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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politicsNorth America

Can Karen Bass solve L.A.'s homelessness problem?

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Title iconThe News
REUTERS/Aude Guerrucci

In her first week on the job, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency on homelessness, directed the city to speed up new affordable housing starts, and launched a program to move the tens of thousands of people living in encampments into motels and hotels.

The new mayor, who was endorsed by President Joe Biden and sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris, was working in sync with an administration promising help for cities in trying to get people off the streets as part of a new plan to reduce U.S. homelessness by 25%.

“Making a huge dent in L.A. will help him get there, because we’re the epicenter of the country,” Bass said of Biden’s goal at the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, after it moved to align its own agenda with the emergency order. “We want him to succeed, by us succeeding.”

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Bass, who defeated billionaire developer Rick Caruso in last month’s election, is embracing an issue that has flummoxed fellow Democrats since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans seized on the spread of homeless encampments, especially on the West Coast, to portray America’s major cities as crime-and-poverty-ridden dystopias.

The races that ended Democratic control of the House, where Bass served until entering city hall, were powered by suburban fears of urban decline. That the White House is now setting an ambitious target to lower homelessness probably isn’t a coincidence.

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All of which makes Bass’s battle more than just a major trial for her new administration — rather, it may turn into a nationally important test of whether Democrats are capable of solving the problems facing America’s metropolises.

Heavily outspent in the election, Bass took office as homelessness surged as a voter concern, and as confidence in the powerful city council had cratered. A California Community poll conducted right before Bass’s Dec. 12 inauguration found just 30% of Angelenos viewing the council favorably, after a leaked recording of three members making racist remarks.

But by a 20-point margin, voters had a positive view of Bass, whose emergency declaration was approved unanimously. Two new left-wing council members supported it, alongside the only remaining council member caught on the damning tape.

“She's trying to get people into housing as soon as possible, which I think is great,” said council member Hugo Soto-Martinez, a left-wing union organizer who unseated a developer-friendly incumbent last month. “It's very similar to the platform that we ran on: While we build for the future, we need to have places where people can live now. That’s very different from how this was done in the past.”

Critics of Bass are waiting to see results. The city’s largest homeless advocate groups had been invited to Bass’s announcements, and consulted on the policy; Gina Viola, an activist who ran for mayor as a left-wing alternative to Bass, said that unhoused people themselves were not involved enough in the decisions.

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“My big concern with what's happening is it's just more money going to more entities, and not truly going to have a meaningful impact on the folks living on the streets,” Viola told Semafor.

Joe Buscaino, a former city council member who ended his own mayoral bid to endorse Caruso said that he’d texted Bass “a high-five emoji” after her affordable housing announcement, but added that she could be doing more. Caruso campaigned on a promise to end homelessness by immediately building 30,000 shelter beds, and observing a state of emergency until no one was living on the streets.

“Rick would have signed a deal already with a prefab housing manufacturer,” said Buscaino. “I believe he would have already cited locations for where those units would have been placed. But it’s hard to critique her right now. It’s such a quick transition, and the answers to the test are right in front of her.”

Bass isn’t alone. Since the November election, New York Mayor Eric Adams announced that the city would involuntarily hospitalize homeless people suffering from mental illness, and Portland approved a plan to build new shelters and forcibly relocate people who’d been camping on streets.

Both drew a backlash from opponents on the left who see those tactics as “criminalizing” homelessness, which Bass has tried to avoid both during her campaign and since, rejecting police “sweeps” that destroy homeless people’s possessions as they relocate them. Anger at how the LAPD cleared an encampment in the LA neighborhood of Echo Park helped fuel the campaign that elected Soto-Martinez.

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But to succeed on her mission, Bass will have to walk a policy tightrope between progressives wary of mistreating their unhoused neighbors and frustrated voters who want the local government to move more aggressively.

Mike Bonin, who represented parts of L.A.’s west side on the city council until last week, said that he was “strongly encouraged” by Bass’s moves but wary of potential backlash. He retired this year, after opponents tried to recall him over his support for a shelter in Venice and his insistence on clearing encampments off Venice beach with social workers, instead of police sweeps.

“The electorate has very little patience,” said Bonin. “It’s going to give Karen a honeymoon, but not a long one.”

Title iconThe View From Fox News

Bass’s moves haven’t altered L.A.’s status as a punching bag for conservative media. Jesse Watters covered the emergency declaration as a power grab by “Queen Karen,” who might use her authority to “seize your property and give it to a homeless person,” a dark fantasy that has nothing to do with the orders so far.

Title iconNotable
  • Jerusalem Demsas digs into housing policy at The Atlantic and notes that researchers see surprisingly little connection between poverty rates and homelessness. Instead, the bigger factor tends to be housing supply, the bane of big metro areas like Los Angeles. “Yes, examining who specifically becomes homeless can tell important stories of individual vulnerability created by disability or poverty, domestic violence or divorce,” she writes. “Yet when we have a dire shortage of affordable housing, it’s all but guaranteed that a certain number of people will become homeless.”
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