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In Los Angeles County, a proposed increase in the sales tax from a quarter-cent to a half-cent aims to bolster efforts against the escalating homelessness crisis. This initiative dubbed the “Affordable Housing, Homelessness Solutions, and Prevention Now,” seeks to provide immediate shelter and preventative measures to keep residents from becoming unhoused due to factors like rising rents and the ongoing affordable housing shortage. However, amidst a backdrop of high inflation, the measure faces opposition from those skeptical of higher taxation, particularly as previous expenditures have not visibly ameliorated the situation. This opposition argues that the new tax may overburden citizens without guaranteeing significant change. Given the pressing nature of the homelessness issue in L.A. and the controversy surrounding the fiscal strategy to address it, would you support another tax to help alleviate homelessness?

Supporters of a new ballot initiative believe they can once again convince L.A. County voters to pay a higher sales tax to fund efforts to make progress on a homelessness crisis that remains top of mind for many Angelenos.

An existing quarter-cent tax approved in 2017 would rise to a half-cent tax, with a focus on getting unhoused Angelenos off the streets and keeping vulnerable residents housed.

Proponents of the “Affordable Housing, Homelessness Solutions and Prevention Now” initiative brought more than 410,000 signatures to the L.A. County Registrar’s Office in Norwalk on Tuesday. County officials will now have 30 working days to verify about 240,000 of those signatures, the threshold needed to qualify for the November ballot.

“Housing affordability is the top issue that most Angelenos care about,” said Miguel Santana, president of the California Community Foundation and one of the measure’s formal backers. “It’s also impacting the quality of life. So this initiative is aimed at increasing affordability for all Angelenos so that there are less people who are entering homelessness.”

If the measure gets approved for the November ballot and receives support from more than half of L.A. County voters, it would repeal the existing quarter-cent sales tax under 2017’s Measure H. A new half-cent sales tax would take its place. Measure H is set to expire in 2027. The proposed half-cent tax would not sunset.

A new focus on prevention

Despite billions in spending, L.A.’s unhoused population has risen approximately 37% since Measure H took effect. There are a lot of factors at play: rising rents, the pandemic, a crisis-level lack of affordable housing. Still, many officials and taxpayers are asking why there isn’t more to show for so much taxpayer investment.

It’s a hard question to answer. A recent state audit found homelessness spending in California often lacks clear data on outcomes. Locally, a federal judge has ordered the city of L.A. to submit to an audit of its own homelessness spending.

Santana said he believes that L.A. has been missing one crucial piece from the puzzle of reducing homelessness: prevention. Measure H funnels money into services and re-housing efforts for people already living on the streets. But it does little to find renters at risk of losing their housing and provide them help to avoid becoming unhoused in the first place.

“While we’ve been housing people at record numbers, more and more people are experiencing housing insecurity,” Santana said. “This is as much of a preventive measure as it is an intervention to support those who are currently unhoused.”

The latest measure aims to fund rent relief efforts and legal assistance for renters facing eviction, who mostly go to court without an attorney. It also outlines plans to preserve existing low-income housing while funding the construction of new affordable units through the L.A. County Development Authority. Just over a third of the tax revenue would go toward the recently established L.A. County Affordable Housing Solutions Agency.

Inflation could make higher sales tax a tough sell

Supporters say the measure would generate about $1.2 billion in funding each year. If the measure qualifies for the ballot, the state legislative analyst’s office will assess its overall fiscal impacts and make that information available to voters.

In the wake of a period of high inflation, the campaign could struggle to convince some voters to further raise their own taxes for a problem many don’t see improving. Supporters are sure to encounter fierce opposition from tax-skeptical advocacy groups.

Susan Shelley, a spokesperson for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said, “To hit people who are just struggling to pay their own bills — to try and pay for this giant new bureaucracy to address homelessness, which is just an extension of what already has not worked — is an extremely bad idea.”

Sales tax rates in L.A. County are currently among the highest in the state. The exact percentage varies from city to city, ranging from 9.5% to 10.5%. If this measure succeeds in November, consumers in the city of L.A. would see sales tax increase from 9.5% to 9.75%. If you bought a $100 pair of shoes, it would cost 25 cents more after tax. Sales tax doesn’t apply to food or most groceries.

Homeless service providers outline lessons learned.

While Measure H was written to go away after 10 years, this initiative has no sunset date. Homeless service providers say their experience under Measure H has taught them what works and what doesn’t.

“If we offer safe, thoughtful housing options where people can maintain their dignity and have some privacy … then they will say yes,” said Veronica Lewis, director of the L.A.-based Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System.

Lewis pointed to COVID-era efforts to turn motels into homeless housing and the city of L.A.’s Inside Safe program as success stories for getting people indoors and out of RVs and tents.

As for what hasn’t worked, Lewis said existing contracts to homeless service providers have lacked cost-of-living adjustments for essential workers, putting those fighting the homelessness crisis at risk of becoming unhoused themselves.

Last year, RAND Corporation researchers put out a study showing that L.A.’s frontline homeless service workers tend to make less than the annual wage needed to afford a basic one-bedroom apartment in the region.

“A lot of that is related to these flat contracts you have year-to-year with no allowance of building in increases,” Lewis said.

The alternative: funding disappears

In surveys, L.A. residents consistently rank homelessness and housing affordability as the region’s most pressing issues.

When LAist surveyed more than 4,300 Angelenos last year about what they most wanted to see L.A. Mayor Karen Bass tackle in her first year in office, homelessness was overwhelmingly their top concern.

Recent results from the UCLA Los Angeles County Quality of Life Index show that 37% of renters say they have worried about losing their homes and becoming unhoused.

Santana, the ballot initiative proponent, said the twin crises of housing affordability and homelessness could become even more dire if the county’s ongoing efforts vanish.

“If you think it’s bad now, it’s going to be a lot worse if there isn’t a funding stream to support this work,” he said.

If you care about housing affordability and homelessness

For people who live in L.A., the Board of Supervisors and City Council have the most direct impact on housing affordability in your neighborhood.

The best way to keep tabs on your own local government is by attending public meetings for your city council or local boards. Here are a few tips to get you started.

This is an article published by LAist.
Editor’s note:
 LAist is funded by the California Community Foundation. LAist funders have no influence on the assigning, reporting or editing of our stories.


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