Skid Row

Affordable Housing Advocates Argue for Dual Solution to Los Angeles’ Homelessness Crisis

Drive down Skid Row in Los Angeles and you’re likely to wonder whether any progress is being made toward ending California’s homelessness crisis. Home to one of the largest populations of people experiencing homelessness in the United States, Skid Row has come to symbolize California’s ongoing struggles to solve the long-standing housing shortage in the state.

Frustration with the City and County’s inability to house, or even just shelter, tens of thousands of adults and children inspired the LA Alliance for Human Rights to sue for a change to the status quo in L.A. The dramatic ensuing injunction by federal judge David O. Carter ordered the City of Los Angeles to create sufficient emergency shelter or housing for every person experiencing homelessness on Skid Row by fall 2021.  Underscoring the complexity of this issue, the order went on to critique what Judge Carter described as the City’s decision “to prioritize long-term housing at the expense of committing funds to interim shelters,” decrying the years spent building permanent homes when so many homeless Angelenos need immediate relief.

Although nearly everyone from the public and private sector agrees that the City and County should be doing more to address the homelessness situation in Skid Row, there is significant disagreement on what specifically should be done. From the plaintiffs and some allies in the business community, there are calls for more temporary shelter to address the acute impacts of thousands of people living and dying on the streets.

Affordable housing developers like Mercy Housing California’s (MHC’s) colleagues in Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing (SCANPH) argue that we can’t afford to choose shelter over housing because just providing temporary shelter does not result in ending homelessness.  Without permanent housing options, people who are homeless could languish in shelters for years. In an amicus brief filed with other affordable housing advocates in June, SCANPH made the case for a path forward that prioritizes both temporary shelter and permanent supportive housing.

Both Judge Carter’s order and SCANPH’s response are clear-eyed about the culpability of structural racism in creating and exacerbating California’s homelessness crisis. From redlining to restrictive zoning, decades of discriminatory policies have depleted affordable housing options for people of color. Accordingly, Black Angelenos are severely overrepresented among the city’s homeless population.

However, while the order calls for the City to address this inequity most immediately by providing Skid Row residents temporary shelter, SCANPH’s brief argues that people who have lost their homes as a result of structural injustice deserve permanent, affordable housing solutions, and cautions against hitting the brakes on supportive housing development. As many studies have shown, offering people experiencing homelessness temporary shelter does little to improve their chances of someday becoming permanently housed, while most people who are able to access long-term supportive housing never experience homelessness again. There is no doubt that more temporary shelter is needed in the short term, but permanent homes are needed to address an unjust housing crisis that disproportionately impacts BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Californians.

833 Bryant will have 146 micro studios for people who are currently experiencing homelessness
Artist’s rendering of one of Mercy Housing California’s modular communities.

Building homes is costly, and supporters of Judge Carter’s order question the wisdom of investing so heavily in permanent housing when interim shelter can often be constructed much more cheaply. Indeed, nonprofit affordable housing developers must take seriously the high cost of construction. MHC, for example, has worked hard to identify more cost-effective ways of developing real estate, including modular construction and rehabilitating older structures, and continues to advocate for policy solutions that will reduce the cost of affordable housing. While more progress must be made in this arena, SCANPH’s brief contends that when compared to the outcomes of temporary shelter, permanent housing is a more cost-effective solution. Multiple studies cited in the brief demonstrate that “while people residing in shelters or living on the streets incur significant public costs, people living in supportive housing are able to reduce public costs” by staying stably housed at much higher rates, decreasing public health costs, and attaining greater food security.

Supporters of Judge Carter’s order and detractors in the affordable housing community generally agree about the dire nature of L.A.’s – and California’s – homelessness crisis. However, while the order recommends a strong focus on interim shelter, the affordable housing community asserts that the true answer lies in combining multiple solutions. As stated in the brief, “While [we] agree wholeheartedly that there is an important role for the City and County to play in the provision of shelter, such temporary shelter cannot come at the expense of permanent homes: We need both.”