In 2016, Los Angeles voters signed off on a ballot measure setting aside more than $1 billion for construction of permanent housing to alleviate a worsening homelessness crisis.
On Monday, more than three years later, local officials celebrated the opening of the first five dozen affordable apartments funded by the measure. Residents began moving into the South LA housing complex, called 88th and Vermont, in December.
“We are finally beginning to deliver on the housing mandate the voters approved through Measure HHH in 2016,” Los Angeles City Councilmember Nury Martinez said in a statement Monday.
It’s not the first building completed with HHH money; a service center partially funded by the ballot measure opened last year in Sun Valley. But the 88th and Vermont project is the first housing development to open with financial support from the initiative.
Local officials agree that homelessness requires an urgent response, but funding challenges and red tape make permanent housing projects like this one difficult to build in a hurry.
Channa Grace, president and CEO of project developer Women Organizing Resources Knowledge and Services, says the complex has been in the works for more than a decade, but that serious planning began two or three years before Measure HHH passed. It would never have come to fruition, she says, without the aid of funds provided through the program.
“We couldn’t have done this without the public’s consent,” Grace says. “When they passed this measure it made all the difference in the world.”
Even with that financial support, building the project required patience and persistence.
Yoko Sugioka, director of developments for WORKS, says it took years to put together the financing necessary to start construction.
Even after affordable projects like these are funded, she says, potential delays abound in the construction and inspection process.
“It’s not like we can just do it and then walk away and say, ‘here’s the building,’” she says. “I wish it was that simple.”
Actually constructing the project required coordination with multiple city departments, and when it was completed, sorting out a “transformer issue” with the Department of Water and Power added further delay.
Grace says the finished product is worth the wait.
Developed in partnership with Community Build, the LEED Gold-certified development has 62 total apartments, including 46 designated as permanent supportive housing and set aside for chronically homeless residents. Another 14 units are available for tenants earning less than half of LA County’s median income (the last two are for building managers).
Arranged around a landscaped courtyard, the complex also includes a family center where community members can get job training and academic support.
Projects like these can’t open fast enough, according to an audit of the ballot measure released by City Controller Ron Galperin in October.
Pointing to a 40 percent rise in the number of Los Angeles residents experiencing homelessness since 2015, Galperin wrote that “it is clear that the City’s HHH program is not keeping pace with the growing demand for supportive housing and shelter.”
The report highlighted surging construction costs and bureaucratic slowdowns, making the case that city leaders could have done more to ensure new housing could open as soon as possible.
But HHH was always part of a longer term approach to addressing homelessness, says United Way of Greater Los Angeles senior director Tommy Newman, who leads the organization’s Everyone In campaign. The effort is aimed at bolstering public support for construction of housing and shelters to address the county’s homelessness crisis.
Newman says the main reason affordable housing can take longer to build than other projects is that developers generally need to cobble together a mix of private funding and public subsidies (often in the form of tax credits) in order to finance construction.
“When a market rate developer wants to build, they go to bank and get a loan,” he says. “Affordable developers have to get three, four, five, even six loans sometimes.”
That’s true even with the financial support offered through HHH. The $1.2 billion awarded through the program will be divvied up among dozens of projects, helping to close financing gaps for affordable developments—not to fund them outright.
Newman argues that the most important question Los Angeles residents should be asking about HHH is what to do when the money runs out.
“The time has come for us to figure out what our longterm strategy is,” he says. “We’re not going to create all the housing we need through one-off bond measures.”