Bonin proposes ‘social housing’ to ease shortage

By Cynthia Gibson

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — City Councilman Mike Bonin is exploring a potential solution to the affordability crisis in the form of “social housing” — rentals built and owned by the government.

The Los Angeles City Council Housing Committee approved the 11th District councilman’s motion Aug. 26 to research social housing programs and develop a report that would outline options and recommendations.

In a video posted to YouTube, Bonin proposed potentially using funds from congressional relief packages to purchase vacant properties or buildings in Los Angeles to provide publicly owned mixed-income social housing that could be managed by nonprofits, cooperatives or community land trusts.

“We can create a stock of housing with rents that teachers and nurses, that waiters and grocery workers, that students and gig economy employees can actually afford,” he said.

Local officials have explored other funding options in the past to build affordable housing, including passing ballot measure HHH to raise $1.2 million in bonds for homeless housing throughout Los Angeles County. Only 106 units have been built so far due to HHH.

An HHH-funded project in Venice, which is located within Bonin’s district, has been in the works for years, but has run into heavy community opposition. The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board recently criticized St. Mark Catholic Church for opposing the project.

In his motion, Bonin recommended that the city review different models of social housing, advocate for changes to laws that pose barriers to construction, consider a social housing demonstration project and determine potential funding sources, including federal funding related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bonin requested that the city conduct research on the social housing programs in countries like Austria, Finland, Sweden and Singapore and make recommendations for their applicability in Los Angeles.

Finland, for example, instituted a “housing first” strategy that provides affordable state-financed social housing and has resulted in the country having the lowest number of individuals experiencing homelessness in Europe.

In contrast, California and Los Angeles have decades of barriers to building public housing. In 1950, California voters approved Article 34 to be added to the state’s Constitution requiring voter approval before public housing is built in a community. In 2008, Los Angeles voted to cap the number of public housing units to 3,500 per council district.

As of 2019, there were 6,500 public housing units in the city of Los Angeles and more than 45,000 families on a waiting list, according to a Los Angeles Housing Services Authority factsheet.

More than 500,000 low-income renter households do not have access to affordable homes in Los Angeles County, according to a report by the California Housing Partnership. Almost 80% of extremely low-income households are paying more than half of their income on housing.

Bonin’s motion directed city staff to report on how many additional units of public housing are allowed per council district under voter-approved limits, as well as what steps would need to be taken to allow increased construction for social housing.

“We’re at a turning point,” Bonin said. “The public health crisis we are facing right now is giving way to a deep and a seismic economic and social crisis. The choices we make now about how to respond to this moment will define Los Angeles for generations.”

City staff are scheduled to present the City Council Housing Committee with a report on the options for social housing by the end of the year.