LA Homeless Services Authority could be cut altogether

City, county veer toward split as production of shelters, permanent housing comes up short

Los Angeles /
Mar.March 30, 2022 01:56 PM
Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s Heidi Marston, LA City Council President Nury Martinez, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti (LAHSA, nury-martinez.com, Getty Images)

A recently submitted draft report hints at the depth of bureaucratic problems plaguing the joint powers authority in charge of coordinating Greater L.A.’s homelessness services — even as the region’s homelessness crisis continues to spiral.

The tumult centers on the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), which was established by the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County nearly three decades ago. LAHSA now “coordinates and manages over $800 million annually in federal, state, county, and city funds for programs that provide shelter, housing, and services to people experiencing homelessness,” according to its website.

Reviews of its performance have been increasingly critical as homelessness has grown into a public health crisis throughout L.A. in recent years.

“Simply put, we are not getting our money’s worth from LAHSA,” City Councilman Joe Buscaino wrote in an op-ed published last April. “It is time to dismantle the [agency] and return its powers to the city of Los Angeles and the county of Los Angeles respectively.”

The agency’s operations have major consequences for Greater L.A.’s real estate market: Rising homelessness erodes quality of life in residential neighborhoods and commercial districts, potentially dampening property values; it also creates demand for development of temporary shelters and long-term housing. (Much of the funding for that development comes from Proposition HHH, a voter-approved ballot measure that raised $1.2 billion through property assessments for the construction of various types of housing for the homeless.)

The March 16 draft report from Manatt, a prominent L.A. law firm, was titled “How Decisions Could Be Made to Serve Persons Experiencing Homelessness (Themes and Building Blocks), and commissioned by L.A. County. It focused heavily on LAHSA and identified numerous problems facing the authority, noting that the authority lacks top-level decision-making authority despite its role as the lead agency on homelessness. It’s also crippled by a mishmash of internal governing bodies, the report notes, and has taken on functions it doesn’t have the organizational capacity to perform.

“LAHSA is flawed,” the report notes, “perhaps by design. Material governance decisions are made outside of LAHSA.”

The report offered a host of possible reforms along with a more drastic option: dissolving the agency entirely.

The report is a work-in-progress that comes as the latest development in a high-stakes municipal drama that’s been gathering steam for several years, as some public officials have become increasingly critical of LAHSA’s performance.

In the summer of 2019, an audit by City Controller Ron Galperin — a frequent critic of the soaring costs of government-funded homeless housing — blasted the agency for missing most of its stated goals even as it had doubled staff over the previous two fiscal years.

“The goals that were set by the city are not unreasonable,” Galperin told the L.A. Times at the time. “Quite frankly, they are [setting] a pretty low bar to begin with.”

The goals Galperin cited included a 25 percent benchmark on referring clients to substance abuse and mental health treatment. The audit found that LAHSA outreach workers had managed to refer fewer than six percent. Workers also fell short of a goal of placing 10 percent of clients into permanent housing, managing a rate of four percent.

The audit divided county supervisors — at the time Supervisor Janice Hahn issued a strongly worded statement about the “need to stop justifying our current approaches,” while Supervisor Sheila Kuehl issued a strong defense of LAHSA. The critique nonetheless seemed to further alienate the agency from the city, where new leadership would grow increasingly skeptical of LAHSA’s structure and performance while an increasingly dire crisis played out on Los Angeles’ streets.

A major knock came from Nury Martinez, who became City Council president in January of 2020 and immediately introduced a motion to scrutinize LAHSA, questioning whether the decades-old agency was still the right model.

The pandemic thrust the crisis into a more urgent light. The City Council voted in September 2020 to spend $97 million in emergency federal funds on housing programs, but withheld most of the money from LAHSA until the agency could demonstrate better accountability.

“I just want to make sure you’re able to deliver,” Martinez said at a committee meeting around the time.

The next year, in 2021, Buscaino joined with Councilmember Paul Koretz to introduce a motion to pull the city out of the agency altogether.

When the county established a new Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness the state aim was to “conduct a comprehensive study of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) governance structure by reviewing existing reports and recommendations, identify and analyze the challenges inherent to the existing system, and to provide recommendations to change and improve its efficiency.”

Plans called for members appointed by both the county and city, among other entities, but Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Martinez declined to put forward any nominees from the city.

Outside observers pointed to the episode as evidence of a complete breakdown in communication between the two governments on one of the region’s most pressing issues — and another sign of the underlying trouble plaguing LAHSA.

“Personally, I’m agnostic whether it’s a good thing or bad thing to keep it,” Miguel Santana, a former executive with both the county and city who now leads the nonprofit Weingart Foundation, said of LAHSA. But Santana also noted that discussions of dissolving the agency had been brewing for a long time, and compared the two governments as akin to LAHSA’s parents.

“When the parents are not even willing to sit down together to figure out what to do, that’s not a good sign,” he added.

In theory LAHSA’s commission consists of 10 members, with five appointed by the county and five by the city; according to the agency’s website, the city has also left two of its seats vacant.

The law firm’s draft report also lays out recommendations for a “Streamlined LAHSA” and “Current LAHSA.” A streamlined agency, the report recommends, would see the agency “transition away from direct services” so that a county entity could take on those duties, and change who sits on the 10-member board. In order to maintain a “current LAHSA,” the report recommends giving the agency more authority to make final decisions and adding members to the board.

The option to dissolve the agency, it wrote, would involve beginning a two to four year “wind down” period and possibly appointing various new partner administrators.

That won’t be easy. County leadership, for its part, is also unhappy with the agency’s status quo: Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Hilda Solis have been sharp critics, and previously introduced their own motion to scrutinize the agency. One county analysis, published in March 2021, also found that both high staff turnover and the agency’s structure — whereby the city and county have equal representation even as the county provides more funding — were hampering performance.

But, thanks to the existing charter of the agency — created in 1993 as the result of a lawsuit — both the city and county would also have to agree to a dissolution.

“If both decide, ‘we want out of this marriage,’ they can begin this process,” said Santana. “Right now they’re not talking.”





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