A Different Legal Approach to Solving the Homelessness and Affordable Housing Crises in the Los Angeles Region

Los Angeles needs regional partners to solve homelessness.

In Southern California, homelessness and affordable housing are regional problems, but the Southern California region treats them like Los Angeles problems.

Even with all of the work that has been done and the progress that has been made, record numbers of unhoused people are dying every day on Los Angeles streets. Dangerous unhealthy conditions exist all over the city. So something significant has to change.

Los Angeles homelessness experts generally agree on four key facts: first, homelessness happens in every city in the region and people experiencing homelessness should be able to remain in the community they are from; second, homelessness and the scarcity of affordable housing are interconnected; third, the solution to homelessness is affordable housing, and shelters (of varying types) with services (including addiction services, mental health services, and job placement services); and fourth, we need much more of both in the City of Los Angeles and the region.

To date, this agreed-upon solution has alluded everyone and until this crisis is treated as the regional crisis that it is, the solution will continue to be out of reach.

As Los Angeles City Attorney, how would I bring significant change in the City’s legal strategy that would put these solutions within reach?

The answer is that I will level the playing field for all cities in the region by reinstating accountability and incentive on the part of our neighbors to build homeless shelters with services and affordable housing.

I will do this by changing our City’s approach to lawsuits brought against the City of Los Angeles.

Since 2003, the City of Los Angeles has been sued several times on issues related to homelessness. Many of those cases were settled out of court by the City. These legal actions and settlements have impacted the City’s ability to respond to homelessness. Today the courts are deciding every aspect of the homelessness crisis — from where people can camp on the street, when they can camp on the street, how much personal property they can have with them on the street, and where shelters and affordable housing can be built. So the selection of the next City Attorney is critical in shaping the direction of the City’s legal policies and priorities on solving homelessness.

While the City’s settlement of prior lawsuits was the best decision at the time based on the information it had, we now know that neighboring cities have not been willing to meet the same obligations the City of Los Angeles has agreed to. Many of our neighboring cities have proven their willingness to look the other way, and in large measure, leave this tragedy for the City of Los Angeles to solve essentially on its own. (I use “essentially” because I am not ignoring the County’s hard work on this crisis, the good work of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, or the passage of Measure H by the County’s voters). Indeed, at least one city in the region (and likely others) is (are) paying to rent space in homeless shelters in the City of Los Angeles to move their own unhoused population. Therefore, the City of Los Angeles should now approach these legal cases, and our neighboring cities, differently.

As City Attorney, here’s one of the ways I would do it. First, if the City of Los Angeles is the only municipal defendant in any homelessness-related lawsuit, then the case will be vigorously defended and settlement out of court will not be recommended by our office. At this point, knowing what we know now, when the City of Los Angeles settles legal cases brought against it, able to bind only itself to the demands of the other side, the City of LA removes any incentive on the part of our neighbors to build homeless shelters with services or affordable housing, while creating every incentive for the unhoused population to move into Los Angeles and for our neighboring cities to assist them in doing so (directly or indirectly). People experiencing homelessness are camped primarily on our streets, not their streets. And as long as the unhoused population is sleeping on Los Angeles streets, other cities in the region have little incentive to build shelters or affordable housing.

I am not recommending movement of LA’s own unhoused population out of LA. Rather, I am advocating for the creation of long-overdue policies and incentives in other cities that respond appropriately to the needs of their own unhoused residents so that people can remain in the community they are from. And I am willing to implement a legal strategy in the City of Los Angeles that will force the resolution of this crisis back into the responsibility of every city in the region — where it belongs and where it should have been all along.

Therefore, if I am City Attorney, in order for the City of Los Angeles to consider settling a case brought against us, two important things will need to occur first: (1) many of our neighboring cities will need to be at the table, and (2) those neighboring cities must agree to be bound by anything the City of Los Angeles is being asked to agree to. This is only fair.

By fighting these cases going forward instead of settling them, whether the City wins the case or is faced with a different result, we will be holding all of our neighbors in the region accountable. Because if the City wins the case, it wins it. But if the City of Los Angeles receives an alternative decision, every other city in the region will be bound by that decision rendered in the State or Federal Court.

This new approach to homelessness-related lawsuits brought against the City of Los Angeles will result in three important outcomes. First, it will give our neighbors the same incentive we have to build shelters with services and more affordable housing, thereby finally providing the solutions that everyone agrees are needed. It will also prevent the shuffling of the unhoused population into our City from their own communities of origin where they would prefer to stay. Second, once our neighboring cities realize the results of the litigation will impact them in the same way it impacts the City of Los Angeles, it will give our neighboring cities an incentive to join the lawsuits that to date have targeted the City of Los Angeles. And third, with more housing and shelter solutions throughout the region, all cities will be able to restore the public right-of-way to its intended and safe use.

By acting alone in settling these cases that create new rules that apply only to the City of Los Angeles, we are letting our neighbors off the hook. At least if we go to court, the decision in court will apply to all of the cities in the region. That, at a minimum, levels the field. And a level field is critical to achieving the undisputed solution of more shelters with services and affordable housing. After all, affordable housing and a cleaner city go hand-in-hand.

Finally, in the September 2020 report entitled “No Going Back: Policies for an Equitable and Inclusive Los Angeles” co-authored by the USCDornsife Equity Research Institute, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and Committee for Greater LA, under the sub-heading “Create housing for all and end unsheltered homelessness,” the report says “Change will require that the scale of the response reflect the scale of the crisis, that we tackle the legacies and realities of structural racism, and that the region as a whole take action and hold these structures accountable.” Helping “the region as a whole take action” because “the scale of the response [must] reflect the scale of the crisis” is my goal with this new legal strategy.

President of City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works and Director of LA Mayor’s Office of Film & TV. Former entertainment litigator and Assistant US Attorney.

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