Los Angeles County has an unhoused population of over 70,000. Due to systemic racism, African Americans are a third of these folk while only 9% of the county population. Increasingly, other people of color, LGBTQ+ youth, and seniors are joining their ranks.
The people of L.A. want this catastrophe to end. In 2016, voters taxed ourselves $1.2 billion to build 10,000 units of supportive housing, i.e. lodging with services. However, government officials have enriched the private developers and owners of these new properties by millions. Far fewer units are being built, at an average cost of $600,000 each. Plus, the contract to provide supportive housing expires after 55 years.
In response, the Freedom Socialist Party initiated the End Homelessness Now-LA Campaign (EHN) in 2018. EHN demands that the city and county turn their vacant or underused properties into high-quality permanent supportive public housing — not the current U.S. version of racially segregated, underfunded, and increasingly privatized public housing. Like education and health care, housing should be a human right. Profits should not determine who has a home. Public housing would reduce corporate welfare and fraud. It would cost less and never revert to market-rate rents.
Our campaign was endorsed by dozens of organizations, including the massive United Teachers of Los Angeles, human rights organizations, and left groups as well as community leaders. Its volunteers circulated petitions, wrote letters, testified at L.A. City Council meetings, and demonstrated in the streets.
Ignoring these efforts, the Democratic Party-controlled Council spent millions on temporary congregate shelters in huge tents and leased warehouses. This “A Bridge Home” project was meant to provide a path off the streets, but with few permanent accommodations available, only 650 of 4,000 people moved on to long-term or interim homes from 2019–2021.
In 2020, EHN began promoting social housing, common in many other countries. These community-owned units bypass the for-profit market. They provide long-term, high-quality lodging. Rent is based on income and, unlike in U.S. public housing, tenants are not evicted if their income increases.
In October 2020, the City Council asked the administration to look into social housing. EHN garnered resolutions and letters of support from fourteen Neighborhood Councils and over 50 labor and community organizations. Sadly, three years later, there is no progress.
Corruption and collusion. Houselessness in L.A. has also been plagued by fraud and corruption within government. Council members José Huizar and Mitchell Englander, and former high-ranking administrators and advisors, pleaded guilty or were found guilty of bribery, fraud, and obstruction in “pay-to-play” schemes benefiting the developers of high-end hotels, condominiums, and apartments.
In the summer of 2022, the city expanded its anti-camping ordinance, which bans sitting, lying, sleeping, or keeping belongings on sidewalks. EHN pointed out its similarity to the post-Civil War vagrancy laws used to jail former slaves. Activists flooded L.A. City Council meetings, but the Council created 1,900 additional exclusionary zones covering 20% of the city. Similar legislation is cropping up all around the country.
In January 2023, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass declared a “state of emergency on homelessness.” Her “Inside Safe” initiative uses traumatizing sanitation sweeps to drive people from encampments into shelters and hotel rooms. These facilities are fenceless jails with curfews, bed checks, searches, and rules galore. The mayor plans to expedite construction, but she favors private sector development and the use of temporary shelters.
Achievements and roadblocks. Even facing stiff headwinds, EHN made progress. Our advocacy of public housing opened many eyes. Other organizations picked up our demands. And, the city and county are purchasing some properties and looking at vacant ones. Unfortunately, government action is nowhere near the level needed. The street count grows. Criminalization and displacement are devastating this population and polarizing our communities.
Sufficient buildings and resources exist to provide decent housing for all. But an economy based on profit treats shelter as a money-generating commodity. The billionaires and mega-corporations who own most of the world’s resources only invest their wealth where they can profit. Real estate and the rental market are cash cows. Elected officials are often beholden to these wealthy investors, who donate funds to their races. In turn they pay allegiance to the profit-making interests of big business. For the have-nots, inadequate housing is hardwired into capitalism.
From hitting this corporate-political barrier, we learned that any reform has to bring labor unions and community forces together into united fronts. These broad coalitions can fight for survival basics while educating that only fundamental change in the economic and political system will solve houselessness.
Val Carlson is a founding member of EHN and has advocated for significant housing reform since moving to L.A. in 2016. Send comments to: FSnews@socialism.com.