Karen Bass, in her first official act as mayor of Los Angeles, declared a state of emergency on homelessness Monday in an effort to underscore the severity of the housing crisis in the nation’s second largest city.
Bass signed the declaration inside the city’s Emergency Operations Center in a room designated as the “United Homelessness Response Center.” She described the declaration as a method to unlock tools and powers to “make sure we are using every resource possible” to address homelessness, claiming that it marked a “sea change” and “monumental shift” in the city’s approach.
“Using the emergency order is our ability to fast-track things,” Bass said.
She added: “My mandate is to move Los Angeles in a new direction with an urgent and strategic approach to solving one of our city’s toughest challenges and creating a brighter future for every Angeleno.”
Bass, who spent her first morning as mayor meeting with the city’s various department heads to brief them on the declaration, pointed to how fast Los Angeles rebuilt its freeways after the magnitude-6.7 Northridge earthquake in 1994.
“It’s because those projects were not run through the traditional process,” Bass said. “They were run through an emergency structure like the one we are harnessing today. We must drive a proactive citywide strategy that solves problems at scale and ultimately drives a solution.”
The declaration — which is scheduled to last six months — allows Bass to take more aggressive executive actions to confront the crisis, though the City Council will have to sign off on it every 30 days.
“The setting of a specific time frame allows for actions to be taken to make permanent, necessary structural changes,” the declaration reads.
Whether to continue the state of emergency will be evaluated by several indicators of progress, including the number of encampments and housing placements, and how much more flexibility city departments are allowed through the declaration.
City Council President Paul Krekorian signaled that he will work with Bass, saying in remarks at the mayor’s inauguration on Sunday that Bass will have a “very strong partner in the Los Angeles City Council.” The council, with five new members beginning their tenure Monday, will take up the emergency declaration at Tuesday’s meeting.
“The city is known throughout the world for its emergency response,” Krekorian said. “Starting today, under Mayor Bass, we are going to bring that same vigor, that same sense of urgency, that same gathering of resources to respond to this emergency as well — the humanitarian emergency that 40,000 people are suffering from tonight.”
The last time a mayor declared a local emergency related to homelessness was in 1987, when Mayor Tom Bradley cited the effect of winter weather on people experiencing homelessness, according to the declaration. The conditions now, the declaration claimed, are “even more dire.”
There are an estimated 41,980 unhoused people in the city of Los Angeles, up 1.7% from 2020, according to the latest count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
Bass said she plans to announce a program to address homelessness called Inside Safe in the coming days. The plan, which Bass said will cost under $100 million, will be to use master leasing with motels to place unhoused people. She said her office has been in touch with motel owners near encampments.
Janice Hahn, chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said she plans to introduce a motion to make sure county resources can “match the urgency of this emergency declaration.”
“We need to link arms rather than point fingers,” Hahn said, adding that Bass was “bringing a new vigor to a battle that we have been fighting way too long.”
Several other city officials were present at Bass’ first news conference as mayor, including City Council President pro Tempore Curren Price and Councilwoman Nithya Raman, interim chair of the council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee. City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto and City Controller Kenneth Mejia, both newly elected, also stood behind Bass.
Feldstein Soto said at a briefing earlier on Monday that Bass called her early in the morning to inform her that she would be declaring the state of emergency. The City Charter requires the mayor to consult with the city attorney before making an emergency declaration.
“Let me assure you the mayor has consulted with me and we are hand-in-glove in this,” Feldstein Soto said.
The city attorney added that Bass has “reached out across the board and we are all committed to doing what it takes to make this work.”
Jennifer Hark Dietz, CEO of People Assisting The Homeless, said in a statement that Bass was right to declare a state of emergency.
“The city’s approach to homelessness has become more piecemeal and politicized and this state of emergency can leverage the power of the executive branch to make sustainable improvements to our service system and dramatically increase the production of desperately needed housing,” Dietz said.
The Committee for Greater LA, a group of cross-sectoral civic leaders, also agreed with Bass’ decision in a statement from Chair Miguel Santana and Sarah Dusseault, chair of the group’s housing and homelessness action team. The state of emergency allows for the city to better manage the use of city-owned land, expedite approvals for affordable housing and address the needs of people living in encampments, according to the group.
“Unprecedented actions, like those in Mayor Bass’ plan, are needed to significantly improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness and to remove the barriers they face in securing housing,” the statement read.
Bass’ declaration comes a week after the council voted 8-3 to end Los Angeles’ state of emergency due to COVID-19 in February. The state of local emergency has been in place since March 4, 2020. The council has voted to extend it each month since then.
That local state of emergency ensures that renter protections created during the pandemic remain in place, but the city’s long-standing eviction protections due to COVID-19 hardship are also set to expire at the end of January after a 12-0 council vote in October.
Tenant advocates fear that ending the protections will lead to a flood of people being forced out onto the streets. Keep LA Housed, a group of tenants, organizers and advocates, is scheduled to hold a rally outside City Hall on Tuesday calling for the council to implement permanent tenant protections.
Councilman Hugo Soto-Martinez, one of the new council members, posted a message on Twitter calling for universal just-cause eviction rights and a one-month grace period for evictions. Keep LA Housed noted that four council members — Soto-Martinez, Raman, Eunisses Hernandez and Marqueece Harris-Dawson — were “supportive.”