Tiny Tuesday: How to End Homelessness (Or Not)

Earlier this year, Los Angeles voters approved a property tax increase earmarking $1.2 billion to spend on new housing for the homeless. Developers have submitted proposals on several empty lots, including Lorena Plaza, a 49-unit apartment building for the Boyle Heights neighborhood. But so far, nothing has been built. Why not?

In short: NIMBY. This New York Times article explores the opposition to Lorena Plaza, which comes almost exclusively from residents and business owners in Boyle Heights. They cite concerns for the new inhabitants like health (the apartment site once hosted an oil well, long defunct) and tranquility (a noisy commercial district sits nearby). I’m not convinced. Literally any climate-controlled, lockable building offers more privacy and safety than living on the streets. I suspect the health and tranquility that concerns current residents is their own.

Homelessness is not just ugly, it’s expensive. Former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan has estimated the cost of an average homeless person on the public is $40,000 per year, mainly from shelters, jails, and medical expenses. L.A. voters accepted this economic argument, following the Housing First principle that it is altogether in a city’s interest to house as many citizens as possible. But they have yet to figure out where to put them. As Mayor Eric Garcetti said, “The challenge to anyone who says ‘no’ is they have to find a place to say ‘yes.’”

While I don’t have an answer to eradicating homelessness in general, I do have a proposal for L.A. Consider the success story of James Brown (no, not that one), a formerly homeless man who was given an apartment in East Hollywood five years ago and still lives there. As described in this NPR story, Brown’s apartment complex is not purpose-built to house former vagrants – it’s an existing apartment building integrated in the community. Brown is a veteran, and got a sort of priority treatment, but there’s no reason this strategy couldn’t work for a larger slice of the population.

My proposal is this: instead of spending the $1.2 billion on proposals like Lorena Plaza that fail to get community approval, the city of L.A. could use the money to rent existing apartments in high-occupancy complexes. Spreading out the new renters is far more palatable to existing residents than concentrating them in developments that change the character of the neighborhood. The city could also offer tax incentives to homeowners who build accessory dwelling units – the suburban equivalent of integrated apartments – and welcome formerly homeless tenants to live in their backyard. And maybe other cities will follow suit.

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