Editorial: If L.A. can cut red tape, it can get more homeless people off the streets faster

For years, the biggest impediment to reducing homelessness in Los Angeles has been a lack of permanent housing. Proposition HHH, the $1.2-billion bond measure approved by voters in 2016 to build 10,000 units of housing for homeless people, was an ambitious start to providing a chunk of desperately needed housing. But it has taken six years to get 2,110 units open. It’s good that another 4,279 are under construction and 2,148 more are in pre-development, but we need it all — and more — faster.

Following the emergency declaration on homelessness on her first day in office, Mayor Karen Bass last month signed an executive directive to speed up construction of housing projects that are 100% affordable — and move homeless people into that housing as soon as possible. She is doing this by clearing some of the bureaucratic hurdles that slow down housing construction. It’s a mandate to city officials who deal with housing developments to treat those projects with the urgency that the crisis needs.

This is a practical step, and essential to her goal of housing 17,000 people in her first year in office. Bass is not the first mayor to try to speed things up. Mayor Eric Garcetti tried too. But if she’s steadfast in pushing the bureaucracy, she could be the first mayor to make a dramatic difference in the time line of homeless housing projects, and have a big impact on getting people off the streets.

Here’s how the directive might move the needle: A housing project has numerous and necessary steps along the way to get building permits, starting with reviews by the planning, fire and water and power departments, among other agencies. These reviews are generally sequential — what one city official called “a conveyor belt.”

The Bass directive requires most reviews and approvals be done simultaneously, not sequentially. That won’t work all the time. One department can flag a problem on a project that prompts a change requiring the project to go back to another department to be reassessed. Even so, the idea of having plans reviewed simultaneously could make approvals go faster.

Bass’ construction directive also gets rid of the extensive additional review that was required for affordable housing projects with 50 or more units. That process entailed reviews by planning and zoning staff as well as the Planning Commission and added months to getting approval.

Mercedes Marquez, L.A.’s chief of Housing and Homelessness Solutions, said planning department officials estimate that 199 projects with an approximate total of 7,000 housing units currently in the system could be sped up by two to six months by the new directive. Previously it could take a year or longer for a development to be reviewed and permitted. At least one developer of housing for homeless people has seen results already, when a project’s July date for a Planning Commission hearing was moved up to February.

The directive will also accelerate the slow pace at which city-subsidized housing units are filled. Now, filling a unit can take an average of four months. Before they even get a chance at a unit, homeless people must first be evaluated and prioritized for housing with services and put into a database and have their documents (Social Security numbers, any benefits they are eligible for, etc.) in order. Then, when there is a unit and a rental voucher available, the next person on a list must be located. Sometimes the person is never found. Then case managers look for another person.

It’s a ridiculous process that Marquez and city housing officials want to fix — and should. Lining up more prospective tenants at a time for an available unit could whittle down the process to 45 days at the outside, Marquez estimates.

Of course, building housing is a time-consuming and expensive venture. And city officials should be looking for housing projects that use innovative materials to build faster and cheaper. But the directive can’t do anything about the fact that developers of affordable housing still have to cobble together sources of funding in addition to whatever they get from the city. And that takes time.

This directive is no magic wand. But that’s OK if it can cut enough red tape so that housing for homeless people takes a lot less time to come online. So far, this directive shows promise. But we will be watching to see if Bass’ directive fulfills its promise to get more people off the streets quicker.

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