Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

From blight to blessing

Effective Compassion | Los Angeles wants to convert rundown hotels to housing for homeless
by Rob Holmes
Posted 1/31/18, 04:49 pm

With a wave of the legislative wand, Los Angeles could allow conversion of 10,000 motel rooms into housing for the city’s homeless population. LA has at least 382 older motels with rooms suitable for quick transformation into low-cost housing, and the City Council is debating an ordinance that would convert some of these seedy “nuisance” motels into permanent living quarters, some with on-site supportive services.

Zoning laws would permit the change, and units could be repurposed in weeks rather than the months and years it takes to build housing from the ground up. The idea would also turn developers and property owners—who can make use of new tax credits—into partners with the government as opposed to plans that require direct city expenditures.

But several obstacles to the process loom, including a ban on turning transient accommodations into long-term housing. Detractors cite concerns from neighbors, parking problems, and a need for ancillary services like mental healthcare, job placement, or addiction counseling so that a property doesn’t simply turn into a seedbed for crime as needy residents increase.

While the number of homeless declined 50 percent nationally over the past eight years, it has mushroomed in LA. In 2016 and 2017, the city accounted for half (8,758) of the slight increase in unsheltered individuals in the nation.

The city’s idea for repurposing motels began to take shape a couple of years ago as officials recognized LA was fast becoming a magnet for homeless veterans, who now account for 4,476 out of the countywide total of nearly 60,000 homeless.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to spend $100 million a year to fight the problem and championed the motel housing idea. In a 2016 written statement reported in the Los Angeles Times, he said, “Instead of allowing blighted properties to decay, let’s use them to make powerful change in our communities by giving our veterans the access to services and housing that they need and deserve.”

Then, in March 2017, Los Angeles County residents approved a sales tax hike called Measure H for expanding social services in low-rent housing areas. But two months later, Temple City residents flooded public hearing meetings to voice opposition to making the Golden Motel—just inside the LA border with suburban Temple City—into 169 studio apartment units, with 60 set aside for needy veterans. Protesters said they didn’t want Skid Row problems such as falling property prices, rising crime, and drug sales coming to their backyard.

Mercy Housing California, whose trustees include six Catholic nuns, operates more than 100 low-income housing properties in the state. It proposed to redevelop the Golden Motel and rent the units for $431 to $735 per month, depending on income. But amid local outcry and an accompanying petition on Change.org, Mercy Housing lost its bid to another developer and broke ground instead on another similar project near Sacramento.

Not everyone in the community was of the same mindset. Temple City First United Methodist Church Pastor David Palmer told the Pasadena Star-News permanent solutions like this beat temporary aid to homeless people, and individuals chosen to live in the motel units would have come from the local community. They would have been “connected to resources to help them stay housed instead of living on the streets,” he said. 

Associated Press/Photo by Elaine Thompson Associated Press/Photo by Elaine Thompson A cigarette disposal location at the University of Washington

Cutting cigarettes cuts down on opioids

A Canadian study shows tackling cigarette addiction also reduces opioid abuse.

The six-month research project, conducted with 80 inner-city homeless and poor people, provided free counseling for a range of needs, along with nicotine replacement therapy in the form of gum, patches, or inhalers. The comprehensive approach to reducing their nicotine addiction led participants who stayed in the program to cut their daily cigarette consumption from an average of 20.5 cigarettes a day to 9.3.

The same participants also reported an 18.8 percent decrease in their use of illicit drugs like fentanyl and heroin.

“We need to understand that opioid addiction does not occur in isolation,” said Smita Pakhalé, a respirologist at The Ottawa Hospital who also directs The Bridge, a community center where she led the study.

“Tobacco is the king of addictions, it’s the strongest addiction, and it causes structural changes in your brain, in the receptors, and it amplifies the response,” Pakhalé said as she explained the neurobiology of smoking.

Smoking is nearly universal among Ottawa’s homeless and vulnerable populations, according to another study of 858 drug users. The 2013 findings showed 96 percent of the participants smoked every day, compared to only 9 percent of the city in general.

“Mental health issues, poverty, housing, food insecurity, trauma—all of these are related to addictions,” Pakhalé said. “So you need an approach that addresses the whole person rather than just the opioid or just the cigarette or just their diabetes.”

One addiction reinforces another, and though many of those surveyed wanted to quit smoking, there is a tendency to see smoking as a minor issue in the mix of housing and mental health needs. The Ottawa study offers hope that reducing common smoking opens the way to treating other serious addictions.

A positive achievement in quitting cigarettes could be the first major baby step.

Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

Tax bill promotes investment in distressed communities

Attached to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 is a provision that could kick-start business and housing development in depressed areas. For 52 million Americans living in areas where economic growth is sluggish, the act incentivizes long-term investment of capital gains.

Sponsored by Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the Investing in Opportunity Act defers capital gains recognition from sales of an appreciated asset if the gains get reinvested in long-term projects in officially defined “Opportunity Zones.” The law gives governors the prerogative to designate the Opportunity Zones for their states based on data verifying an area’s status as low-income and low-growth, and the U.S. Treasury Department must certify their choices.

The Economic Innovation Group estimates that more than $2 trillion of unrealized personal and corporate capital gains could be made available from asset sales. A person who invests the gains for seven years will now pay only 85 percent of the taxes due on the original investment. For an investment maintained for more than 10 years in an Opportunity Zone, the investor can avoid all capital gains tax.

Scott tweeted that the effects of new private investment the act will create jobs and spur entrepreneurship and small business in areas that struggle to generate economic growth—whether urban, suburban, or rural.

HUD secretary promises to fight rural poverty

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson pledged to ramp up efforts to fight poverty and housing problems for needy people outside the nation’s urban areas.

At last week’s fifth annual Hunger and Homelessness Summit in Rothschild, Wis., Carson promised to reevaluate how program money is distributed and to ensure existing programs for homelessness reach the rural parts of the United States.

Summit organizer Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., said, “Rural America is forgotten,” telling guests his northern Wisconsin congressional district, like many others, was overlooked in the allocation of HUD funds.

Speaking on the subject to Wisconsin Public Radio, Carson hinted at changing the name of his agency to Housing and Community Development. “I believe there has not been enough emphasis on rural poverty,” he said.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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