“I intend on putting in another proposal in the next week or two that asks the city to look at the federal bailout or stimulus funds we’ll be getting as a result of this crisis…and using some of that to either buy hotels that go belly up or to buy the distressed properties that are absolutely going to be on the market at cheaper prices after this crisis is over. And use that as homeless and affordable housing. It’s going to be a hell of a lot cheaper to purchase stuff that is already there and move people in there than if we start from scratch. A lot of good stuff is being done.”
– Mike Bonin, LA City Councilmember, 11th District, remarks at 4/18 virtual town hall
It isn’t often politicians reveal so explicitly what they intend to do, especially when it involves the displacement of a well-established community. Nor is it often, if ever, that something so tragic and disruptive as a pandemic comes along to hasten the accomplishment of such a nefarious objective.
The policies being enacted in California, and in Los Angeles in particular, to help the “unhoused” find shelter have little to do with helping the “unhoused.” If they did, the problem would have been solved years ago. Venice Beach provides an excellent case study in how everything being done to help the “unhoused” has a hidden agenda.
The key to understanding this hidden agenda is to recognize that a Homeless Industrial Complex has arisen in California that acquires power and profit by pursuing an utterly dysfunctional strategy. In Los Angeles, for example, instead of rounding up homeless people, sorting them according to their various challenges – drug addiction, alcoholism, criminality, mental illness, laziness, or just bad luck – and moving them into supervised camps in low-cost areas of Los Angeles County, the Homeless Industrial Complex has grown into a voracious leviathan, devouring billions in taxpayers’ money. And for all practical purposes, and with all that money, they have just made the problem worse.
This is because you can’t ensure the rule of law when you permit people to wander the streets stoned out of their minds, or sprawled across park benches in a heroin stupor, or drinking and carousing all night long, urinating and defecating everywhere, and then permit them to receive free food and bedding in a shelter two blocks from the beach with no curfew and no restrictions on behavior. But that’s what they did in Venice Beach.
Furthermore, you can’t get the tens of thousands of homeless living in Los Angeles into shelters of any kind, when you’re spending over $8 million to build a shelter with 154 beds, but that’s what they did in Venice Beach. And you can’t move these homeless from that temporary shelter into “permanent supportive housing” in a new structure containing 140 apartments at an estimated total project cost of over $200 million. But that’s what’s planned for Venice Beach.
The members of the Homeless Industrial Complex know this. But they don’t care, because public bureaucracies get funding to expand, and “nonprofit” corporations and their for-profit subcontractors get public funding and tax incentives. These perks are far more lucrative when the “solutions” they construct are on high-value land, even though locating supportive housing and shelters in inexpensive areas would solve the problem.
The Next Step – The Destruction of a City
Which brings us back to Councilmember Bonin’s revealing comment: The City of Los Angeles intends to use bailout funds to buy distressed properties and use them to house the unhoused. There are all kinds of problems with this approach. Here’s what’s happened, and what’s coming next:
The homeless could have been kept off the streets. But the public authorities and their allies in the Homeless Industrial Complex hid behind insufficiently challenged court rulings and legislation that made it prohibitively expensive to house all the homeless and almost impossible to treat them or hold them accountable.
The current pandemic has crushed the economy, and has been equally devastating to both small landlords and renters. But how have elected officials responded? They have clamped down on landlords, making it impossible to evict tenants, or raise rent, and are even considering mandating a 25 percent rent reduction. While there is some moral justification for these measures during these extraordinary times, what sort of reciprocal relief has been offered landlords? Nothing. No property tax relief, much less grants or low-interest loans. “Distressed properties.” Indeed.
For years developers have been eyeing the residential paradise that remains intact on the blocks immediately behind the Venice Beach boardwalk. Armed with phony legislative mandates to protect “sprawl,” and “greenhouse gas,” which has prevented construction of entire new cities along California’s 101, I-5 and 99 transportation corridors, developers hope to demolish these beachfront neighborhoods and fill them with multi-story, multi-family units.
(As an aside, but essential to any discussion of the homeless crisis, California’s environmentalist inspired legislative mandates are the reason that developers can no longer make a profit building affordable homes without subsidies. These laws caused California’s housing shortage and were a major factor in causing California’s homeless crisis. They should be revised or repealed.)
While there is room for legitimate debate over how cities should manage densification, some of which would still be inevitable and mostly beneficial even if Californians did not live under the oppression of urban containment, what is happening in Venice Beach is not legitimate. It is economic war.
The elected officials in Los Angeles have allowed the homeless population in Venice Beach to become dangerously out of control. Trespassing, theft, disturbing the peace, vandalism, public intoxication and worse are all crimes that are now ignored. The people living in Venice Beach, working hard to pay rent or mortgages, were besieged before this pandemic began. Now, in a cruel twist of injustice, they are under “lockdown,” as the still unrestricted and unaccountable homeless become further entrenched.
Purchasing “distressed” properties will never house all of the “unhoused,” because Venice Beach’s natural attributes of perfect weather, endless beach, and big sky sunsets over the Pacific cannot be altogether destroyed no matter how much the neighborhoods are blighted. In a place like Venice Beach, if you buy houses and give them away, more “unhoused” will come. To squeeze the property owners in Venice Beach while displaying unlimited compassion to the homeless is a travesty. But blight can be useful.
Once Venice Beach acquires a critical mass of blighted and distressed properties, and manages to “house” a sufficient number of the formerly “unhoused,” two things will happen: The blight will empower the city to declare entire square blocks as subject to eminent domain, and the lowered average income per census tract will qualify developers for low-income tax credits. At that point, bring on the bulldozers, and say goodbye to a city, a way of life, and whatever incentives may have remained for hardworking property owners to work hard and own property.
Councilmember Bonin and his comrades must feel very proud to have seized this moment.
This article originally appeared on the website California Globe.