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LA County officials call for $100 million affordable housing plan to fight homelessness

A woman folds clothes at a homeless encampment above a downtown Los Angeles freeway on May 12, 2015. A report released by the Los Angeles Homeless Authority on May 11 showed a 12% increase in the homeless population in both Los Angeles city and county, which according to the report have been driven by soaring rents, low wages and stubbornly high unemployment. One of the most striking findings from the biennial figures released saw the number of makeshift encampments, tents and vehicles occupied by the homeless increased 85%.  AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN        (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
LA County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas want to spend $100 million annually on housing the formerly homeless, and keeping vulnerable households from becoming homeless.

Drawing a line between homelessness and high housing costs, a pair of Los Angeles County supervisors have proposed spending $100 million a year on affordable housing.

County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas want the majority of the funds to be used to build housing for low and very-low income people, as well to preserve existing affordable units. They say this would keep people from falling into homelessness. They also proposed building homes for people who’ve already ended up on the streets.

"One of the biggest problems people have in L.A. County is finding something they can afford," Kuehl told KPCC. "And if you lose your job, it’s very, very difficult to hang onto your apartment."

The supervisors’ plan is to spend $20 million in 2016 and ramp up to $100 million by 2020. At least 75 percent of the funds would go toward producing new homes, or rehabbing old ones. The rest of the money would go toward other programs such as lending money to renters for security deposits.

The supervisors say the county supply of housing for very low-income households falls 527,000 units short, forcing two or more families to crowd into a single home.

The supervisors’ proposal reflects a growing recognition that soaring rents in L.A. County have been a major contributor to the growing homeless population.

In the last couple years, the number of people on the streets has jumped 12 percent in both the city of Los Angeles and the county. This has taken place as the gap between housing costs and wages widens, making L.A.’s rental market one of the most expensive in the U.S.

But it's not clear yet if the plan has the support of other supervisors. Neither Michael Antonovich nor Don Knabe have taken a position on the proposal which will be formally introduced on Tuesday.

Knabe's spokeswoman Cheryl Burnett said that he recognizes that housing is a critical to solving homelessness but is worried about "fiscal prudence."

"He would just want to make sure we don't spend money that we don't have," Burnett said.

Homeless service providers such as PATH support every bit of  new funding. PATH's chief operating officer Katie Hill said that increasing the region's affordable housing stock is more critical now than ever before because of an improving economy.

"Landlords don't have the same incentives to rent to people with housing vouchers when there is an increased number of market-rate folks willing to lease their apartments," Hill said. "So rents overall are going up and it's harder and harder for people who have bad credit histories or low incomes to compete." 

Finding funds for affordable housing has been an issue at the state and city level as well. A bill sponsored by former House Speaker Toni Atkins to create a permanent funding source died this year. The city's affordable housing fund had dwindled to$41 million as of this summer, since the state stopped providing redevelopment funds in 2011. 

But Greg Spiegel, homeless policy director for Mayor Eric Garcetti, continued to lobby for funding in a hearing before the state's Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing Thursday.
Spiegel said that 500,000 county residents who are living in poverty put about 90 percent of their paycheck toward rent.

“They’re one sneeze away, one car repair away from homelessness,” Spiegel told senators at the meeting held at Los Angeles City Hall.

Spiegel said the 26,000 Angelenos who are homeless represent “the tip of an iceberg that is ready to go above the surface if we don’t deal with our affordable housing problem.”

Spiegel expressed optimism that over the next several months, the County Board of Supervisors and the city council would each be working on homelessness plans, which he said they will present in February.

A month ago, members of the city council called homelessness a public emergency and said they were working a $100 million plan to address the issue.  A week later, the county supervisors boosted their spending on tackling homelessness for the year from $50 million to $100 million.

This story has been updated.