Approval of Sherman Oaks’ Homeless Project Indicates Progress, but City Audit Underscores Continued Implementation Issues

Los Angeles City Planning
Los Angeles City Planning

The challenge of Los Angeles-area homelessness – and how best to deal with it – is vividly illustrated by two recent, and seemingly contrasting, developments:

  • The approval in Sherman Oaks of a proposal to build housing for homeless seniors.
  • A troubling city audit on progress in association with Proposition HHH, the $1.2 billion aid package that passed three years ago.

The Sherman Oaks Story

In August, the Los Angeles City Planning Commission approved a proposal to build a $26 million senior housing project at 14534-14536 Burbank Boulevard., near the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard, in Sherman Oaks. The site actually was the third proposal backed by District 4 Councilperson David Ryu, whose first two proposals were met by consumer backlash, including calls for his recall.

Now, with approvals secured, financing identified and construction ostensibly just around the corner in the new year, it’s worth exploring the process to determine whether it sets a roadmap for others’ success or was just a one-off occurrence.

“Projects like these will save lives, they will give people a brighter future ….”

The nearly year-long path to August’s approval was filled with missteps, strategic steps and an interesting change in opinion by residents. Three elements in particular stood out:

  • Engage and embrace. The third proposal was supported by outreach by Ryu’s office that was far in excess of what accompanied the first two proposals. The effort also benefitted from the activities of “Everyone In,” the United Way of Greater Los Angeles’ initiative that promotes construction of permanent supportive housing units. The organization worked with the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council and city officials to try to build support for the project.
  • Inform and educate. Mercy Housing California, the developer, continuously shared proposal updates on an informative project website. Amy Bayley of Mercy, was quoted as suggesting the organization’s efforts may have persuaded Sherman Oaks residents who were not buying into the city’s messaging.

“The past projects didn’t have an owner and an operator, which I do think was a drawback. It was just a site and idea without anything concrete – who was there to address worries?” she said Bayley. “I’m not shocked it passed but I’m really pleased, and maybe a little surprised.”

  • Show, don’t just tell. Mercy Housing held a total of nine meetings with dozens of neighbors. It also conducted a site tour at one of its projects in El Monte.

“Homelessness is the crisis of our time,” Ryu says. “Projects like these will save lives, they will give people a brighter future and they will help address homelessness in Sherman Oaks.”

The councilman, in fact, has proposed a three-pronged strategy aimed at the city’s homelessness and housing crisis:

  • Build housing for those currently experiencing homelessness
  • Preserve and produce affordable and moderate-income housing
  • Ensure access to critical resources and mental health

The Sherman Oaks units will be priced as affordable housing consisting of 55 dwelling units, 17 of which will be for “very low income” households and 37 for “low income” households and one reserved as a manager’s unit. People who are homeless and 62 years or older will be eligible for the housing. There also are supportive housing projects underway in other parts of Ryu’s district, such as Los Feliz and Hollywood.

The Proposition HHH Story

The Sherman Oaks development, where construction is planned to begin in May 2020, is funded in part by $11.8 million from Proposition HHH.

However, a recently released audit of the proposition by Ron Galperin, Los Angeles city controller, offers a dismal view of progress to date.

“The length of time needed to complete these projects does not meet the level of urgency needed to match the magnitude of our homelessness crisis,” the audit reads.

Back in 2016, the city estimated it would cost $350,000 to $414,000 to build a unit of supportive housing (one apartment), depending on the number of bedrooms. Three years later, however, the audit states that the median cost per unit of Proposition HHH-financed housing is $531,373. A 41-unit building in Koreatown/Pico-Union, moreover, has a cost-per-unit in excess of $700,000.

However, not one bond-funded unit has opened. And it has been more than two years since the first bond issuance and nearly three years since voters approved HHH.

The audit also surfaced the issue that rather than the 10,000 units originally assigned to the funding, the City has conditionally awarded nearly all of the HHH funds to build 114 projects across the city. These are slated to provide a total of 5,873 supportive units for homeless residents and another 1,767 affordable units.

However, not one bond-funded unit has opened. And it has been more than two years since the first bond issuance and nearly three years since voters approved HHH.

Nineteen projects are under construction and two are slated to open in the coming months. It is clear, however, that the HHH program is falling behind the growing demand for supportive housing and shelter as the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count says Los Angeles homelessness increased by 40 percent to more than 36,000 people over the past four years.

Going Forward

These two examples underscore the complexity of solving Los Angeles’ homeless problem. Good news is counterbalanced by continued growth in the homeless population and extremely slow execution. Net-net: an unacceptable status quo.