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City closer to finalizing homeless housing funding measure for ballot

Tents used by the homeless line a downtown Los Angeles street with the skyline behind Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
Tents used by the homeless line a downtown Los Angeles street with the skyline behind Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015.

The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to approve details of two proposed ballot measures aimed at generating funds for permanent housing with services for the homeless.

The council will decide in coming weeks on one of the measures, either a proposed parcel tax or general obligation bond, to place on the November ballot for voters to approve. 

Tuesday's action is the latest step in the city's effort to fund a plan addressing L.A.'s homeless population, one that has grown to over 28,000 people as of May, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. 

Early this year, a city report found ending homelessness in the city would take $1.8 billion spread over 10 years. In the past few months, the council's Rules, Elections, Intergovernmental Relations, and Neighborhoods Committee proposed the two potential revenue streams to fund the homelessness plan. 

The general obligation bond proposal increased in size during the council discussions, growing by $200 million dollars before members voted to approve $1.2 billion dollar in proposed borrowing. If approved by voters, the measure would allow the city to sell bonds on an as-needed basis to ensure “the city doesn’t spend more than it needs to,” officials explained.

Funds to pay for the bonds would be generated by a tax based on property value. The highest a property owner would pay is $17.54 for every $100,000 dollars in property value per year, according to Miguel Santana, city administrative officer. 

The alternative parcel tax proposal would tax homeowners based on the square footage of their houses, not the land underneath. The council did not set the exact tax rate, according to Santana, but it will not amount to more than 4 cents per square foot of a home with the aim of generating $90 million dollars a year.

Councilman Mike Bonin said he worries that the parcel tax proposal could result in inequitable taxation depending on the neighborhood.

“I represent a very wealthy portion of the city. There are properties that might be a lot smaller than properties in the East San Fernando Valley, but they might be worth more. Why should property owners in the San Fernando Valley pay more than a person in a more affluent community?” he asked. 

After some debate, the council decided to dedicate at least 80 percent of the funds generated by either plan to permanent housing for the homeless along with support services. The remaining 20 percent could be used to fund affordable housing development.

Some council members argued in favor of setting aside money for affordable housing priced within reach of very-low and low income Angelenos. But Councilmen José Huizar and Marqueece Harris-Dawson said the funds should provide housing for those homeless already on the streets. 

“The city of L.A. is the only entity that’s going to take on permanent supportive housing,” Harris-Dawson said, reiterating his goal to fund the construction and maintenance of 10,000 supportive housing units for L.A.’s homeless.

“We’ve been able to come up with a product that makes sure the monster share of the proceeds will go to providing houses to the people who are hardest to house,” Harris-Dawson said.

Huizar raised concerns over funding the homeless services once a housing development is built. The parcel tax would allow more wiggle room to pay for those services, but Huizar, among others, worried about the city getting into “the business” of providing services, long the county’s purview.

“The county and the state have much better access to federal funds,” he said.

Huizar favored the bond measure. “I think overall this is the best we can do," he said, acknowledging that there are still kinks to be worked out. "But it’s going to be a very good option as we will see in years to come,” he said. 

Again and again, council members reiterated that a regional or county approach would be a better solution in dealing with homelessness, but Council President Herb Wesson emphasized that the council has a responsibility to get the ball rolling toward fixing the problem.

“This council has made it crystal clear as to how important this is to us. We might be late to the party, but now we’re at the party. We’re determined to lead the way,” Wesson said.

Housing advocates at the meeting expressed their support for the council’s action, although no clear consensus emerged on which of the options to support, the parcel tax or the bond measure.

However, the higher level of bond borrowing drew broad support. “Each increase of $100 million allows us to build over 500 more units of permanent supportive housing,” said Chris Ko, director of systems and innovations for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

Polling has indicated that voters are leaning in favor of the bond measure, but city officials have said the parcel tax will provide more flexibility in funding both housing and services.

The council has until mid-August to decide which of the two measures it will send to voters. Two-thirds of city voters must cast ballots in favor of the measure for it to be approved.