Feb 06, 2023, 05:55AM

Los Angeles is In Trouble

The rise in homelessness coincided with the rise of Airbnb and the loss of thousands of affordable apartment rentals.

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I was born and raised in Los Angeles and love the cultural diversity the city has to offer. LA has always gotten a bad rap regarding crime, smog and traffic. These critiques are deserved but there’s a bigger problem these days. Homelessness. From Hollywood to Beverly Hills, itinerant encampments are found on major streets, under freeways, in parking lots and next to working businesses.

Everyone I know has their own troubling story about encountering the homeless. A neighbor tripped over a man sleeping outside his front door. A friend woke in the middle of the night to find a woman entering her apartment through a window. Another friend found a man sleeping inside his car. My wife nearly had her bike stolen by a homeless man outside a cafe. A mentally ill homeless man physically assaulted an employee at the local Trader Joe’s.

In 2018, I had my own encounter. A belligerent homeless man threatened me in the alley behind my apartment. It occurred on a Sunday morning after I witnessed the man shaving his head with a straight razor. His scalp was covered with bloody cuts. As I clicked my garage door open, he marched towards me. I told him to stay back but he kept coming. I returned to my apartment courtyard and locked the gate behind me. He cursed me through the iron grates growling, “I could fucking kill you if I wanted. I could put a bullet right through your head.”

I moved not long after that.

This was the only time in my long history in Los Angeles that a vagrant confronted me. The incident was scary. Even worse, I felt my attitude toward the homeless changing. I’d always taken a “there but for the grace of God” approach,offering food, water and blankets to people on the streets. Suddenly, I felt myself falling into an “us vs. them” outlook. I was on the verge of losing compassion for my fellow human beings.

I grew up in Studio City. We had a local homeless guy named Clancy who slept in the Food King parking lot. Residents gave him change and treated him with kindness. My mom bought him food and tasked me with making the delivery. This led to me interviewing him for a third-grade essay on homeless people. I asked him, “Do you consider yourself a hobo or a tramp?” He said, “I’m just Clancy.”

When I was in high school, a homeless guy named Bob lived in an empty lot beside the schoolyard. Kids teased him calling him “homie.” Several Christian students brought him groceries and read scripture with him. After cars were vandalized in the school parking lot, the principal blamed Bob and forced him to leave.

In the 1990s, every neighborhood had at least one recognizable homeless guy. There was the dancing boom-box man on Third Street and Robertson. There was the man with a ventriloquist dummy near the La Brea Tar Pits giving awful voice-throwing performances for a dollar. There was the one-legged man on Hollywood Boulevard who cleaned stars on the Walk of Fame.

Most homeless people I encountered were withdrawn, timid and doing their best to survive. But somewhere in the early-2000s things changed. Homelessness was no longer the sole province of men. I encountered homeless teenagers, young women with children, elderly women who looked like my mom. Around 2010, the situation exploded. The rise in homelessness coincided with the rise of Airbnb (formed in 2008) and the loss of thousands of affordable apartment rentals. I was Airbnb’d myself. My wife and I lived in a guesthouse in Laurel Canyon for 15 years. We were evicted when the owner converted the unit into an Airbnb dwelling. This happened to thousands of people around the city. According to a study by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, more than 11,000 apartment dwellings were converted to short-term Airbnb rentals in 2015 alone.

The exodus of Silicon Valley companies to Los Angeles in the early-2000s led to an increase in apartment costs. The Los Angeles Times reported that Los Angeles apartment prices rose 65 percent between 2010 and 2019. According to a 2022 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, Los Angeles is now tied with Hong Kong as the fourth most expensive city to live in the world. (New York and Singapore are tied for first, followed by Tel Aviv.)

In my case, moving from the hills nearly doubled my rent. I noticed another change. In Laurel Canyon, my neighbors included a fashion photographer, an actor, a stand-up comedian and a cinematographer. In the flatlands, my neighbors included a Netflix coder, a Google tech worker, a YouTube software engineer, a SpaceX engineer and an Uber driver who worked 80 hours a week to pay his bills. It was as if I moved out of old Hollywood into Silicon Valley south.

Since the pandemic, family-owned apartments are selling en masse to corporate property management companies. In my Miracle Mile neighborhood, two blocks of apartments were torn down and replaced with modern monoliths with exotic names like “The Desmond,” “The Crosby” and “The Preston.” These newer buildings aren’t subject to rent stabilization ordinances, allowing property owners to charge exorbitant rates. One-bedroom rental costs in the neighborhood rose from an average of $1800 in 2015 to $4800 in 2022. LA’s Rand Center links these rising housing costs to the steady increase in homelessness.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority estimates the total number of homeless people in LA County in 2022 at 69,144. They acknowledge the actual count is much higher since the tally focuses only on those living on the street. It ignores people living in cars, those couch-surfing with friends and people temporarily living in motels or with multiple families under one roof. When housing-insecure residents are considered, the homeless tally reaches the hundreds of thousands.

The proliferation of RV’s and camper vans mirrors the rise of homelessness as people move from apartments to their vehicles. I witnessed an elderly black couple with a grown special-needs son get evicted from their apartment where they lived for 30 years. They moved into a beaten trailer parked outside their old residence. When the bulldozers arrived to tear the building down they finally drove away.

Homelessness has always been a part of the fabric of Los Angeles. In Carey McWilliams’ 1973 book Southern California: An Island on the Land, he wrote: “Los Angeles has always been a boom town, chronically unable to consolidate its gain or to integrate its new population.” The current situation is heartbreaking. Mounds of trash, used syringes and empty liquor bottles accompany the homeless encampments. The images resemble the Depression-era photos of Dorothea Lange.

Many longtime LA residents can’t take it anymore. A music producer friend who lived here since the 1970s relocated to Austin, Texas. An artist who painted backdrops on Coen Brothers films moved to Florida. A furniture designer whose mission was to make beautiful tables for lower-income clients moved to Mexico. A college friend who makes documentary films moved to Phoenix, where rent is half the cost.

I’m not ready to leave. Los Angeles is my home and I still love the city. But the situation is bleak. New LA Mayor Karen Bass promised to do her best to clean up the homeless camps. Few believe this is possible. It’s likely to get worse.


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