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L.A. County voters weigh quarter-cent sales tax increase to combat homelessness

A sign urging support for Measure H, the countywide sales tax increase to benefit anti-homelessness efforts, inside the Inner City Law Center on skid row. (David McNew / Getty Images)

Los Angeles County voters were deciding Tuesday whether to increase the sales tax by a quarter-cent to raise billions of dollars for housing and services that advocates say are needed to end the plight of thousands of homeless people living on the county’s streets.

Measure H, which requires a two-thirds majority for passage, would generate about $355 million annually for homeless programs over 10 years, backers say. The tax increase would raise the sales tax rate to 9% across most of Los Angeles County and up to 10% in a few communities.

It would be the second phase of a two-step fundraising strategy developed by the city and county. Los Angeles city voters approved a $1.2-billion bond measure in November to provide supplemental funding for 10,000 units of permanent housing with support services for the chronically homeless.

The new sales tax revenue would pay for services attached to those units and provide rental subsidies and services for thousands more units across the county.

Advertising for the measure promised it would move an estimated 45,000 families and individuals from homelessness into permanent housing during the first five years, while preventing 30,000 more families and individuals from becoming homeless.

“Measure H revenue will enable the most comprehensive plan to combat homelessness in the history of Los Angeles County,” said Phil Ansell, head of the county’s Homeless Initiative.

The complex and still-evolving spending plan includes rent to house thousands of people in existing apartments and services for those units, and an additional 10,000 units to be built over a decade with help from the homeless housing bond approved by Los Angeles city voters in November. Some of the money could also go to shelters and temporary housing for people waiting for permanent homes; housing and support for those leaving jails; and hospitals, employment services and short-term interventions to help those in crisis keep their homes.

County officials have outlined the basic strategies that would be funded, but they have not yet issued a budget showing the proportions each would receive. Those decisions would be sorted out by a panel of 50 people appointed from county government, cities and the nonprofit world, Ansell said. Its recommendation would go to the Board of Supervisors on June 13, just about the time the tax revenue would start to flow.

The panel would consider six main categories: subsidized housing, coordinated outreach and shelters, case management and services, homelessness prevention, income support and preservation of existing housing.

More than 250 business, nonprofit, labor, government and religious organizations endorsed Measure H, which faced no organized opposition.

A $3.5-million campaign received contributions from real estate and investment firms, labor organizations, philanthropists and other groups with ties to Los Angeles. Those donors include Disney Worldwide Services Inc., USC, former DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and the Los Angeles Chargers. The campaign sent about 4 million mailers and advertised in Los Angeles County newspapers.

The county Board of Supervisors added $1 million for a campaign including television spots.

United Way of Greater Los Angeles also committed $200,000 for community engagement activities in support of the measure.