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Agency responsible for housing LA’s homeless discovers 3,000 units it ‘didn’t know about’

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The discovery was made as LAHSA develops a new approach that treats the homeless crisis more like a natural disaster

Homeless In Hollywood
LAHSA reports that, on average, it takes 10 months for a person matched with housing to actually sign a lease.
Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Thanks to a ballot measure passed in 2016, more than 5,700 apartments for homeless residents are planned or under construction in Los Angeles.

But the agency tasked with combatting homelessness in the city and county is still working on getting an accurate count of how many of those homes already exist.

Heidi Marston, interim director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, told county supervisors on Tuesday, that the agency had recently discovered thousands of units of permanent supportive housing, both in the form of physical homes and rental subsidies, that hadn’t previously been inventoried in its resource management system.

“We have 3,000 units… that we didn’t know about in our system,” Marston told reporters Tuesday. “They weren’t known to us.”

Those units, reserved for people who also require services like counseling and healthcare, aren’t sitting empty, according to Marston. But she said Tuesday that getting an accurate count of existing permanent supportive housing is vital to ensuring the agency can move people into homes as quickly as possible when they become available.

“We can’t fill units that we don’t know about,” said Marston.

LAHSA reports that, on average, it takes 10 months for a person matched with housing to actually sign a lease.

The agency has repeatedly come under fire for a sometimes disorganized response to rising levels of homelessness across LA County. Former director Peter Lynn stepped down in December, less than four months after the release of a scathing report from Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin criticizing LAHSA’s record-keeping and ability to meet its own housing and outreach goals.

Marston said that the agency began working with affordable developers in December to identify units and housing subsidies that might have been overlooked. In a statement, she said this was part of a “new approach” to “refine” the way that LAHSA gets people into housing.

A new agency initiative, called “Housing Central Command,” is aimed at coordinating local housing departments and cutting through red tape that might be preventing people from finding housing.

Marston told the Board of Supervisors that this approach would allow local officials to treat the homelessness crisis more like a natural disaster, in which multiple agencies cooperate to house people as quickly as possible. So far, she said, the new initiative has resulted in the elimination of burdensome requirements for those seeking housing, including a rule mandating that residents periodically resubmit documentation of permanent disabilities.

“I’ve been waiting for at least a year to hear the idea that we’re treating this like an emergency, like a natural disaster,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn Tuesday.

Marston acknowledged that the agency had gone through growing pains following the approval of a 2017 ballot measure that provided LAHSA with hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding.

“It can’t be understated the amount of capacity it took for not only our data systems, but our providers, to build up to a point where we could figure out what a new normal was,” she told reporters.

As the agency’s local funding increased, money from the federal government got left on the table. In 2017, nearly 30 percent of the $106.5 million LAHSA received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development went unspent and had to be returned.

Marston said Tuesday that the central command initiative is focused on ensuring the agency can take full advantage of available resources in the future. A big part of that will be moving people into housing faster—ensuring that federal rental subsidies can be used before they expire.

“We housed more people last year than we ever have,” said Marston. “Can you imagine how much more we’ll be able to do with a system that’s removing administrative barriers?”