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LA gears up to help homeless people pay rent

General Jeff, head organizer of the proposed Skid Row Neighborhood Council, greets voters as they line up outside San Julian Park on Thursday, April 6, 2017. Matt Bloom

The push is on in Los Angeles to find help with rent for tens of thousands of homeless people whom the county has pledged to house over the next few years.

As part of that effort, a handful of the county's myriad local housing authorities have agreed to dedicate part of their allotment of federal Section 8 vouchers to rental subsidies for the homeless. In exchange, the county will provide social services for each voucher holder in the program, as well as extra cash to incentivize landlords to participate. 

The memorandum of understanding launching the program is up for a vote by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Emilio Salas, deputy executive director of the Housing Authority of the County of L.A. (HACoLA) said at this point, eight of the county's 18 housing authorities have signed on. In total, the group is pledging 2,089 vouchers to go to homeless in the next year.

Long Beach, Pomona, Burbank, Glendale, L.A. County, the City of L.A., Redondo Beach, and Pasadena have all agreed to participate in the program. Compton, Culver City, and Torrance have also expressed interest.

"We're still reaching out to the remainder to see if they're interested," Salas said. 

Among the incentives to participate – beyond helping alleviate the region’s growing homeless problem – are funds to help make Section 8 a more attractive program to landlords. Housing authorities in L.A. County have been struggling with a tough rental market, and voucher-holders have been struggling to find apartments. An increasing number, Salas said, have been forced to give up their voucher for lack of a place to use it.

The new program, funded with dollars from Measure H, a sales tax for homeless services, gives landlords who agree to rent to homeless tenants an additional security deposit and in some cases, a signing fee.

The City and County of L.A. have already been utilizing such incentives in their own programs and now those housing agencies that agree to participate will be able to dish out the same benefits.

“This is a very significant step forward to honor the commitment to the voters who so generously supported us in facing this crisis,” said L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “Literally, it means over 2,000 individuals and their families will be lifted out of homelessness.”

The county is also looking for ways to increase the number of vouchers housing authorities dedicate to developments to house the homeless in permanent supportive housing. The county has an estimated shortage of about 15,000 permanent supportive housing units, with a building boom potentially on the way with new city and county funds dedicated to construction.

The only other substantial program that offers long-term rental assistance in L.A. is the Department of Health Services’ Housing for Health program, which gives rental assistance to homeless public health clients who are heavy users of emergency rooms and other costly county services.

Section 8 resources are limited nationally and regionally and the program is already strained. The coming federal budget could further strain the program, should Congress follow President Donald Trump’s desire to cut substantially from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Section 8 vouchers in Los Angeles are the primary rental support for formerly chronically homeless people. They’re also intended to serve the working poor.   

In the City of Los Angeles alone, where the wait list for Section 8 has been closed for 13 years, an estimated 800,000 people would qualify for Section 8 rental support because of their income level. When the waitlist last opened in 2004, about 300,000 people applied.

Only about 2,400 vouchers in the City of L.A. become available each year, through attrition. Increasingly, as with many jurisdictions in Southern California, they’re going towards addressing homelessness.