As Los Angeles readies for a mayoral primary in June, homelessness is a top issue among voters. Seemingly every 2022 mayoral candidate touts the same promise: they will declare homelessness a state of emergency on day one. Beyond political utility, it’s unclear, though, what such a declaration would accomplish. Mayor Eric Garcetti has already declared a state of emergency on homelessness once before, in 2015.
Garcetti’s declaration was a compelling factor in the passage of Proposition HHH, a 2016 ballot measure approved by nearly 80 percent of voters that authorized the city to issue up to $1.2 billion in general obligation bonds to develop or acquire supportive housing for homeless families and individuals. Under Proposition HHH, the city would build 10,000 housing units within ten years at an estimated cost of $350,000 per studio and one-bedroom unit and $414,000 per two-bedroom unit.
Five years later, only 1,142 units—11 percent of those promised—are ready for occupancy, according to Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin. And in the last official homeless count for the Greater Los Angeles area, conducted in 2020 (the 2021 count was skipped due to Covid-19), the city had more than 41,000 unhoused residents—a 45 percent increase since HHH passed. As L.A. awaits results from the official 2022 homeless count, no one is optimistic about the numbers. Voters have grown frustrated that public defecation and masturbation, serial acts of arson, trespassing, encampment fires, property theft, and unprovoked assault by mentally ill homeless individuals have become commonplace in the city.
The fundamental problem that Los Angeles faces in dealing with homelessness is that it continues to address the issue as a housing crisis and not a human one involving drug addiction and mental illness. But even on its own housing-oriented terms, the city’s efforts under Proposition HHH have been a flop. The 2022 audit of Prop. HHH reveals that developers are taking three to six years to complete projects, with most set to open between 2023 and 2026. Galperin’s 2019 audit revealed that 35 percent to 40 percent of project funds went toward “soft” costs, such as consulting, legal, and financing fees—not the hard costs of materials and labor that had been pitched to voters. Politically connected administrators receive exorbitant salaries to direct homelessness initiatives, profiting from what many call the homeless-industrial complex.
The actual costs of construction per unit have continued to rise and significantly exceed projections. The average per-unit cost of current projects is $596,846, with many exceeding $700,000 per unit. One project in pre-development is estimated to cost almost $837,000 per unit. According to the 2019 audit, more than 90 percent of the units under construction are compact studios and one-bedroom apartments, ranging from 275 to 750 square feet—yet costs keep rising. The median cost to build many of these units approaches, and in some cases exceeds, the median sale price of a condominium in Los Angeles ($625,000) and of a single-family home in Los Angeles County ($875,000).
Making things worse, the city allocated nearly 80 percent of the $1.2 billion in bonds to projects years away from completion. That the majority of contracts were awarded to projects in preliminary development raises questions of whether the city used a competitive bidding process to select developers and whether preexisting relationships played a factor in the selection process.
Galperin has recommended that the city reallocate Proposition HHH funds or use remaining funds to develop interim housing facilities and emergency-shelter options instead of permanent supportive housing, which is too expensive and takes too long to build. Officials should listen to him. Instead, they continue to ignore Los Angeles’s rampant drug addiction and mental illness, failing to understand that simply providing housing units will never eliminate homelessness, no matter how many emergencies they declare or how many dollars they spend. Exasperated by the inefficacy and expense of Proposition HHH, and by the city’s continued deterioration under the mounting homelessness problem, some voters mock the measure as Proposition HaHaHa. June’s mayoral primary will give them a chance to weigh in on how the city should address the problem: Is it a housing crisis that requires $800,000 permanent supportive housing units, or a crisis of drug addiction and mental illness?