Opinion: Profound corruption lies at the heart of LA homelessness

Skyline of Downtown Los Angeles

Michael Muraz/Stock photo

We ask ourselves the confounding question: Why is Los Angeles the homeless capital of the world? The answer: corruption.

Los Angeles does not inherently have more mental illness or drug addiction than anywhere else. We know from multiple studies that most of our homeless people are from here, so it isn’t the weather. It is no joy to be homeless in Los Angeles compared to every other American city.

There is one difference, however, and that is the degree of corruption, particularly around land use. Los Angeles is and has been Big Real Estate’s dream for decades — tear down a rent-controlled building and put up a luxury condominium.

You can triple your money overnight simply by purchasing a member of the city council. And you can do it the old-fashioned way, by stuffing cash in a garbage bag. There is a grand tradition that, once a councilperson agrees to a project in their district, every other councilperson will rubber-stamp it.

So many city council members have been indicted and convicted this way in recent years that they could hold an alumni meeting in prison. Look no further than Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was sentenced to more than three years in a corruption case. Or consider Mitch Englander, who hid more than $20,000 in gifts (among other offenses). And then there’s Jose Huizar, who took bribes and cheated on his taxes for years.

This is how the usual scheme goes: buy a piece of land that allows you to build 50 units. Bribe a city councilperson to “spot zone” your piece of land to allow 150 units, and overnight you have tripled the value of the land. It is the equivalent of printing money, and it comes cheap. That extra 100 units could easily be worth $10 million, and the cost of a payoff as little as $10,000 makes for a great return on investment.

What does this have to do with homelessness, you ask? First, there is no incentive to build affordable housing when you can clean up building luxury. You do even better buying in an inner-city area where the land is cheaper. Second, when you put up that luxury tower in a working-class area, everything around it goes up in price — not down, as the YIMBY trickle-down theory goes. Lastly, the price of land itself goes up, making it more expensive to build low-income housing.

Not satisfied with their plunder, Big Real Estate can’t keep their greedy paws off low-income housing either, driving up the price of a unit to between $700,000 and $1 million each. And the icing on the cake is the corporate landlords’ relentless crusade against rent control. When a starting teacher, police officer or firefighter has to pay more than half of their income in rent, how can a person on disability or Social Security possibly make it in Los Angeles?

Our city officials would prefer to build a playground for the rich than support a livable environment because their version of Monopoly enriches them, and to hell with the consequences — “I will be long gone by then.”

Crises of the magnitude of homelessness and housing affordability in Los Angeles don’t just happen. They are the culmination of decades of bad, corrupt decisions. Until we make our elected officials work for us, rather than developers and corporate landlords, nothing will change.

We are in a hole. And, when you’re in a hole, stop digging.

Michael Weinstein is the president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the largest global HIV/AIDS organization.