one issue rings true for nearly every case. There is just not enough housing here that most people in LA can afford.

Thanks to sharp increases in housing prices, renters here are under incredible stress.

Homelessness is the most visible outcome of a broader affordable housing crisis that is risking the future of Los Angeles as an inclusive city of opportunity for all.

Because of this crisis, our community is actually shrinking. The population of LA County fell last year, even as the rest of Southern California grew. Who’s leaving? For the most part, people who make less than $50,000 a year. Young people, seniors, retail and hospitality workers, nurses, teachers, caregivers, artists -- the people who make our city vibrant are being forced out.

It is also clear that people of color are facing the worst impacts of our failed housing policies. Black Angelenos in particular have suffered enormously: since 1990, the number of African-Americans living in Los Angeles County has fallen by nearly 20%. Historic Black neighborhoods in the city of Los Angeles have been displaced to far-flung suburbs in an echo of our region’s shameful history of white flight and urban disinvestment.

Low-income people and people of color are seeking affordability elsewhere, while wealthier people and investors take their place. This crisis is hollowing our city of its diversity and cultural vibrancy.

The choice for an Angeleno who can’t afford their housing anymore is tragic: leave or become homeless.

How is our City Council approaching this crisis? They have been sleeping at the wheel.

They’ve allowed rents to rise unchecked. They have not protected residents from evictions.

They’ve been derelict in building new affordable housing, even as there has been much more market rate and luxury construction

And they’ve responded to the tragedy of homelessness by sweeping encampments and shoving our unhoused neighbors around the city -- instead of providing the services and shelter that will help them off the street.

The city has not responded with the urgency required to solve a generational crisis, and Council District 4 has been one of the worst at stepping up to solve the problem. New affordable housing is simply not getting built. From 2015 to 2018, only 13% percent of LA’s new housing was designated affordable for the bottom 40% of incomes. In Council District 4, it was far less: just 7% affordable.

Instead of lowering rents, the city allowed the maximum rent increase on rent-controlled apartments to go up this year for the first time in a decade. Not only are we failing to add new affordable housing, we’re also losing the little that we do have: more than 8,500 affordable units are going to see their affordability covenants expire in the next five years, converting them to market rate and allowing landlords to jack up the price.

On addressing the immediate needs of our unhoused residents, the city is simply not moving fast enough. At the rate that we are adding shelter beds to our stock, it will take us decades to provide enough beds for our current homeless population. Not a single unit of HHH-funded permanent supportive housing is ready for move-in yet anywhere in the city.

Even as homelessness rose by 53% last year in our district, CD4 remains in the bottom-third of districts in new supportive housing units permitted -- and there are still no Safe Parking spaces in the entire district.

In the meantime, the Council is pushing punitive bans that make it illegal for people to sleep on the street and in their cars -- without offering anywhere else for those people to go.

All along, our city government has had the policy tools needed to fix this crisis -- it just chose not to use them.

We’ve consulted with academics, activists, community groups, and policy experts to put together the solutions below. Our plan has three parts:

  • Most urgently, we must address the immediate needs of those currently living on our streets.
  • We must stop the flood of people becoming homeless by protecting renters from price increases and evictions.
  • We must build the kind of housing that residents of LA can really afford.

Implemented together, these strategies form a holistic approach to ending this crisis.

Finally, we can allow our housing policy to match our city’s values.

Here’s what we need to do:

Bring Services Directly To People In Need

In my time heading a volunteer-run homeless services nonprofit that served Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Echo Park, and Atwater, I was stunned by just how difficult it was for people to get the help they needed.

As we did outreach and got to know our neighbors experiencing homelessness, we found that people had no means of taking a shower, getting mail, or doing laundry, and it was almost impossible to get in touch with a case manager, even when they desperately needed one. When it rained, there wasn’t a walk-in winter shelter within three miles, and those that were available had very few beds.

The situation was even worse for people with drug problems. Several people came to us wanting to kick their addiction and get into treatment: we called all over the city, but regularly found that the only beds available were over an hour drive away, and even then they’d have to get on a wait list. Mental health treatment was equally difficult to access. It was impossible to get help.

We asked our councilmembers to help find a location for an access center in our area -- a place where people who were homeless and neighborhood volunteers could convene -- one that would provide basic services, case management, and a sense of community. We even provided a list of 85 potential sites where an access center could be located.

The city did nothing. So we did it ourselves.

My group, SELAH, started a weekly program at a community church to provide showers, clothes, a hot meal, activities, movie screenings, and access to a case manager to our homeless neighbors. We modeled our work on other community organizations like Recycled Resources and The Center in Hollywood that had operated walk-in programs to respond to the same need.

The response was incredible: dozens of participants showed up every week, and almost as many volunteers showed up to get to know their neighbors. Many of our unhoused visitors had never spoken to a case manager before -- now they could get help accessing important resources and were put on the path to housing.

The program has now grown to multiple times a week in more locations. I was blown away by the response, both from our homeless and housed neighbors: there was a need for this kind of service, and the community has become a healthier, friendlier place because of it. The lessons I learned from this experience provided me lessons for how we can proactively and effectively address homelessness throughout Los Angeles.

First, I want to expand access centers all over the city.

We must make it far, far easier for people experiencing homelessness to access services quickly and consistently, especially crucial at a time when the wait for housing can be many months long. I’m proposing a network of Community Access Centers in every neighborhood across the city: spaces where visitors can walk in, feel welcomed, consult with a case manager, and have their basic needs for hygiene, food, and healthcare met. By taking services directly to the people who need it and allowing for long term relationships of trust, we can speed up the process of getting into housing.

Case managers, outreach workers, mental health workers, and staff from legal services organizations will all be invited to co-locate at the access center. Outreach workers will visit all the encampments in the neighborhood served by the Access Center on a regular basis, and encourage residents to come in and seek services and treatment.

Each Community Access Center will also have a small number of beds, to be used when they are needed. Case managers, healthcare providers, and legal services staff at the Access Center will be able to get to know individuals in the neighborhood and to coordinate their care.

Working at the neighborhood level will also enable greater accountability: Access Center staff can use metrics that show clear progress towards getting all homeless residents in the neighborhood housed.

These community access centers can also be places where people who are experiencing any kind of vulnerability can get support, including older residents who need services, those on the verge of homelessness, those experiencing food insecurity, and so on. These access centers will be doorways to the kinds of services and support that will enable all city residents to thrive.

I don’t want these centers to just be a place for city workers and people looking for help: like SELAH’s program, I want them to bring in the entire community, and become a place where people enjoy spending time and meeting each other.

As it turns out, most people’s response to their neighbors in need is compassion -- everyone wants to help. People just need a safe, accessible, and effective place to donate their time and resources.

By bringing communities together, I believe that we can start to change the conversation on homelessness, and make people less afraid of their neighbors in need.

Second, we must stop criminalizing homelessness.

Currently, our unhoused neighbors face multiple city laws that make the very act of being homeless in LA illegal. Municipal Codes 56.11, 41.18, and 85.02 form a body of legislation that makes it illegal for unhoused residents of our city to have “bulky” belongings, to sit, sleep, or lie on the sidewalk, or to sleep in their cars. These laws have faced repeated challenges from civil rights advocates, and have had to be modified.

Even in their modified state, the LAPD continues to selectively enforce these rules and to issue citations that can lead to fines, warrants, and eventually in arrest. Instead of keeping these laws on the books and ticketing unhoused residents for the crime of being homeless at a time when there are so few shelter beds or homes for unhoused residents, these laws must simply be removed from our municipal code.

The City does seem to be recognizing that citing residents under these laws serves no positive purpose in maintaining law and order: in early October, to ease the burden on the court system, the LAPD Chief, the DA, and the City Attorney announced that they would collectively erase more than a million citations for minor offenses, an act that would primarily aid people experiencing homelessness. But instead of issuing citations first and later erasing them, why not just remove entirely the punitive laws that criminalize poverty instead?

Instead, the City should be spending time and money to implement common sense and compassionate solutions that will allow unhoused and housed residents to better share space until the housing crisis is resolved. Temporary storage facilities could safely hold bulky items that sometimes block parks and sidewalks during the day, and could help to give peace of mind and stability to unhoused residents who frequently lose belongings to theft and to city cleanups. Currently, the City only has one storage facility, in Skid Row. Use of space in parks, sidewalks, and other public spaces could be better regulated to ensure safe and equitable access for all users, both housed and unhoused.

One positive recent move by the City is the move towards providing regular services for unhoused residents, as we do for those with housing.

One consistent aspect of LA’s approach to homelessness has been encampment sweeps, where LAPD officers and sanitation workers show up at encampments and throw out most of what they find. I’ve seen the devastating effects these sweeps can have on people: they lose important documents, priceless keepsakes, and sometimes even life-saving medication. Currently, these sweeps happen at the request of council offices, and according to a recent audit, they eat up the bulk of resources set aside for outreach by the City.

Research has shown that complaint based responses is the worst kind of policy: both immoral and ineffective.

Instead of unplanned and disruptive sweeps, I support the model proposed by the Services not Sweeps coalition and recently adopted by the Mayor in his CARE program: carefully planned visits from Bureau of Sanitation and homeless caseworkers, where the city can help encampment residents keep their living spaces clean by throwing out trash -- not people’s possessions. I encourage the removal of LAPD from these cleanups entirely: if the city focuses on helping unhoused people rather than antagonizing them, we won’t need to involve the threat of lethal force in the process of ensuring sanitary environments and connecting people to services.

Stop The Flood Into Homelessness: Rent Freezes & Eviction Protections

Last year, more people who are homeless in LA got housed than ever before -- but even more people fell out of their housing, leading to a 16% increase in homelessness overall.

We can’t solve our homelessness crisis simply by adding shelter beds and permanent supportive housing. We desperately need serious action to keep renters in their homes.

The evidence is clear: homelessness in LA is a consequence of higher rents. And rents in LA are exploding: from 2012 to 2018, average rent in LA County increased by about $500 a month.

Even rent-controlled apartments have seen massive increases in cost compared to median income: while rents on rent-controlled units have been allowed to rise at 3% a year, average household income in the city of LA only grew about 1.5% a year from 2009 to 2017, according to the US Census’s American Community Survey. Income growth is even slower when applied solely to renters, the people who live in these units.

City officials like to pretend their hands are tied by the state when it comes to lowering rents. But they can do much, much more than they have been.

Yes, state law limits the city’s ability to apply rent control to new apartment buildings. But the Council has a lot of authority over the units that are currently rent-controlled -- and that’s 80 percent of the apartments in Los Angeles.

Here are some ideas for what to do with these apartments.

First, it’s time for a temporary zero-percent rent freeze.

Rent freezes may sound radical, but they’re actually common: New York recently passed a rent freeze two years in a row on over a million units in an effort to address their housing affordability crisis. Even our next-door neighbors are getting on board: Culver City passed a rent freeze earlier this year. In LA, one of the three most rent-burdened cities in the country, a zero-percent temporary rent freeze isn’t radical -- it’s common sense. What’s radical is how the city has been pushing tenants to their financial limits over the last decade.

Freezing the rent will give us time as a city to find shelter for people who are currently homeless, without having to deal with tens of thousands of people becoming homeless due to increased rent.

Second, we need to tie rent control to real wages.

Right now, increases on rent-controlled units are tied to changes in the Consumer Price Index. But the lowest cap that the city can put on rent increases in rent-controlled units is three percent.

The Consumer Price Index only increased by three percent once in the last decade -- meaning that rent-controlled units have been allowed to increase in price well beyond inflation.

This is bad policy. Rent-controlled units should not have a three percent minimum permitted increase when the CPI is even lower. Even better, rents on these units should actually be tied real wages, so rents don’t go up until our paychecks do.

Third, we must provide much stronger protections for tenants.

One very effective way to keep tenants in their homes is by expanding their rights. All Angelenos should have the privilege, codified by city law, to file complaints about harassment from landlords or unsanitary conditions, without fear of eviction or any other form of retaliation.

We also need to increase the amount tenants are offered in relocation assistance, where landlords can provide payments for tenants evicted under the Ellis Act to move. These payments must reflect the gap between what tenants were paying and the cost of a comparable apartment nearby, so tenants can stay in their neighborhoods for the long term.

Fourth, we must give all Los Angeles tenants the right to counsel, including our undocumented residents.

Most tenants who face evictions in LA have no legal representation, putting them at high risk of losing their housing, even in situations when they weren’t at fault. Our city should provide counsel for any individual who requests it, regardless of income and citizenship status.

Right to counsel has now been passed in San Francisco and New York, and the effect has been dramatic: in New York, evictions declined by 11%, and tenants receiving legal help had an 84% chance of being able to stay in their homes.

When it comes to protecting tenants, it’s time for LA to take the lead.

Fifth, we must provide temporary rental assistance to a much larger swathe of tenants in danger of eviction than are currently eligible for it.

Currently, temporary rental assistance is only available to residents at the very bottom of the income spectrum. Yet, many who are experiencing crises like job loss, medical bills, and divorce that can lead to eviction earn incomes that make them ineligible for such assistance.

It costs governments far less to provide individuals and families with rental assistance that keeps them in their homes than it does to help them get off the streets once they are already experiencing homelessness.

Until we are out of the crisis, the City should vastly increase the amount of rental assistance it is providing and expand the groups of people who would be eligible for such assistance, including undocumented residents.

Build Affordable and First-Step Housing

Everyone knows there’s a shortage of affordable homes in Los Angeles: experts have calculated that we need half a million more units for low-income renters.

Instead, we’ve gotten high-priced market rate units or nothing at all. And as bad as the City of LA is at building new affordable housing, CD4 is significantly worse than average.

We looked at data from the California State Treasurer’s Office on new construction from 2015 to 2018 in our district. Affordable units only made up 7% of new units constructed. Any new affordable units that were constructed were for seniors or people with special needs -- not a single unit for other low-income residents or families was approved in the district in four years!

Here’s what affordable development (green houses) looked like around CD4 (the blue area) in that time period:

CD4

We’ve walled off low-income residents -- people who work here and have families here -- from living in the district. It’s that simple.

The other 93% of new development is market-rate: usually huge, expensive luxury buildings. Our existing planning system in Los Angeles is rigged in favor of multinational developers who fill their buildings with huge apartments and amenities like dog runs and movie theatres to cater to wealthy tenants.

These luxury projects eat up precious land that could provide for more people at more income levels, and put additional strain on our labor shortage.

We need a new vision of housing in Los Angeles.

  • Housing with affordable covenants that will last for the next century.
  • Housing where teachers, nurses, and retail workers can live near where they work.
  • Housing for seniors who want to age well, among people of all ages.
  • Housing that improves neighborhoods and reduces blight.
  • Housing in commercial zones, so people can live where they work.
  • Housing that doesn’t tower over surrounding buildings, but makes efficient and maximum use of every story.

Housing that lets the people who make this city great know: they are welcome here.

The city can contribute funds to subsidize rents in these buildings, but we don’t have to spend billions to get it built. We can empower builders of affordable housing in a number of ways.

First, we must make new 100% affordable housing construction by-right and provide approvals to such projects within 90 days, saving builders costly and unpredictable delays and obstacles in the planning process.

The process of approving construction in Los Angeles is both long and unpredictable, often taking years before a building gets the necessary permits to break ground and often also requiring the use of lobbyists and expediters to push permits through City Hall. Indeed, research has shown that 93% of new construction in Los Angeles requires specialized planning approvals.

This process is incredibly expensive for developers, whether for-profit or non-profit, who have to tie up large amounts of capital for years before they can even begin construction. It has resulted in only the most deep-pocketed developers being able to build in Los Angeles, and has resulted in housing that is incredibly expensive.

Housing that is 100% affordable to the population must be legal and fast to build, especially near major transit lines. Affordable covenants for these units must last for a century, not the current standard of 30 or 55 years.

Second, we must revise the planning code to ensure that builders are able to build affordable housing. This will mean:

  • Removing density limits and legalizing significantly smaller units (without necessarily increasing permitted building heights)
  • Eliminating parking requirements
  • Instituting explicit limitations on amenities, such as parking

Currently our planning code is leading to the oversupply of large, high-rise luxury units: this is not what our city needs. Making smart changes in our planning code that will lower the cost of construction can help to produce both housing that is explicitly designated as affordable and what is called the “missing middle”: housing for middle income residents.

We need such housing in our job centers, where shortened commutes and access to transit will take cars off the road and over time improve the quality of our air.

Such changes do not have to change the character of neighborhoods. We can increase the density of housing, while following other kinds of building restrictions such as building height restrictions and other development codes. This will ensure that new housing will blend in seamlessly in these communities, bringing new economic life to local businesses.

Moreover, denser housing should not be built everywhere. We should not be building in fire-risk zones in the hills, or in far-flung suburbs where people would be forced into long commutes to get to work, or in areas that are far from public transit lines.

One effective form of planning code revision which has already taken place is the legalization of Additional Dwelling Units (ADUs), which has now happened at both the city and state level in CA. ADU laws have increased the availability of housing without changing neighborhood form. Financial benefits from ADU construction have also stayed local: they have been constructed mostly by individual property owners, not by large developers.

Third, we must revise the planning code to explicitly legalize what I am calling FIRST STEP HOUSING, housing with shared community spaces, including shared kitchens and bathrooms.

When people lose their apartments and fall out of the market, this is the housing that will catch them.

When people are finally able to get off the street, this is the housing that will shelter them.

Every unit of this new housing will help increase overall affordability, and stem the tide of people falling into homelessness. So far, we have been completely unable to keep up with the flow of people into homelessness just by building Permanent Supportive Housing. We must make it legal and simple for private nonprofit and public benefit builders to enter this market.

Flyaway Homes, a social benefit organization and one of the fastest, cheapest, and most effective builders of affordable housing in the city, won’t even explore a property unless it’s already permitted for multifamily housing. We should be inviting builders like this into our city and making sure they are able to build the kind of housing that people coming out of homelessness really need -- not shutting them out with our zoning.

Fourth, we propose a new city fund for acquiring, refurbishing, and managing affordable properties: a Public Option for Housing.

No public housing has been built in Los Angeles since 1955 -- it’s time to get back in the game.

With a fund dedicated to purchasing and refurbishing multifamily housing, Los Angeles can add to its public housing stock while improving neighborhoods and brightening our streets, with a focus on bringing in tenants at risk of displacement. We’d combine local funding with existing federal streams so as to rapidly expand the footprint of subsidized housing into areas like CD4, where the unhoused and at-risk populations far outnumber the available affordable stock.

This program will cost a lot less than building new units, and begin the process of decommodifying our city’s housing supply. And instead of spending more than a billion dollars annually just to manage homelessness without improving it, we’ll actually be getting people into homes.

Who belongs in LA?
Everyone.

I hope we’ve shown you how much power our city government has to make LA a more welcoming place for people of all incomes -- where everyone deserves safe, comfortable, stable housing.

There are so many policies at our disposal that could help us reverse the course of this crisis -- without needing to rely on state government or an authoritarian President.

But policy alone isn’t enough. Elected leaders must be committed to spreading a message of acceptance and community -- a message that new neighbors aren’t a threat, but a blessing.

Our leaders have been too receptive to voices of anger and anxiety, and haven’t made an effort to bring communities together. One of the most important shifts we need to make in our city is cultural.

I’m going to dedicate every single day of my time in office to the simple idea that everyone is welcome in Los Angeles. It’s the principle that motivates everything I’ve done since I came here, and everything that I will do.

But it’s going to take a movement. I hope you’ll join me.