Business & Economy

Nowhere to go: LA's rental market continues to squeeze homeless programs

Victoria Burton waits in line to get a bed for the night at Grace Resource Center's Lancaster Community Homeless Shelter on Tuesday afternoon, May 31, 2016. Burton, a U.S. Navy veteran, is originally from Australia. She has been homeless once before, for more than a year in Oklahoma.
Victoria Burton waits in line to get a bed for the night at Grace Resource Center's Lancaster Community Homeless Shelter on Tuesday afternoon, May 31, 2016. Burton, a U.S. Navy veteran, is originally from Australia. She has been homeless once before, for more than a year in Oklahoma.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story MB

Homeless services providers say L.A.'s rental market has gone from bad to worse in just the past few months—and that's brought a standstill to efforts to get people off the street quickly. 

"We used to be able to house people in a month, now for some of our families it's taking nine months," said Cristina Nieto, senior manager of housing services for HOPICS, a placement agency in South Los Angeles. "It's hard to tell people, 'sorry, you still have to be out on the street, there's no housing available.'" 

HOPICS provides temporary rental assistance to formerly homeless to get them back on their feet, with the assumption they'll eventually take over the rent themselves—an assumption that was easier to believe seven years ago, when the program started. 

"When I first started doing rapid rehousing, we could find a studio for, at the cheapest, $650," Nieto said. "Now, we're looking for $1,000 to $1,100 for a studio. For a single mother with a few kids, looking for a two-bedroom, even if she's making more than minimum wage, she's not going to be able to afford rent."

In the past six months, Nieto said, her organization has only been able to house four families.

Permanent housing assistance programs aren't faring much better, despite guaranteeing a tenant's rent for life, or for as long as they remain low-income. 

Over at the Housing Authority of the City of L.A. (HACLA), which runs voucher programs for low-income renters, homeless individuals and homeless veterans, success rates have also dropped. 

Currently, 40 percent of those who receive Section 8 rental assistance vouchers through HACLA end up giving them up because they can't find a place to rent. That's according to most recent figures, which span the first half of 2016. 

In 2014, that number was 27 percent and in 2015, 36 percent. 

"All of this is because of the vacancy rate in the city, which is at an all-time low of 2.7 percent, and that factors into the high cost of housing," said Carlos Van Natter, director of HACLA's Section 8 program. 

Van Natter said it's tough to be competitive as a renter in such a tight market, especially since Section 8 rent is capped at a maximum of $1,314 for a one-bedroom. For the HUD-VASH program, which exclusively serves veterans, the rent cap is $1,500.

HACLA is turning more and more attention towards committing Section 8 vouchers to developments that are aimed specifically at housing the homeless, he said. 

"If there's a change in the market, we're right there still with tenant-based assistance, but we are pushing forward and doing a lot in terms of project-based vouchers," Van Natter said.

HACLA has also received money from the City of L.A. to do landlord outreach and recruiting. The city can provide landlords security deposits for formerly homeless tenants, as well as money set aside for if a tenant causes damage to a unit.

The County of L.A.'s housing authority is even offering cash incentives to landlords who sign up for the program. 

The two agencies, along with L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl's office, are hosting a landlord information session in Hollywood February 15.

"We're losing the ability to house middle class and especially working class people," Kuehl said. Affordability issues, she said, are among L.A.'s greatest challenges going forward.

"Government doesn't create these issues, but we are trying to help work through them," she said.

Los Angeles isn't the only city struggling with affordability—it's become a regional issue.

In Santa Ana, for instance, the housing authority is seeing 66 percent of its rental vouchers returned for lack of a place to use them. 

"We're struggling with the same issues," said  Judson Brown, housing division manager for the city. 

Brown said the city is taking steps to help, including funding a housing navigator position to help people find rentals, but there's no help from the federal government when it comes to landlord outreach and other incentive programs.

Brown said the city is trying to figure out a way to fund some of the programs L.A. has, including security deposit help. In the meantime, he said, the agency's doing what it can with limited resources.