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Los Angeles Could Vote on Funding $1.85B Homelessness Plan

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The city's budget is stretched too thin, but homelessness will have to compete with several other big issues in November

When Los Angeles leaders declared a homelessness "state of emergency" last summer, it appeared that the city was finally ready to tackle the feat of housing LA's swelling homeless population. $100 million was allocated to the cause and plans were announced to expand winter shelter programs in anticipation of El Niño-fueled storms. It seemed like the city was headed in the right direction.

But every encouraging development in solving the homelessness problem has been followed by the sobering realities of finding the money. Shortly after the $100-million funding announcement came an internal report that revealed the $100 million would be only a drop in the bucket.

Ending homelessness would mean more than simply boosting funding to shelters, it would mean creating long-term housing for LA's more than 25,000 homeless residents. Considering the current state of LA's rental market, that's not going to come cheap. The report suggested the city needed to commit some $1.85 billion over 10 years to effectively end homelessness in LA.

The next hard truth city officials find themselves confronting is how to raise close to two billion dollars when the city itself is in dire financial straits. The recession and resulting housing market collapse put a huge hole in the city's general fund, which counted on property taxes for 30 percent of its revenue. Without this substantial chunk of income, the city's budget is stretched paper thin.

Simply reallocating funds from other departments is not an option for such a large new expense. Tacking this Herculean effort onto a city budget already expected to end the fiscal year about $97 million in the red will require some new income sources. According to the LA Times, the city is now mulling over potential revenue streams to fund the homelessness effort, and that may include new tax measures or housing bonds.

Both plans have their problems. A housing bond would raise the money, but the city could only use those funds to build homes, and not on several other key components that make up the $1.85-billion comprehensive homelessness plan. A tax increase proposal will likely butt heads with another high-profile tax measure set to appear on the November ballot, a Measure R extension that Metro hopes will fund future expansion of LA's public transportation system.

Fixing homelessness is a tricky sell for politicians, and the city is weighing its options. Mayor Eric Garcetti says there is a "high probability" he will get behind a ballot measure to fund affordable housing, but even he is trying to find revenue that doesn't require voter approval.

Garcetti is trying to pass the costs on to developers through "linkage fees," where revenue would be generated by creating new affordable housing fees that developers would have to pay if they want to build.

November's ballot is shaping up to be potentially transformative for the city, with many decisions about LA's future hinging on voter approval. There's already a heated battle over the future of city planning between two rival ballot measures, both of which would have serious implications on the construction of affordable housing for the homeless. A homelessness ballot measure will require a full-time effort from advocates if it wants to stand out among this crowded, politically polarizing set of initiatives.

Some are worried that a ballot initiative will not only fail, but that city officials can write off the homelessness effort if voters shoot down a tax increase or bond. Carol Sobel, homeless advocate and civil rights attorney, tells the LA Times that city officials are "passing the [homelessness issue] off to the voters," so, even if the ballot initiative fails, the City Council can still claim they tried.