Mayor Karen Bass urges L.A.'s wealthy to fund homeless housing

Los Angeles, CA, Monday, April 15, 2024 - LA Mayor Karen Bass delivers her second State of the City Address at City Hall. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
L.A. Mayor Karen Bass delivers her second State of the City address at City Hall on Monday. She is asking the private sector to help in the fight against homelessness. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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As she forges ahead with her fight against homelessness, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass has gone looking for help in all sorts of places.

She has teamed up with Los Angeles County agencies to bring mental health services to the city's sprawling homeless encampments. She has lobbied Sacramento for more money to build temporary housing. And she has persuaded officials in Washington, D.C. to loosen the rules that determine when a homeless Angeleno becomes eligible for a federally funded apartment.

Now, the mayor is asking L.A.'s wealthiest Angelenos for help. On Monday in her State of the City address, she unveiled a new campaign that asks business leaders, philanthropic organizations and others to donate millions of dollars to an effort to acquire buildings so they can be used as apartments for the city's homeless population.

"We have brought the public sector together," Bass said, speaking to a packed City Council chamber. "And now we must prevail on the humanity and generosity of the private sector."

The pitch comes as Bass is working to break a logjam that has limited the city's ability to move homeless Angelenos out of interim housing, such as hotel and motel rooms, and into apartments that they can afford — while tens of thousands of others still have no shelter at all.

Because L.A. does not have enough affordable housing, many who come off the streets end up living in temporary city facilities for extended periods of time.

Beverly Hills-based investor and philanthropist Stephen J. Cloobeck, who attended the mayor's speech, praised her work on homelessness so far, calling her "a disruptor." Cloobeck said he donated $1 million earlier this year to the new fundraising initiative, known as LA4LA.

"There needs to be a pathway for people to get back into society, and be proud of themselves and add value to our community," he said. "The mayor believes the same."

Bass declared a state of emergency on homelessness in December 2022, on the day she took office. A month later, the region's homeless count found more than 46,000 unhoused people in Los Angeles, an 80% increase since 2015.

In her first city budget, the mayor allocated $1.3 billion for initiatives to address the homelessness crisis. She devoted about a fifth of that money to Inside Safe, her signature program to move unhoused Angelenos out of some of the city's largest and most dangerous encampments.

On Monday, addressing a room full of elected officials, city staffers, business leaders, labor officials and political appointees, Bass also highlighted the city's preparations for the 2028 Olympic Games. And she touted her administration's work in addressing public safety, expanding public transportation and strengthening L.A.’s business climate.

The mayor celebrated a drop in homicides last year compared with 2022. She signaled her interest in pursuing an expensive and hotly debated project: the long-delayed upgrade of the city’s convention center.

Still, much of her address focused on homelessness.

Bass told the crowd that her office has been challenging the status quo on homelessness — "the crisis on our streets is nothing less than a disaster," she said — and has worked collaboratively with local, state and federal agencies to move people indoors. She touted the work of Inside Safe, which has conducted more than 40 encampment operations since she took office.

"Inside Safe is our proactive rejection of a status quo that left unhoused Angelenos to wait and die outside in encampments until permanent housing was built," Bass said.

By April 12, Inside Safe had moved about 2,600 people indoors from street encampments, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. About half are living in hotels and motels, the agency said.

More than a fourth of the program's participants, or 613 people, have returned to homelessness. Forty-two have been incarcerated and 38 have died, the agency said.

Bass has acknowledged that Inside Safe participants are staying in temporary housing facilities much longer than she originally planned — in some cases for more than a year. Last year, she began working with civic leaders to create LA4LA, which will focus on purchasing or leasing hotels and apartment buildings that can be converted into interim and permanent housing, said Sarah Dusseault, an advisor to Bass on homelessness and other issues.

The initiative has already secured a $3-million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and a $5-million loan from the California Community Foundation, said Dusseault, lead strategist for LA4LA. It will also raise money to lease entire apartment buildings or help finance the construction of new housing.

"LA4LA can be a sea change for Los Angeles," Bass said during her speech Monday, "an unprecedented partnership to confront this emergency, an example of disrupting the status quo to build a new system to save lives."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell, who attended the speech, praised Bass for being candid about the resources needed to address the homelessness crisis.

“She tells the truth,” said Mitchell, whose district stretches from Park La Brea to Carson. “As a resident of the city of L.A., I respect that.”

The search for outside funds comes as the city faces new financial pressures, triggered in large part by lower-than-expected tax revenues and higher salary costs. The increased spending stems, in part, from a salary agreement negotiated by Bass with the union that represents Los Angeles police officers.

That contract will provide four raises over a four-year period and give officers new retention bonuses to discourage them from leaving for other law enforcement agencies. The deal also hikes officers' starting pay by 13%, taking it up to about $86,000 annually.

On Wednesday, the City Council is scheduled to vote on another package of employee pay hikes negotiated by Bass — this time with thousands of civilian employees. Those agreements are expected to add $1 billion to the annual budget by 2028.

Bass is scheduled to release her latest annual budget on Monday. To free up money to pay for the salary increases, she plans to eliminate hundreds of vacant city jobs.

Those positions, she said during Monday's speech, "do not fill potholes, sweep streets or staff parks."

"Too many of these vacant positions have been there for years and years because of flawed budgeting that does not reflect how departments should actually operate," she said. "So this year, we will eliminate these ghost positions, while we preserve core services."

City Controller Kenneth Mejia has criticized the plan, saying a reduction in unfilled positions will ultimately endanger essential city services. Also, three members of the City Council have criticized the LAPD raises, calling the terms of the new salary agreement financially irresponsible.

Bass, in her speech, defended the new contract with the police union, saying it has led to an increase in applicants seeking to join the Police Department.

Bass is still far from her goal of having an LAPD with 9,500 officers. Last month, the Board of Police Commissioners received a report showing that sworn staffing in the department had fallen below 8,900.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.