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How L.A.’s next mayor will handle homelessness

Episode Summary

Los Angeles mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso both have plans to tackle the city's homeless issue. We press them on the details.

Episode Notes

Housing L.A.’s homeless population has unsurprisingly proved to be a herculean task. With tens of thousands of people on the streets, it’s become a top issue for this year’s mayoral election in November. But until now, neither candidate — Congresswoman Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso — had offered specifics on the type of housing they would create, where it would be or how much it would cost.

So we asked. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times reporters Ben Oreskes and Doug Smith

More reading:

Bass and Caruso have talked big on homelessness. Now they’re offering some details

Can Bass or Caruso solve the L.A. homeless housing crisis? Here are their divergent plans

Bass, Caruso sling mud over USC scholarship, alleged hacks and homelessness fixes

Episode Transcription

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Housing L.A.'s homeless population has unsurprisingly proven to be a Herculean task. 

With tens of thousands of people on the streets, it's become a top issue for this year's mayoral election in November. 

But until now, neither candidate Congresswoman Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso had offered specifics on the type of housing they would create, where it would be or how much it would cost. 

So two of my colleagues at The Times, they got out the spreadsheets and they went deep.

I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times,” essential news from the L.A. Times. It’s Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. 

Today, as part of our coverage of the 2022 midterm elections, we look at the mayoral race here in Los Angeles to understand how liberal cities are tackling homelessness and housing affordability. 

The new numbers for L.A. County’s 2022 homeless count released earlier this month showed that growth slowed down during the two years of the pandemic, but nevertheless, homelessness continues to grow.  

My colleagues Doug Smith and Benjamin Oreskes covered the mayoral race, housing, and more for the L.A. Times. And when they team up together, man, they're like Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, and I'm sorry, Ben, I know you're a Yankees fan, but hey, they're good together. So Doug, Ben, welcome to “The Times.” 

BENJAMIN ORESKES: Thanks for having me. I'm unapologetically still a Yankees fan after years of living here.

DOUG SMITH: I'm still a Pirates fan for life.

GUSTAVO: Did I use the wrong metaphors? Fine. Bill Mazeroski and Mickey Mantle. There you go. 

BENJAMIN: We’ll take that. 

GUSTAVO: During the L.A. mayoral primaries earlier this year, the plans that Karen Bass and Rick Caruso had to solve homelessness were kind of vague. So how were the two of you able to get more solid details out of them? 

BENJAMIN: Gustavo, I think it's good to step back for a second and go to the beginning of the primary when we had a dozen candidates, all of whom put plans about addressing homelessness out. And all of them included big numbers of how many people they wanted to bring indoors or how many beds they wanted to open. And they really were just numbers, sort of felt like throwing darts at a dart board. And so Doug and I talk all the time and clued in on this. And as we got closer and closer to the end of the primary, we sort of went to the campaigns and we challenged each campaign to sort of give us a plan, show us that you've done your homework and, and show us that you really have thought through what it's gonna take to make these promises happen. And then, over the last couple weeks or months, we spent some time with each of them. Rick Caruso…

RICK CARUSO TAPE: We sure like to share with our readers, the thinking that you've done so far, how you've thought through this, these questions. Right. 30,000 beds, 30,000 beds. How do we get there?

BENJAMIN: And Congresswoman Karen Bass.

KAREN BASS TAPE: So let's start by talking about government-owned land and the idea that I think we could get about a thousand interim units on government-owned land and just talking about the city, as I understand it, there's about 73 acres. That's just the city. 

DOUG: When we knew we were going to talk to them, we had heard from some people in the city and knowledgeable people that they gasped when they saw the big numbers that Caruso and Bass put out and they just thought, how could this be possible? So we spent some time working with the city administrative office to figure out just what the city had done in the past and how much it had cost. And we used that to present to the candidates and say, how could you do better than this?

GUSTAVO: And your presentation was literally an Excel spreadsheet?

DOUG: It was an Excel spreadsheet that worked out the individual costs. And then we kind of modeled the numbers that they were putting out. We didn't know exactly what the detail was, so we kind of built in unknowns into the spreadsheet so that we could plug in the details as we got them. 

GUSTAVO: So what do each candidate’s plans boil down to and how much are they gonna cost? So let's start with Caruso, Ben.

BENJAMIN: Sure. Rick Caruso has made a career of big promises and showy buildings. He’s run for mayor, has also been firmly about trying to change what the city looks like. Bringing people indoors is a central part of that. Beautifying the city is as well. 

RICK CARUSO TAPE: First, I'm a builder. I know how to build. Second is we've got 300 parcels that are identified as vacant parcels in the city of Los Angeles.

BENJAMIN: For him, that means 30,000 new forms of interim housing. What that means is shelter beds of various kinds. And more specifically what that means is tiny homes, which is something we've seen spread up across the city. You know, they kind of look like sheds – they're 8 feet by 8 feet. And then another thing he has talked about, and this was a little vaguer, but was using empty buildings, essentially, and warehouses, and putting what he described as sleeping pods in them, you know, another 15,000 of these. 

RICK CARUSO TAPE: There's gonna be some people that are families, and you're gonna want to keep a family together, right?  And the beauty of these Boxable units is they can combine and they can become one-, two- or three-bedroom units. They just snap together, right? That's a different program. There's gonna be people that need psychiatric services. That may be more in a congregate setting with the right kind of services for somebody, right? We look at the Austin model that actually built campgrounds that were protected, ’cause people wanted to stay in their, in their tents.  

BENJAMIN: For much of his promises, he wants to use the underutilized government parcels in our city, of which there are quite a few. The devil is in the details with those because they often are areas that are not hospitable to putting people on them or have had track records of having difficulty building there. This plan is incredibly expensive. Caruso and his advisors were very clear with us that this is a draft. This is the beginnings of their ideas. And they wanted to show us that they had really been thinking clearly about this, this plan that they've put together so far.

RICK CARUSO TAPE: And I can lay out a timesheet for you if you want me to. ’Cause I like being held accountable. I've built my whole career against a schedule and a budget. Every project has a schedule and a budget.

BENJAMIN: The cost of Caruso's plan, in terms of the construction, would be about $840 million, that would be for building the actual units that he wants to see built. The challenge with this is that the operating expenses of having 30,000 people in these beds would be astronomical. You know, it'd cost like about $650 million, $660 million a year. And with that, you would also have just a huge growth in the amount of interim housing we have. We have permanent housing. We have hotels and motels that we have used and bought them and turned them into permanent housing. There's some stuff we've built from the ground up. You know, you get a subsidized voucher to live in those, but then we have lots of different forms of shelter as well, where people can stay for, you know, a shorter period of time, sometimes not so short. And then used being in those places to then transition to something more permanent. The plan that Caruso has put forward really focuses on that interim housing. He also expects to think about permanent housing, but he says the priority right now with so many people living on the street and the city being in the state that it is in is to get people indoors first and then help them solve the complex ailments that they are dealing with. Whether it be mental health issues, physical ailments, substance use disorder. So you need that interim housing, he says, before you can do anything else. 

RICK CARUSO TAPE: These are human beings, they're souls. And so I want to get them in safe, clean housing, safe, clean beds, and have the services that they need. 

GUSTAVO: Doug, what about Karen Bass? What's her plan to solve this issue?

DOUG: So if Rick Caruso looked at it as a kind of a blank slate and said, I'm gonna think of the simplest and quickest way to get 30,000 people off the street, Karen Bass looked at everything that's been done and said, I can do that better. I can make it faster. I can make it more productive.

KAREN BASS TAPE: Every level of government has a role to play. I'm fortunate that I do have the relationships on every level of government. You know, leveraging relationships that I have on the federal level, but also on the state level. 

DOUG: A good example of that is her 3,700 placements she expects to come from emergency housing vouchers, which came through the pandemic relief from the federal government. The city got more than 3,000 of those vouchers, but has only placed at this point fewer than 200 people using those vouchers. And she said in the first year in her being mayor, she would get them all used up. She would get those 3,000 people into housing. Plus she would get more people into housing using Project Homekey, which is effectively a state-funded program that the city participates in.

KAREN BASS TAPE: So one of the things that I'm trying to work with HUD on now is changing some of that to project-based, and lifting the cap and, uh, that's required, and some of it is, is the city, you have to have an ID first. Well, I don't have an address. How am I gonna get an ID? Do you really need to do all of that? Can you put people in housing first and then deal with the bureaucracy? Why do you have to have a 40-plus-page application?

DOUG: She would use a master leasing of apartment buildings for the city to master lease a whole building. So you could fill that and then bring services in.

KAREN BASS TAPE: At the end of it, we also have to look at jobs and moving people from permanent supportive housing into the mainstream.

DOUG: She also looked at government land as a source for interim housing, but she had a fairly limited plan of about a thousand units of interim housing on government land.

GUSTAVO: And what about the price? 

DOUG: Because almost everything that she proposes is leveraging programs that primarily involve federal or state money, her added cost is relatively less; she estimates $292 million. She's throwing in the services for the interim housing, which Caruso did not do.

Most of that money would come from the federal government and state. And it's already programs that already generate that money and she's just saying she'll bring in more.

GUSTAVO: Coming up after the break: the existing plans already in place and all the taxpayer money that has gone into trying to implement them.

GUSTAVO: Doug, Ben, so, how many plans do L.A. officials have right now going on to alleviate homelessness in the city?

DOUG: I think the first one, and the one that's still sort of the flagship, is Proposition HHH, which the voters approved in 2016. It provided $1.2 billion in bonds to build homeless housing. And the goal was to provide 10,000 units of housing over a 10-year period. It's been very slow getting going, do the cost has gone up dramatically over the years and it hasn't had a huge effect on homelessness on the street.

GUSTAVO: Ben, do you think all this money that has been poured into that program has been spent wisely?

BENJAMIN: This housing has not come cheap. The city's contribution to it has been between 110 and 130 thousand dollars. But the units have cost upwards of six, seven hundred thousand dollars at some points, but people have really complained in our pages and on the campaign trail about how slow it has taken to get that housing built. Where we have seen quicker results is in other programs that the city has sort of started up. They've built in upwards, I think about 20 or 25 new shelters, several thousand beds there. The city has also been embroiled in federal litigation around homelessness. You know, I think the first time I was on this podcast, I was talking about Judge David O. Carter, an Orange County man like you. And how as a part of that lawsuit, the city and county agreed to build around 6,000 new shelter beds of various forms. Some of them were renting hotel rooms. Some of them were tiny homes, but much of that expansion ended up in L.A. And so between these two programs, we saw another several thousand units of interim housing come online. And that has been something that happened much quicker than triple H and probably had a lot more impact on how the streets look. That being said, when you talk to advocates, the refrain is homes end homelessness. And so using that permanent supportive housing to help those people with those complex psychological and physical ailments is what they wanna see. Not a lot of that housing is opened yet, and that is a frustration for a lot of people.

GUSTAVO: Doug, you've reported that Los Angeles spends up to hundreds of thousands of dollars just for a single housing unit. So, why is it all costing so much?

DOUG: I think one thing that's generally agreed upon is that these are decades-old structures that government uses to funnel money into affordable housing. They work to produce a few units of housing every year. But in the aftermath of triple H, the goal was to scale it up dramatically and produce thousands of units a year. And the structures just don't work that way. They're very slow. They're huge bureaucratic barriers in the way. And they're highly competitive. They are rounds of funding that each developer has to go through that can take years just to put together a capital stack to build something.

And so there's a lot of interest in figuring out how to streamline these bureaucratic structures.

GUSTAVO: And that's something that both Rick Caruso and Karen Bass have criticized and they say that they'll boost efficiency and cut back on waste. Ben, do they have the experience to back up those goals?

BENJAMIN: I think the most interesting part of our conversations with both of them was it came back to a single, very simple refrain. Trust us. We have the experience. We have the know-how. We can do this. And those experiences are different. Rick Carusso told us multiple times, he's a builder.

RICK CARUSO TAPE: The primary question is why is the private sector building that same unit for 200, 250 thousand dollars? Right. 

BENJAMIN: We were sitting in one of his developments in the Palisades having this conversation. And he pointed to this property and said, I did this quickly and under budget. I could do that. Building is not the problem. I know how to do that.

RICK CARUSO TAPE: And the public sector is building it at three to four times the cost. It just shows the level of not only inefficiency, lack of expertise.

BENJAMIN: On the flip side, you have Karen Bass, who has decades of government experience and also has worked in community development and advocacy in South L.A.

KAREN BASS TAPE: But I remember though, when I worked at County Hospital, ’cause I worked in the ER there, and I would drive through skid row every day and I watched skid row change, ’cause  skid row in the early ’80s was, you know, white men alcoholics. And then when crack hit, it began to change and then it became a Black community as uh… 

BENJAMIN TAPE: And it still is now.


BENJAMIN TAPE: It's pretty wild.

BENJAMIN: And for her, she looks at this and says, these are systems I know intimately, whether it's from my experience running Community Coalition in South L.A. or from being in the state Assembly or being in Congress. And she points to her friendship with Marcia Fudge, who is the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and says, I can crack this nut. I can unlock the problems ’cause I can get the right people on the phone. 

GUSTAVO: Doug, do you see both of the candidates maybe having something that the other one boasts as their particular strength. So in other words, do you think Karen Bass can do that sort of large-scale building that Caruso boasts so much about, and do you think Caruso maybe has that on-the-ground community reach that Bass has built so much of her career and reputation on? 

DOUG: First of all, there is such a perception throughout the political system in Los Angeles that they've got to succeed. That the new mayor, whoever it is, is going to have a better mound of clay to mold. You know, we talked to Zev Yaroslavsky, who was like one of the most sagacious former elected officials around.

GUSTAVO: Former supervisor. Yeah.

DOUG: And city councilman for years.And he said neither of these plans are realistic.

ZEV YAROSLAVSKY TAPE: They are faced with an existential political problem now, and both candidates have promised to end homelessness in a year or at least, you know, house 30,000 people in a year. It isn't going to happen.

DOUG: He said they can't do what they say they're gonna do in a year, but whoever wins, they should borrow from the other one, because there's really good stuff in both of these plans. This isn't a college paper where you could be accused of plagiarism. This is an emergency where everybody should take whatever ideas they can get.

BENJAMIN: And I think the best way to sort of diagnose like the pros and cons of each plan,what we heard from people again, this is their point of view that I've kind of like summarized, Caruso's plan is probably, ambitious, if not unrealistic, while Karen's plan is quite realistic, if not not unambitious. And by that I mean we spoke with Kevin de Leon who ran against both of these candidates and sort of looked at Karen's ideas and said she's on third base, this is gonna already happen. She's trying to get ahead of the parade kind of thing. And then he looked at Caruso's plan and said unless we're opening up Dodger Stadium or SoFi Field, there's no way to get this scale. 

That said, he is someone who during the campaign set big goals. And he said, it's good to have a big goal. It's good to have this reach. ‘Cause if Caruso gets 20,000 of his 30,000 beds, that's a huge win for him. And on the flip side, if Karen can wring that many more housing placements out of the emergency housing voucher program, that's a huge win for us.

So, you know, in this, we see the need to set lofty goals, ’cause it, you can point government in the direction of completing those things, and also an insight into their world views. 

GUSTAVO: More after the break. 

GUSTAVO: Ben, what do Bass and Caruso think of each other's plans?

BENJAMIN: I think Bass and Caruso, it should be stated, are friends, they've known each other for many years. They’ve worked together. I think Caruso at every turn says, this woman has been in public office for decades.

RICK CARUSO TAPE: Congresswoman Bass talks a big game. She talks about how she's got the connections and the resources to solve all these problems. She's had 20 years in office and within her 20 years, the problems have just gotten worse. She's never sponsored a bill that I'm aware of to add more money to the homeless problem, be creative on the homeless issue, solve the criminal issue that we have in the city — has never done it. So why all of a sudden is she gonna wake up with a magic wand and do it now?

BENJAMIN: Bass is a little less strident in her direct critiques of him. 

KAREN BASS TAPE: You get people in permanent supportive housing, and then what? Are they gonna be there the rest of their lives? Clearly there will be some people, you know, if you have profound mental illness or something like that, or a profound disability, but the majority of people will just move back into the mainstream.

BENJAMIN:  But I think there's an element of her viewing him as being naive, and viewing it as this kind of big numbers that have no basis in reality. I think I heard her say versions of that throughout the spring. You know, one point I would add about Caruso's plan is how it would change things as well as that, we've always talked about there being a proportion. So for each interim housing bed, you'd have several permanent housing beds. The idea being you would quickly move people through the system and that those beds would turn over very quickly. Karen is banking on that happening. Caruso is saying, no, no, no, no, no. We just need to get butts in beds, indoors. And that is a very, very, very different view of the crisis. The reason being, people get stuck in interim housing. We have seen that across the city in various different forms, and that has a lot to do with the screwed-up housing market, rental market in California. And so I think Caruso's plan would change a lot about how the city looks and that would be a big, new thing. And I think a lot of people are uncomfortable by that.

GUSTAVO: Doug and Ben, one thing that both of the candidates agree on is a ban, a total ban on encampments near schools.

DOUG: Their answers to that question in some way reveal different ways they think. Caruso just said, it's a no-brainer. If you don't vote for that, you're voting to have people camping in front of schools. And Bass said she's opposed to laws that result in just moving people from one place to another, without addressing their needs. But that she also has been at schools that had homeless camps near them. And she thinks that is bad for the school environment, for the kids. 

GUSTAVO: So, finally, Doug and Ben, like the main point of the conversations or the Excel sheet for Caruso and Bass was how to house folks, how to get folks off the street. That's hard enough already, but did they offer any plans to address the roots of the homelessness issue?

BENJAMIN: What's interesting is I think an area where they agree is that they both call for a state of emergency.  

RICK CARUSO TAPE: We're gonna declare a state of emergency. 

KAREN BASS TAPE: We would declare a state of emergency on Day One.

BENJAMIN: They view that through a rhetorical mindset, but also through one where they're thinking about earthquakes and that's not a new refrain from political leaders in this city. We've heard that from current Mayor Eric Garcetti. So I think that we are in a situation where they are very much firmly focused on roofs. But maybe haven't put as much thought yet into the broader needs in terms of the outreach workers, in terms of the subsidies that are gonna be required to make the people who go into these shelters that they build have an ability to get to the next step and get stabilized.

DOUG: There’s an ongoing conversation among academics and advocates about ways of preventing people from becoming homeless. And neither Bass nor Caruso addressed that in any significant way.

GUSTAVO: Doug Smith, Ben Oreskes. Thank you so much for this conversation and folks, uh, listeners, you can read more of the reporting on Doug, Ben. Thanks.

DOUG: Thank you.

BENJAMIN: Thank you.

GUSTAVO: And that's it for this episode of “The Times,” essential news from the L.A. Times. A special shout-out to our loyal listener Lydia Horn, who has listened to every single episode of “The Times.” That's a real one right there. Lydia, you're totally chida. Where's the rest of you superfans at? I'll give you a shout-out. I could be the new Art Laboe, but you gotta drop me an email so I can shout you out, you know. Denise Guerra was the jefa on this episode and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistant is Madalyn Amato. 

Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilerra, Shani Hilton and Heba Elaborny. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Wednesday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.