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LA groups propose new ballot measure to combat homelessness

Backers say the initiative — if passed by voters in 2022 — will raise roughly $800 million a year to create 26,000 units of affordable housing, by taxing real estate transactions over $5 million.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A broad coalition of community groups, affordable housing nonprofits and unions filed paperwork Thursday for a ballot initiative to combat homelessness in Los Angeles they hope to put before voters in November 2022.

Organizers say the United to House LA initiative would raise roughly $800 million a year to create 26,000 units of affordable and supportive housing. If passed, the initiative would also establish a new rental assistance program aimed at helping 475,000 people struggling to stay housed.

"We have a crisis-level shortage of affordable and supportive housing in Los Angeles," said Alexandra Suh, executive director of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, at a press conference Thursday. "Without addressing the root causes of homelessness, we are doomed to remain frozen in the current status quo."

The money would come from a new 4% fee on real estate sales of properties worth over $5 million, rising to 5.5% on properties sold for $10 million or more.

"We're asking millionaires and billionaires — and we have many in this city — to contribute their fair share," said Eli Lipmen, director of development at Move LA.

Some of the new housing created by the measure would be built from the ground up. The rest would come from the city buying and fixing up old buildings and then renting them out to homeless or low-income tenants, something the city has never done before.

The initiative would also pay for a new rental-assistance program, a "right-to-counsel" law, guaranteeing legal representation to tenants facing eviction, as well as an oversight commission and inspector general to oversee the fund.

Los Angeles has long had one of the worst homelessness crises in the entire country. In 2016, LA voters passed Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion measure to construct thousands of units of permanent supportive housing. The following year, LA County voters passed Measure H, a 10-year, quarter-cent sales tax increase to provide services and rental assistance for the homeless. Despite that investment, the number of people living on the street, in vehicles and in shelters has gone up steadily over the years, and the problem is widely perceived to have gotten worse.

"Measure HHH is bringing thousands of units, but that was a one-time investment," said Laura Raymond, director of the Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles. "This is going to be a long-term, much broader, much bigger investment — a permeant one. This is multiple solutions — tenant protections, emergency rental assistance — to meet the crisis we’re facing."

Once the initiative's language is approved by the city attorney, backers will have 120 days to gather roughly 65,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

But not everyone backs the initiative. Stuart Waldman is the president of the Valley Industry Commerce Association, a business group which supported measures H and HHH. He called the proposal, as outlined in a press release, "a bucket list of perks and pork to get people to support it."

"I think most business leaders would question whether that money has been well spent," said Waldman. "Things have only gotten worse. Why would we give them more money to do the same?"

Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, blasted the scheme as well.

"It’s just another scheme to transfer wealth from the perceived wealthy to the perceived downtrodden in our society today," he said. He wondered if the revenue it generates would fall short of expectations, since "people will be reluctant to sell some of these properties in the future."

A recent poll by The Los Angeles Times found voters would support a tax increase to help reduce the homeless population, by a margin of 51% to 41%. But the same poll also found voters would prefer officials focus on the construction of temporary homes or shelters rather than long-term housing, by a margin of 57% to 30%.

The United to House LA initiative offers no money for shelters. Lipmen said the reason for that is the state will be providing around a quarter of billion dollars for programs like Project Homekey, which purchases old motels and converts them into temporary housing.

Numerous polls show people believe homelessness is the biggest problem the city faces today, and is almost certain to be the number one issue during the 2022 mayor's race.

The debate is also playing out in court. Just as community groups announced their ballot initiative, a hearing took place in federal court in downtown LA on a lawsuit filed by the LA Alliance for Human Rights against the city and the county on claims of an inadequate response to the homeless crisis. The city and county agreed in 2020 to provide 6,700 beds to house or shelter homeless people living in encampments under or near freeways by April 2021. But at Thursday's hearing, U.S. District Judge David Carter said it wasn't clear whether the city had met its goal or whether there was a breach of the agreement.

During the hearing, Carter looked at photographs and videos of homeless encampments. One encampment under a freeway overpass at Venice Boulevard looked exactly the same, to Carter, as when he had last seen it.

"There’s no change that I’m seeing from six, seven months ago,” the judge said. “The same people are sitting there. These are almost permanent structures.”

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