The other day I biked down to Target, hoping this time I wouldn’t see the same lady I always see laying outside. I was deeply saddened to see that for the third year running, she was still sitting at the same spot. This was a reminder that the multitude of homeless individuals I recognize because they’ve lived on the streets of Westwood for so long, have still not received the help they need.
They’re not alone. There are 28,000 homeless individuals in the city of Los Angeles in 2016 – an 11 percent increase from 2015. California is the state with the highest rate of unsheltered homelessness in the nation. Even within Westwood, homelessness is on the rise.
The consensus among experts is that the most effective strategy for tackling homelessness is the “housing first” strategy. It’s groundbreaking for the simple reason that it flips a commonly held belief on its head. Policymakers have typically assumed that the root causes of homelessness were mental illness and substance abuse. Thus, they targeted their efforts on those issues. The housing-first approach instead centers on quickly providing homeless people with housing and then providing services for mental illness or substance abuse as needed.
But building that much housing requires a substantial amount of money. This is where the Proposition HHH ballot measure comes in – it would raise the necessary funds to implement a successful housing-first policy in LA.
Because of this, voters need to pass measure HHH on the upcoming Nov. 8 ballot. However, it won’t fix everything – voters also need to support extra efforts to address the growing crisis.
Proposition HHH would raise $1.2 billion over the next 10 years through a general obligation bond, which is a debt instrument issued by a state or local municipality to raise money for public works. Investors would buy the bonds because they are low-risk, repaid by property taxes. The money raised would go toward building permanent supportive housing for people who have been living on the streets for one year or longer. Many of the homeless individuals we all recognize in Westwood would fall under this category.
The places where a housing-first policy has been enacted have had startling success. For example, the homeless rate in Denmark is 0.1 percent, one-tenth of the 1-percent rate of U.S. homelessness. Utah also adopted a housing-first strategy in 2005 and, unsurprisingly, obtained similar success, with chronic homelessness decreasing 72 percent since then. Other successful experiments have been carried out in France, Canada, and many cities across the United States.
However, to solve the problem of homelessness to the degree that the Danes have, a housing-first policy must be implemented in conjunction with efforts to reduce the systematic causes of homelessness, such as lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, mental illness and substance abuse. Proposition HHH already deals with the latter two by pairing housing with services that include mental health treatment, addiction therapy and vocational training. Unfortunately, since Proposition HHH focuses on the chronic homeless, who are a minority of the homeless population, the first three causes of general homelessness are still left largely unattended.
In order to address the homelessness issues Proposition HHH fails to cover directly, voters also need to pass ballot Measure JJJ, which would require developers to add affordable units to new residential buildings, thereby increasing the supply of affordable housing and bringing prices down in order to tackle the first cause of homelessness. Outside of the ballot box, voters and activists should push for subsidized housing and the revocation of the mortgage interest deduction.
The mortgage interest deduction allows home-owning taxpayers to reduce their taxable income and is therefore a de facto housing subsidy for the high-earners and wealthy of this nation. It not only helps the rich get richer in a time of unrivaled wealth inequality, but it also inflates housing prices as people pay higher prices to capture the tax benefit. The Tax Policy Center estimated that housing prices would fall 11.8 percent if the tax benefit were completely revoked. Anybody can see why this matters for UCLA students, even those who only marginally care about homelessness, because we are all probably hoping to enter the housing market within the next decade.
It is a consensus among economists that rent control is a bad policy for low-income earners. It provides a disincentive for construction, therefore limiting the supply of affordable housing and causing prices to go up even more. Instead of rent control – which should be abolished wherever it is still in effect – governments should subsidize housing construction in order to increase supply in the housing market.
The main argument against propositions HHH and JJJ is that these measures will just end up needlessly increasing people’s taxes. LA City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana estimates that the average annual cost over the 29 years the bonds are being repaid is $9.64 per $100,000 of the assessed valuation of a property, which is relatively low. However, research also shows that housing-first programs are fiscally efficient and save the taxpayer money in the long run. And while some fear Measure JJJ would harm construction rates in LA, thereby restricting the supply of affordable housing, an analysis of LA planning data between 2013 and 2015 shows that 5,500 new houses would be created under JJJ.
Homelessness is not an inevitability, and in November you as an individual will have the opportunity to move LA in the direction of solving this problem by voting for propositions HHH and JJJ. UCLA students need to be invested in affordable housing measures not only because of the homeless crisis but also so they can afford homes themselves. The share of 18- to 34-year-olds who own a home has fallen to a 30-year low. That could be you in a couple years, so get out and vote for HHH and JJJ to help the worst-off in our society, and by extension, the struggling middle class to which most of us at UCLA belong.
Click the banner to read more election endorsements and analysis.