Will LA County voters tax themselves to fund homeless services?

A woman pushes her walker past tents housing the homeless in Los Angeles, California on February 9, 2016.
A woman pushes her walker past tents housing the homeless in Los Angeles, California on February 9, 2016.
Fredric J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

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L.A. County voters will decide in March whether to raise their sales taxes to fund hundreds of millions of dollars worth of services for the homeless. 

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted unanimously to place a 1/4-cent tax on the March 7 ballot specifically aimed at homeless funding. It will need support from 2/3 of voters to pass and would raise an estimated $355 million annually.

The tax would increase L.A. County's sales tax from 9.25 percent to 9.5 percent, and it would expire after 10 years. 

"That would be an opportunity for voters to see how effective these strategies are" and potentially renew the tax, said Phil Ansell, director of the county's strategy to combat homelessness. 

That money would fund the county's 47-point plan for addressing L.A.'s growing homeless crisis. As of the last homeless census in January 2015, the county counted nearly 47,000 people sleeping on the streets, in tents, in cars and in shelters and temporary homeless housing programs—a 19 percent increase from 2013's count.

The 5-0 vote signaled a change at the Board of Supervisors, which has for decades quarreled over philosophical differences on how to best tackle the issue. The county funded numerous pilot projects and small programs over the years, but they mostly petered out or remained relatively small. 

"This is a crisis of indifference, a crisis of inaction," said Denny Zane of the group Move LA. "There is no city, no county that has undertaken a measure like what you're about to undertake," he continued.

Homeless advocates staged a rally outside of the county building Tuesday as the Board of Supervisors placed a tax measure on the March ballot to fund homeless services.
Homeless advocates staged a rally outside of the county building Tuesday as the Board of Supervisors placed a tax measure on the March ballot to fund homeless services.
Rina Palta, KPCC

Zane was one of more than 100 people who took turns addressing the board during public comment before the vote. More than 2,000 people also sent letters of support. 

In February, the board passed their 47-point plan to tackle homelessness, but remained divided over how to fund it going forward. 

Homeless advocates are now hopeful the board, with two newly sworn in members, will work together on a more united mission. Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger, who took office Monday, have stated they're on the same page with the other three supervisors when it comes to the fundamental philosophy, embracing a so-called "housing first" approach. That model aims to put people into permanent homes as fast as possible, with the idea that mental health and substance abuse issues can be addressed once a person is stabilized in housing. 

"It's impossible to get your act together if you're on the streets," Hahn said.

L.A. City Councilmen Jose Huizar, Gil Cedillo and Marqueece Harris Dawson attended the county meeting Tuesday, a gesture of shared cooperation between L.A.'s city and county governments, which have historically worked independently on homelessness. 

Now, the two entities are trying to collaborate, with the city taking the lead on building actual structures to serve as housing for the formerly homeless, while the county provides supportive services like substance abuse treatment and mental health care.

In November, city voters approved Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure providing public seed funding for nonprofit housing developers. Now it'll be up to county voters to decide whether to entrust the board with hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the services part of the plan going forward. 

"When we asked voters what their most important issue is, poll after poll came back with homelessness," Huizar said, pledging his support for the proposed tax. "It costs us more, one way or another, if we leave these folks on the street."

Tuesday marked another shift at the county, as the board now has a female majority for the first time in L.A.'s history. With Barger replacing former Supervisor Mike Antonovich, and Hahn replacing former Supervisor Don Knabe, there are now four women in charge of one of the most powerful local government agencies in the country.

"What a truly special day it is," U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein said in a prerecorded video played at the start of Tuesday's meeting, greeting the new supervisors. "I can't believe it."

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the board's new chair, is its only man — a fact he said many people are drawing to his attention lately. 

"Someone said, 'Mark, I hope you grew up with a lot of sisters, because you'll need that experience,'" said Ridley-Thomas, who has two sisters. "I just want to recognize that as women in leadership seem to be losing ground in venues like the Legislature, I just want it to be appreciated that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is representing."

Barger and Hahn didn't directly address the new female majority in their opening remarks. 

Hahn, a former member of the U.S. Congress, said she's glad to leave the bickering of that institution behind.

"We will solve problems, we will not spend time on partisan politics, we will not spend time on our differences, but we will focus on what we have in common," she said.

Barger, who worked as an aide to Antonovich, said she was humbled to now sit in his chair.

She called the first meeting a "baptism by fire."

"I think it's a true testament to how important this issue is," Barger said of homelessness. She called on the state of California to do more to alleviate the crisis as well. 

The board also voted to declare an emergency because of the homeless crisis — a move that, in the past, has failed to entice the state to offer emergency funding. 

Feinstein also praised the board for their commitment to tackling the looming issue of homelessness. 

"If anyone can do it, four great women and one great man certainly can," she said.