Los Angeles set to tax itself to raise billions for homelessness relief

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Homelessness advocates in America’s second largest city were savoring a seeming double victory after Los Angeles voters appeared to choose to tax themselves to raise more than $3.5bn for homeless services over the next decade, and comprehensively knocked down a second measure that would have slammed the brakes on many housing developments.
Tuesday’s election was the second in a row in which voters aligned with LA’s political leadership in calling for a massive funding effort to move tens of thousands of homeless people into permanent housing and provide the “wraparound” services they need to overcome addiction, mental health and other challenges. 
The sales tax increase required a two-thirds majority, and its apparent close passage – like the passage of a $1.2bn bond measure last November – was a measure of the depth of both LA’s homelessness crisis, which has worsened sharply over the past eight years, and of a countywide housing shortage pushing prices out of reach for many working families.
The revenue from the quarter-cent sales tax increase would “enable the most comprehensive plan to combat homelessness in the history of Los Angeles County”, the head of the county Homeless Initiative, Phil Ansell, said shortly before the election.
If the sales tax increase is confirmed, the county of Los Angeles would have the means to deliver on its own promise to house 45,000 homeless people and help another 30,000 people avoid losing their homes over the next five years.
Those plans could have been in jeopardy if voters in the city of Los Angeles had approved another measure on the ballot, Measure S, which took aim at big developers and sought to impose a two-year moratorium on any projects – including many earmarked for homeless people – that required exemptions from the city’s decades-old planning rules. Measure S was rejected by a 70-30 margin.
For many decades, Los Angeles was notorious among homelessness advocates for its reluctance to do more than provide basic services and conduct police sweeps at encampments of homeless people, particularly in the Skid Row area downtown and in Venice Beach.
Now, Los Angeles’ popular mayor, Eric Garcetti (who won re-election on Tuesday with more than 80% of the vote), and other local leaders are embracing a movement of big-city mayors, including New York’s Bill de Blasio, who argue that ending homelessness is an economic as well as a social priority.
Owing to entanglements with the healthcare and law enforcement systems, homeless people “become the most expensive individuals to the public purse in any community”, said Philip Mangano, a former homelessness czar under both George W Bush and Barack Obama who now leads a Boston-based nonprofit, the American Roundtable to Abolish Homelessness.
The challenge for Los Angeles now is to deliver on its promises. While Mayor Garcetti and many Los Angeles city council members were re-elected easily on Tuesday, they have had to answer concerns from the political right that homeless people are being given too much leeway to set up tents and, from the political left, that they are not moving fast enough.
“How Los Angeles invests its money will be the critical element,” Mangano said.
The city hopes to break ground on 10 initial homeless housing projects within two years and is setting up teams of social workers, housing experts, and addiction counselors to assess the extent of the problem and tailor its services to the needs of the homeless population. The details of budgeting, however, have yet to be worked out and will require unprecedented cooperation between city and county bureaucracies.
“If the money is not invested primarily in housing, it will have less of an impact,” Mangano warned. “If you dissipate resources across the entire breadth of the problem, you’ll just be reinforcing the status quo. It sounds obvious, but the priority has to be housing first.”

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