Los Angeles’s Prop HHH Funding for homeless facilities meets NIMBYs

The NYT has learned that “For Homeless Advocates, a Discouraging Lesson in Los Angeles: Money is Not Enough.” The story describes how an LA nonprofit is struggling to build a 49-unit housing development for the homeless in Boyle Heights neighborhood, and the main funding source is a Proposition HHH grant—a program we first wrote about back in August.

As we wrote then, Prop HHH authorizes $1.2 billion for homeless facilities. Although the NYT reporter doesn’t seem to know it, Prop HHH funding is not limited to housing; it can be used for any facility—including medical clinics or supportive services—that can be construed to “benefit persons experiencing homelessness, chronic homelessness, or at risk of homelessness.” The key phrase is “at risk of homelessness,” since, given LA’s astronomical rents and relatively low incomes, Prop HHH grants could be used for almost anything. Remember that, adjusted for the cost of living, California has the highest poverty rate in the country. Overall, the proposed Lorena Plaza illustrates how how challenging it is for nonprofits to get facility grants—and then actually get the facility built.

LA and California as a whole are progressive Democratic Party strongholds that superficially care about affordable housing. While most politicians and voters support expanded human services initiatives like Prop HHH (which is great news for grant writers), the Democratic LA City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents Boyle Heights, killed Lorena Plaza.

In other words, the City that giveth with one hand taketh away with the other. Councilman Huizar would probably support a homeless housing development in the distant, white and affluent Pacific Palisades neighborhood, but he’s not so much interested in one in his low-income and Latino district. We’re seeing a specific instance of the long-standing NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) phenomenon.

Even though the City is trying to give away huge Prop HHH grants and Boyle Heights residents likely voted overwhelmingly for Prop HHH, they voted in the abstract for “more funding,” which feels different than looking at concrete plans to build a facility down the street from their home, business, school, church, whatever. As anyone who’s worked in affordable housing development, and especially housing for potentially less than angelic residents, knows that, no matter the income level or ethnicity of the neighborhood, residents with metaphoric pitchforks and torches will oppose a project like Lorena Plaza. In Lorena Plaza, 50% of the units are or were to be for homeless folks with severe mental illness. All politics is local and apparently Councilman Huizar opted for re-election over a place for the most vulnerable people in our society to sleep at night.

At Jake’s recommendation, I’m currently reading Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s excellent Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. The author uses Google searches and other big data sources to illustrate that much common wisdom is wrong. It turns out that people often lie about things in the abstract (e.g., “I support housing for the homeless” to a pollster), while at the same time googling “how to stop a housing project,” when one is proposed down the street.

All this doesn’t mean that some version of Plaza Lorena won’t get built or that the City won’t eventually award the $1.2 billion in Prop HHH grants. It just means that nonprofits have to be prepared for the struggle. Legal struggles also increase costs, and, in the aggregate, those legal costs help explain why California has the highest poverty rate and affordable housing crisis in the nation. Legal and political struggles also mean at that much of Prop HHH funding will actually be used for non-housing projects, like primary care clinics, which are much easier to “sell” to NIMBYs who have been legally empowered to block any change, anywhere.

Whether an LA nonprofit is proposing a project like Lorena Plaza or a clinic, it’s important for the nonprofit seeking a Prop HHH or any other facility grant to understand that the proposed site can usually be easily changed after the grant award. The funder doesn’t want the grant to be returned. The leverage shifts from the funder to the grantee after funding.

We advise our clients seeking facility grants to pick a site that can be made to seem easy to build for purposes of the proposal but also to be ready to swap the original site for a new site if something goes wrong with the original site, including an attack of the NIMBY Zombies. We see this site-swap frequently in facility grants from HUD, HRSA, etc. YouthBuild projects, for example, often feature site switching. In grant writing, it’s always critical to remember the difference between the proposal world and the real world. In the proposal world everything with the site will work out perfectly and smoothly. In the real world… well, as you can see from the Plaza Lorena example, things rarely works out smoothly.

And, in other LA housing news, “Up to 600,000 expected to apply when L.A. reopens Section 8 housing list this month after 13 years.” Section 8 is a fine program, but it cannot overcome parochial zoning that restricts the supply of housing. Until LA overcomes zoning that limits livable space by mandating height limits, lot setbacks, and parking minimums, it won’t and can’t achieve anything like affordable housing goals.

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