by Nick Halaris and Kerry Morrison
In 2016, Los Angeles residents voted overwhelmingly to approve Measure HHH, creating $1.2 billion in funding for the construction of 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing. Five years later, the HHH program finds itself increasingly in the crosshairs of politicians and city leaders frustrated by a homeless crisis which shows no signs of abating. Recently, we’ve also seen troubling rhetoric from politicians and judges who advocate using previously committed HHH money to pay for temporary shelters instead.
They seem to have judged HHH a failure. But as members of the Citizens Oversight Committee for HHH, we believe they are making a serious mistake. Some of the criticisms of HHH are valid—it is still too costly and too slow to build anything in this city, especially so for affordable and homeless housing. However, much of the negativity around HHH is unfair and misplaced.
Every month, the HHH oversight committee views photos of the dozens of supportive housing projects under active construction in nearly all of the city’s council districts. There are 125 projects in the pipeline—12 completed, 42 in construction and 38 getting closer and closer to breaking ground. Additionally, there are 32 non-HHH funded projects in the traditional HCID managed pipeline. All told there are about 10,000 supportive housing units in the pipeline at an average cost of $140,000 per unit to the City, and they are on-track to be completed and available for use in the next five years. In other words: exactly what HHH promised to deliver.
These 10,000 homes—the boldest public investment in supportive housing by any city in America—will be a valuable long-term strategic asset for Los Angeles. That’s what they were intended to be, and we should be proud of this.
HHH was never supposed to be the only answer to the homelessness crisis, but rather just one critical piece in the overall strategy. Angelenos cast their votes in favor of fighting homelessness with permanent housing, and legally and morally we cannot turn our backs on that. First, it’s bad business for the city, a place already notoriously difficult for developers. The city needs strong relationships with developers who have the expertise to navigate the intricacies of building supportive housing. Second, it would very likely expose the city to serious legal liability. Developers have relied on these agreements to make complex investments, as have our funding partners at the County, State and Federal level. It’s not realistic to assume that developers would just take this sitting down.
The City has used other funds to open 27 interim facilities as part of the A Bridge Home program, as well as fifteen Project HomeKey sites for interim and permanent housing. Interim housing is incredibly important, but permanent homes are the gold standard for resolving homelessness and building stability.
Much of the “raid HHH” discussion seems to be based on misunderstandings about how it works, so we’d like to provide some facts to debunk several myths about the program:
- HHH is seed money. It provides loans of approximately $140,000 of the per-unit toward the cost of development. Critics of HHH often make it sound as though HHH is putting up the whole cost of units that have ranged in cost from $350,000 per unit to $650,000 per unit. Instead, affordable housing developers leverage HHH funds as much as fourfold. Because of the intricacies of the tax-credit financing model, that can mean securing financing from five to eight different sources. As one developer recently explained in a public forum – “imagine you had to negotiate eight mortgages to buy a house.”
- HHH projects were never designed to provide immediate relief to the homeless crisis we are facing, even under the best of situations. We committed to a ten-year timeline for building the 10,000 homes envisioned under this model. But it was perhaps a flaw of the HHH campaign not to emphasize that.
- HHH projects represent an investment in housing that will last several generations. The whole point of permanent supportive housing is to set properties up for the long-term. They are not temporary shelters. We can rely on these properties to serve our city without the need for additional on-going funding.
- HHH projects are not, and cannot, be the only solution to our homelessness crisis. They are part of a menu of offerings that need to be made available to people seeking permanent housing – from shelter, to Section 8, to Project Homekey, to board and care homes and congregate living.
We are not advocating that anyone ignore the criticisms of the HHH program. In fact, the Citizens Oversight Committee has worked steadily to improve it. In 2018 we formulated recommendations for innovation to pursue supportive housing under the mantra of “faster, better, cheaper.” In response, the Mayor’s office launched the Housing Innovation Challenge, which resulted in a 30% reduction in the overall cost per unit across 14 projects yielding 975 homes. What we are learning from this process will help to inform future rounds of building. HHH is teaching us what it takes to provide the supportive housing L.A desperately needs. It’s short-sighted to undermine it now.
Nick Halaris and Kerry Morrison are members of the Citizens Oversight Committee for HHH