The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Eric Garcetti failed to tackle LA’s homelessness crisis. His successor won’t have it easier.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti takes a knee in prayer during a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles on June 2, 2020. (Richard Vogel/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Eric Garcetti, the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, has always struck me as smart and eloquent. He is also ambitious. Throughout his 20-year political career (he became city councilman in 2001), Garcetti has been a promising figure in the Democratic Party. Even before becoming mayor of Los Angeles in 2013 at 42, he had plans for bigger things. In 2018, Garcetti briefly considered a run for president. After opting not to run, he endorsed Joe Biden early, going against the progressive tide that then favored Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Like fellow mayors Marty Walsh and Pete Buttigieg, Garcetti seemed poised for a Cabinet-level position.

Instead, his career stalled. Garcetti’s now awaiting confirmation to serve as ambassador to India. There is talk of him being a lame duck. What happened to LA’s gifted young mayor?

Garcetti has faced his share of criticism, including over his sometimes inscrutable style, but nothing has cast a longer shadow over his last few years as mayor like the city’s growing homeless crisis.

There are more than 60,000 people living on the streets of Los Angeles County. Even before the pandemic worsened conditions, statistics in the city had been steadily rising. (There was a 13 percent jump between 2019 and 2020 alone.) Numbers are especially dire among the Latino and African American communities. According to LAHSA, the local authority on homelessness, there are more than 4,000 homeless minors in the county. Seven out of 10 homeless people remain unsheltered, risking disease, violence or worse.

Nowhere is the problem more severe than in downtown Los Angeles, especially the approximately 50 square blocks that make up the city’s infamous Skid Row, “home” to some 5,000 people. “This is a world-class city,” California Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D), who represents the area, told me during a recent visit. “To have thousands and thousands of people living on the streets day and night, among them children and pregnant women. This is a crisis unlike anywhere else.”

In 2016, Garcetti took the crisis to the voters. He sought approval of Proposition HHH, which would enable city officials to issue $1.2 billion in bonds destined to the development and construction of permanent supportive housing for the homeless. The goal was to build 10,000 units, a worthy yet insufficient goal that would have guaranteed shelter for about one-fourth of the city’s homeless population. Most voters, 76 percent, approved HHH. “This is an enormous victory for the city officials who crafted and pushed for the measure,” wrote the Los Angeles Times.

Five years later, and with Garcetti on his way out, Proposition HHH has been far from transformative. “It’s a huge failure,” UCLA professor Abel Valenzuela told me. “We had the voters’ approval. We have the money. We have the support of the city. And it hasn’t made any progress.” The number of finished and habitable units is in the hundreds, not the thousands. In a landmark report, Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin identified several problems: long delays, high costs and an unsustainable bureaucratic maze. Each project takes between three and six years to complete, while each unit costs between $500,000 and $700,000. “73 percent of the units have not begun construction and are still in various stages of the pre-development (i.e., planning) process,” Galperin’s most recent analysis says.

This hasn’t stopped local politicians from showcasing even modest successes. During a visit to Skid Row, Santiago took me to the construction site for a project called Weingart Tower, a 19-story building in the heart of Skid Row that will offer 278 units for the homeless once it opens, in late 2023. It broke ground in late September. The occasion provided for a charming photo op for Garcetti, Santiago and other government officials. Whether the project will make a dent on the homeless crisis is another matter. I told Santiago that Los Angeles probably needed 200 Weingart Towers to solve the crisis. “Yes, but here we have an example of what can be done,” he said.

Whoever succeeds Garcetti will have a daunting challenge. Homelessness, says UCLA’s Valenzuela, should be the next mayor’s priority. “The focus should be on the homeless and how the city is part of the problem,” says Valenzuela.

For now, authorities seem more interested in enforcing punitive ordinances against homeless encampments than in getting rid of the red tape that is delaying urgent shelter options. It remains to be seen whether Los Angeles is able to solve what developers call the “professional nightmare” of trying to build supportive housing in the city. If it doesn’t, the homelessness crisis will take with it much more than the political momentum of a promising, young mayor.