Federal bill would throw $13 billion at ending homelessness

U.S. Representative Maxine Waters introduced a new bill this week that would spend the money on a variety of federal housing programs over a five-year period.
U.S. Representative Maxine Waters introduced a new bill this week that would spend the money on a variety of federal housing programs over a five-year period. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Politicians across the country have pledged to end homelessness in America, and now one of them has attached a dollar amount to that goal: $13.27 billion.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) introduced a new bill this week, "The Ending Homelessness Act of 2016” that would spend the money on a variety of federal housing programs over a five-year period. 

Waters is among a growing chorus of federal, state, and local officials urging their colleagues to get real about what it would actually take to house the nation's homeless and prevent families from losing their homes in the future.

"The legislators at every level of government have to be able to understand that this is very expensive," Waters told KPCC. "And it’s going to take real dollars to make it right."

In January, L.A.'s City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana released a report saying the city would need to invest $1.85 billion over the next ten years to have a shot at housing all of the city's homeless. 

The city and county of Los Angeles have thus far pledged funds in the $100-150 million range. 

A group of California state senators have proposed allocating $2 billion to affordable housing development in coming budget cycle. 

L.A. meanwhile, remains one of the most challenged places in the country when it comes to homelessness. With an estimated 254,000 homeless, the county has the largest population of people living unsheltered in the country.

Water's congressional district includes swaths of South L.A., where many of the county's homeless are clustered and housing affordability is an increasingly urgent issue. 

"We have increasing homelessness all over the country, right here in Los Angeles County, it has increased 20 percent," Waters said. "The first thing that’s different about this bill is it tells the truth about what the need is."

Previous efforts to address homelessness have been piecemeal and inadequate, she said.

Her bill wouldn't create any new programs, but would add to the coffers of existing programs run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which haven't seen significant increases in years. 

Among those programs are Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers, for which there are massive waitlists in jurisdictions around the country. In the City of L.A., the waitlist for a Section 8 voucher has been closed for 16 years and has thousands of people on it. 

The bill would also infuse the National Housing Trust Fund with new dollars, potentially creating tens of thousands of new affordable units, Waters said. 

UC-Irvine Law Professor Bob Solomon said those are all good things to fund, but the bill is more of a wakeup call than a real solution to homelessness. 

"It looks like they’re very good programs," he said. "Whether or not you can get Congress to act is a whole different question."

Solomon's practiced housing law for 40 years, and said permanent supportive housing and vouchers have proven successful in getting people off the streets for good. But Congress has not been inclined to add dollars to those programs in the past, and isn't showing many signs of changing. 

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