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L.A. mayoral candidates debate homelessness

Episode Summary

Homelessness is a huge issue in this year's elections in Los Angeles. We invite three of the top mayoral candidates to discuss the matter.

Episode Notes

Last week, we partnered up with KCRW for a live mayoral debate with some of the city’s top candidates for the top job.

It was the final group debate before the primary on June 7. And in it, three candidates talked a lot about a housing-first approach and took progressive stances on the issue of homelessness.

Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano and KCRW housing reporter Anna Scott

Guests: Rep. Karen Bass, L.A. councilmember Kevin de León, and activist Gina Viola

More reading:

With Caruso absent, L.A. mayoral candidates argue for progressive moves on homelessness

L.A. on the Record: Renters are getting short shrift in the mayor’s race, advocates say

L.A.’s mayoral candidates agree homeless encampments need to go. The question is how

Episode Transcription


Hey what's up. It’s Gustavo Arellano....and today… We take on an issue Los Angeles voters care a lot about: homelesness. 

Mux in?

We partnered up with my other audio bosses over at KCRW for a live mayoral debate last week with some of the city’s top candidates for the top job. 

It was the final group debate before the primary on June 7. And, in it, three candidates talked a lot about a housing-first approach and, in general, took a super progressive tone on the issue of homelessness. 

I moderated alongside KCRW housing and homelessness reporter Anna Scott…and, along our questions, we got audience questions and questions from people who are currently unhoused. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity, but if you want the full, unedited version, you can get it online at latimes.com/LAmayordebate. 

So…let’s get to it…and….just so you know who's who...the kick-off question was asked by Anna Scott...and answered by Karen Bass first, then Kevin de León… and then finally Gina Viola. 

Here's Anna.

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Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: Housing is a human right.  Why yes, or why no? 

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: I do think housing is a human right.  Just like, I think the right to food, shelter, education, healthcare are all human rights. When we live in the richest country in the history of the world, there's just no excuse for us not to have enough housing, education, healthcare, et cetera, for our population.

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: I concur as well, 100%. That housing is a universal right, it's a human right. This is one of the wealthiest cities on planet earth, the city of LA. The city, California is the fifth largest economy on planet earth. And of course Uh, the U S is as Karen just mentioned a few months ago, few moments ago the most powerful economy in the history of, uh, humanity. The very fact that we have more than 41,000 people living in our streets or sidewalks or alleyways, their cars, uh, in our parks, us with a profound and indelible mark of shame. Uh, Obviously we have embedded within our economic systems, the deep inequities has had a profound impact on working people, but in particular, people of color in Southern California, in Los Angeles. And that has become much more polarized, especially with the coronavirus. So I think that whoever becomes the next mayor, clearly has to move heaven and earth to make sure we can provide accessibility, affordability, to those who are very low in//come and middle income. And obviously those who are currently unhoused.

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: Absolutely housing is a human right, and until we change policies to reflect that fact, we will continue to have people living on our streets. We can say housing is a human right, but if we don't do anything to change the policies that you know, U.S. housing policy is deeply baked in racism. It was created for white wealth building while extracting wealth from Black people in particular, and people of color in general. So we need to not only say housing is a human right, but we need to make housing and human rights. That's the first step to solving this crisis

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: It’s an easy question to answer. How do you think politicians in Los Angeles have dropped the ball on that, on something that's so supposedly fundamentally, uh, an issue, you know? 

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: By not having housing first policies, right? We send out outreach workers to deliver meals, to check on people, but we don't have housing for them. We have very limited transitional places for people to sleep, but we don't have anywhere for them to end up eventually. And until we decide that we're going to put housing first as the first priority to tackle this crisis, we'll just keep spinning our wheels.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Quick lightning round. If you have to boil it down to one thing, we'll start with the council member, what's the most important action you would take as mayor on this issue. And just one thing, we have the rest of the conversation to get into things, not just one thing–but one sentence.

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: The first thing I do as chief executive of the second largest city in America is to do what I'm doing right now, to house the unhoused. Both short term, interim as well as permanent housing. 

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Representative, your one sentence.

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: I would declare a state of emergency locally and push for a state of emergency nationally.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: Okay. Wait, I quit fault though. So a state of emergency would,, give you the power to commandeer properties. It would allow you to temporarily rezone some properties–wouldn't bring in any more money. How would you take advantage of that state of emergency?

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: well,

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: state of emergency?

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: I appreciate you asking the question. That's exactly why I don't think a state of emergency locally is enough. There needs to be a federal state of emergency. The bottom line is we have to have whole of government approach. And I think that's one of the things that has failed. I think and we have had an attitude in the city, the county, the state, and the federal government is that we are going to reduce this problem. I think the attitude has to be that we're going to end this problem. That we have enough housing in Los Angeles everywhere else to deal with our population. A federal state of emergency will allow a relaxation of several federal regulations and that have to be relaxed, which we can talk about in a minute. 

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: We’ll get into it. 

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: …also resources, a FEMA-style response. And what brings about FEMA style response is a state of emergency from the federal government.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: And I know we said one sentence and now I'm asking follow ups that are requiring more, but we'll try to ensure equal time, even though we don't have individual clocks, but we'll do our best. But Gina?

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: The first thing I would do is assemble a paid council of unhoused people.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: So bringing in unhoused people to get into that issue. Why? 

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: Because I've learned from working with the unhoused people directly, what they truly want and need from us to be successful. There’s no way for us living in homes to know best for those folks. And through my work with Street Watch and my regular connection with my unhoused neighbors, I've learned far more about what the needs are than from LAHSA or any other agency telling me what they think the unhoused need.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Kevin, do you see, sorry, council member. Do you see ..KDL right. it this, do you see the current council right now, having that perspective that Gina just asked talked about? In talking to folks?

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: I've been on the council now for one year and six months and it's, it's been very eye-opening on one end, I will say that the council members by far and large very knowledgeable on this issue, more so than any elected official in the country. To be quite honest with you, what has lacked has been a coherent vision. Um, You can't do it piecemeal district by district and you have 15 districts, this is a city of 4 million. Some districts have more uh, unhoused neighbors than others, but a piecemeal approach simply doesn't work. You need a coherent vision for the entire city of LA. And I will give credit because their knowledge is deep. It's deep without question–more so than the state senate, more so than the state assembly, even members of Congress, I would say even county board supervisors. But the question becomes: you have so many levers of power, the county, the state, as well as the federal government, and they simply haven't worked well together. Actually been very disjointed, been misaligned, we have wasted billions of dollars. We have to deal with the issue that’s an immediate, which is housing. And it's a combination of both interim as well as permanent housing. But when I say this it's a little contrasting–that there will ever be a federal state of emergency on the issue of homelessness. And the reason why I say that is climate change existential threat to humanity. As we know it today, there's been no action, either symbolically or, you know, federal action, you know, legislatively or executively through the White House, issue of immigration forum that's been with us now for going on 40 years, it hasn't happened. I just don't see it in the foreseeable future at the federal level, given the dynamics, which Karen understands well being right in the middle of it, between the Republicans and Democrats and the executive branch unilateral decision by the president, Joseph Biden, I doubt highly that there will be a federal, uh, emergency.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: And do you wanna respond to that quickly?

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: Sure. You are in part absolutely right, if we had to deal with it legislatively you're right on target . Where I do have faith though, is that we have an administration that is number one, committed on day one to equity and, understands this issue and is willing to move on it. But here's the catch, because in order for there to be a federal state of emergency, it has to be declared statewide by the governor. So one of the approaches that I want to use is certainly to appeal to the governor to deal with the administration, but also to assemble a number of mayors. And I've already been reaching out to mayors now, especially the top 10 in terms of homelessness, I would be very active in the US conference of mayors. And there are things that the administration can do. For example, the secretary of veteran affairs, McDonald was at the VA and he has pledged to house 1,500 more people by the end of the year. I was in conversation with him, went to the VA with him, and he's been able to relax some regulations to get folks housed. So if there's the political will, the individual secretaries, there are things that they can do now. Now, they, there are some that would have to be dealt with legislatively, but there are some regulations I'll use an example of HUD for instance, there's vouchers, you know, we have thousands of vouchers here, but we're not able to access and use all of them because there's regulations there. Some of those can be relaxed without having legislation, but if I had to depend completely on legislation, I'm right with you.

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: Can I push back on that a little bit? So Gavin Newsom created a homelessness task force about three years ago, and it was a bunch of mayors and government officials. What was missing from that task force were organizations. It was solely government. So where has that organization? And Mark Ridley-Thomas was the president of that task force. And I've seen no accomplishments from it, at all. And again, you, you talk about the council members knowing more about this issue, houselessness is out of control. We have almost 60,000 people sleeping on the streets. So again, I don't hear any discussion about involving the unhoused in how we make our way out of this. 

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: And this is where lies the conundrum because the secretary of the VA did come out West LA, it took him years, even before him, before the administration, previous administrations, whether it’s Barack Obama or then president Donald Trump, and the fact that then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger actually had to donate out of his own pocket tiny homes on federal property at the VA. It just shows you the executive branch and the various cabinet positions are not responding with the sense of urgency that it deserves today.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: On this discussion of the VA, one of the unhoused people that I spoke with in preparation for this is a veteran who's living in a temporary shelter on the west Los Angeles VA campus. His name is Michael Williams. He's a Navy veteran. And, um, you guys are really already addressing his question, but, um, this. You know, one of the things that he wanted to know is with Garcetti, when he was campaigning, he promised to end veteran homelessness. Uh, What are you going to do to push things at the federal level to push things forward on actually getting that done?

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: I agree with you, there are weaknesses there. The bottom line is, is that we cannot address this problem. We can't solve this problem unless we have federal support. So we have to push and make sure that we have that, because you get funding from the federal government, but you also get a relaxation of regulations, but you also have to have the city and the county working hand in glove, and one of the structural problems, and this is something could be dealt with on the local level, frankly, it that the city and the county do not want to work together. Perfect example is the settlement of the lawsuit that just happened with the LA Alliance. So the city settles, and the city settled–please correct me if I’m wrong–the city settled and basically said, “Yeah, we'll give housing or other shelters, but only to people who are economically unhoused. If you are unhoused with substance abuse or mental illness, you have to go to the county.” That's madness.

MUX IN

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: I mean, If the Alliance sued the city and the county, the city and the county should have settled together. So I, I'm fortunate. I have deep relationships with each of the supervisors, as well as I've been working with the county for many, many years because of the policy areas I work on. But I also agree with Gina, because to me, the best policy is crafted when you have people who are most immediately impacted at the table.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: We'll be back...after the break.

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BREAK 1

 Stinger?

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: I'm Anna Scott, KCRW’s housing and homelessness reporter. I'd like to get the voice of an unhoused// Angeleno into the conversation and focus more on city policy and what you guys would do as mayor. Um, There certainly, the problems are there and we can diagnose them, but let's get into city policy.

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: We can redirect funds we have too, we don't need to rely on the federal government or the state government. The city of LA has an $11 billion budget. There's money to house people.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: Well, let's get into it. Um, this, uh, This first question, um, that we're going to hear from an unhoused person in LA is from Maria Dimitrio in Koreatown, and she starts out here. What you're about to hear, she's going to start by talking about what her rent used to be. So let's hear that now.

Sound Bite_1 15.41: The last apartment I had on Hobart between 5th and 6th, $718. Do you know how much the same unit is? $1,200, still looks the same way. Why, Why is rent so high?

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: So Gina, we'll start with you. Why is rent so high and I'm going to add, what will you do about it?

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: So 75% of our rental stock now is owned by corporate and big landlords. And that's the problem, right? We have, We have weakened our rent control, we barely have rent control. The affordable units we do have have sunsets right there. Look at what's happening in Chinatown with the Hillside Villa those exactly, those elderly tenants, or their rents tripled overnight because there is no protection in perpetuity with the affordable housing unit. So we absolutely need to demand that all developments have the maximum amount of affordable units in perpetuity. Not with these 10 years or 20 years, because that's what we're seeing. We're seeing rents triple overnight, things like Airbnb that were created to share your space, right? An extra room in your house, an in-law unit has turned into big business. There's lots and lots of vacant apartments and houses for Airbnb now. So that's what Maria is competing with.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: And so how would you do it? How would you ensure that everything that gets built has a maximum amount of affordable units?

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Or how do you even dismantle that?

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: …if it's not getting public financing.

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: How do you dismantle that? 

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Yea those systems, Airbnb and yea.

Well we have to go back to rent control. We have to go back to solid rent control in the city, and we have to do a vacancy tax, right? Mike Bonin put forth the vacancy tax right at the beginning of the pandemic and the city council shelved it for two years. Why would you shelf a vacancy tax for two years? For something that could be very helpful. We have to disincentivize people for letting units sit empty.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: Right, Kevin, do you want to pick up on that? 

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: What I'll do is mandate affordable housing. It's just that simple, whether it's very low income, whether it's low income, middle income or workforce housing,

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: Mandate it through inclusionary zoning or what.?

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: Inclusionary zoning, uh, exactly. You know whatever that magic number is, whether it's 20, 25, 30, 35%, because if you don't do it today– we have over surplus–we have a surplus 75,000 plus luxury market unit rates, right? Uh, Units that are sitting empty right now, anyone in this audience can go out there and rent, if you want. Question is, can you afford it at above market rate? And they're sitting vacant right now. So you have to mandate through inclusionary, you know, with developers, if you don't mandate it, it's not going to happen. 

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: But you're on the city council now. Um, If it's so easy, you just mandate it. Why haven't you done it already?

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: Well, I actually am doing it and I believe it or not for downtown Los Angeles, because that's the area that I have. In the 2040 DTLA plan, we expect maybe about a 100,000 new residents in downtown LA. So that's what I'm actually pushing for mandatory inclusionary within downtown LA.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Representative, you’re nodding your head.

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: Yeah, well, just that I don't think inclusionary zoning, especially, it's not that I disagree with I don't think it is enough at all to address the problem that we have. I think that you have an absolute emergency right now and that we have to deal with the 60,000 people who are unhoused and that I think that if you come to me and say, you were going to build housing, especially for people that are unhoused, then you need to be absolutely fast-tracked not go to the front of the line. There needs to be a completely separate line and a separate process so that we can get housing built. So I worry that the inclusionary zoning model is just insufficient. We need to look at every possible way to build housing. And one of the first areas that I would look at would be land that is owned by the government on every level. There's hundreds of acres of land. And some of it is not appropriate, but there is some appropriate and we need to build, increase the supply.

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: Well, let me add that obviously, as you accelerate permitting process with planning, building a safety LAPD LA fire department, That goes, that's a given because the next mayor will curate it general manager and they have to work with his or her vision. So you have to accelerate that process. However, if you don't mandate affordable housing, it doesn't happen miraculously because the market forces have already dictated. If they go unchecked, the market forces always win. That’s just been the history of this country. And that's why today you have a major supply of luxury above-rate housing, and coincidentally, you have 41,000 people within the city of LA living on the streets. And you have hundreds of thousands of people right now who are barely holding on by shoestring right now– for if not for an eviction moratorium, they would be living on the streets today. The eviction moratorium expired, sunsetted at the state level. They weren't able to do it in Congress at the national level. Joe Biden, through an executive order, tried to extend the, the uh, uh, eviction moratorium, the US Supreme court overruled the president of the United States. We're the only major metropolitan city in America that still has an eviction moratorium. So if we didn't have it, you'd still have a tsunami of more folks falling into homelessness. So therefore on the affordability side, when it comes to rentals, you have to mandate it. If you don't mandate it, the developers will dictate the supply in the city of LA.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: Well, then what are you going to do in the short term? Um, you know, Mandating it, having an inclusionary zoning policy, I imagine that takes time to implement. Uh, it's going to be, You're talking about new projects that are coming online that take time to build. If this deadline is coming up, Uh, this is a question for all of you then, where are you going to do when that moratorium expires to stop people from falling into homelessness?

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: We need to eminent domain. We need to eminent domain empty buildings. We have lots of them. We have hotels, we have motels. We have all of the housing stock on the 710 freeway, that shame on the state of California, has owned for decades and let sit empty. I mean, this is just outrageous. 

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: But that's also a long process. Eminent domain, it it takes awhile– that you'll probably get lawsuits pushback. What, What do you do about this moratorium? That's going to expire.

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: Well, I think in the, in the, in the interim, when your eminent domaining we move people in, we just, we take action, right? It's time for action. I know it sounds outrageous, but that's what the reclaimers did in Santa Ana, right? They very successfully took a house, because it was a pandemic, and folks were living in congregate shelters or in congregate areas. And a couple of people were getting very sick. They took a home, they then took 11 more. They're now working with the state for a community land trust. These are things we need to do as a city. Why, Why rely on activists to have to break a law and do it?

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: May I say something? Because that's actually my district in city 14 and those abandoned homes were actually not habitable. They had rats…

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: Not all of them.

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: …and they have vector in them.

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2:  Not all of them.

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: They're very unsafe. And, but key thing is this: We pass legislation because as we all know, to build the 710 freeway, the extensions during our time, right? It wanted to build a freeway through a community. At the end of the day, I was there. I put the final nail in that coffin where there will never be an extension through that community, at all, whatsoever. Now there is all that stock. Now we can legally secure housing right now. And in this year's budget, I'm actually putting money to purchase all of those units. Now, the key thing is the law says, now that we can purchase units at the value they were originally purchased at in the ‘60s, as well as the ‘70s. We can't purchase it at today's valuation. So we have the ability now to actually purchase those empty properties and abandoned homes and convert them into what we all want, which is affordable housing. housing. This is a very unique opportunity. There's nowhere, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, Central Valley, Inland Empire. There's nowhere in the state of California that has such a large portfolio of real estate assets. That to your point, Gina right has been abandoned. Government owned, by CalTrans specifically. Now we have that opportunity. It'll be one of the largest affordable housing, um, not units, but developments in the history of the state of California. That's within reach.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: Representative Bass, what about this eviction moratorium that's coming up. That's going to expire.?

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: Well, first of all, we need to do what we can do to extend it, but I'm hoping, and I would imagine that you guys are doing that at the city level, which is getting money from the state. Uh, Kevin and I were in the state legislature the worst time. But now with a budget surplus of what, $97 billion, it should be extended. And then on the federal level, you know, of course, what we're trying to do is to provide an extra rescue package because we're still not out of COVID. You know, COVID. You know, when COVID started, uh, I chaired the congressional Black caucus and brought Black caucus, Hispanic, Asian and Native American caucuses. And we all joined forces and fought for and won, uh, billions of dollars that would address the disproportionate impact that COVID was having both health and economically. And so some of the resources that we sent to the city that provided the resources for the tiny homes, Room Key and, and Home Key, we need to continue that. So I'm hoping that the city would get money from the state to continue the moratorium, but we have to also address, even Gina, you mentioned the corporate ownership, but there are a lot of apartments that are owned by just families. I mean, that's, you know, mom and pop and we have to make sure that they don't default. So we need to provide assistance for the owners as well, ‘cause the worst in the world would be to protect the renter and then the owner loses their property and we don't want that to happen.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Continuing Congresswoman with you, on a more personal level, what's the closest encampment to where you live and how does that affect your perspective on all of this? And on that note, we also have audience questions about what you, and this is a question I want all of you to answer: what of you have done to personally meet with unhoused neighbors? And so please address that as well.

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: um, Uhm I think the closest encampment is on La Brea, would be the closest encampment to me where I live.  

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Is it down the street? A couple of blocks somewhere?

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: It's I would, It's a few blocks away. yes. yes, yes.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Do you interact with the people there?

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: I don't interact with the people in that particular encampment, no. But I've interacted with homeless people for many, many years. many years. I worked as a physician assistant at county general hospital and my patients every day were unhoused. When I started Community Coalition in 1990, because we were trying to address the problem then. In 1993, we were trying to take over the motel eighth city district, there were 54 motels and no tourists. And we thought that that would be a great way to deal with that. So many of my staff were formerly unhoused. My staff were formerly in their addiction, or were gang involement, or coming out of the criminal justice system. So I've had many years of involvement directly and indirectly with people who are unhoused.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Gina. How about you? What's the closest encampment?

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: So my closest large encampment was just banished under 41-18. I've lost track of several of the people that I've had relationships with for several years, as a result of it. It's the one on Selma Avenue. And a fence has gone up, because we're a city of fences now. They've made it wood with paint to look a little bit more palatable. But the tragedy is that I have built relationships with several people, not just myself, but others. We've built relationships with people and we can't locate them now. Some of these people were close to being matched with housing. Some of these people were waiting on us for medical supplies, other things. We can't find them. Others were put in Project Room Key and the stories I'm learning about what's happening at Project Room Key–it's very carceral. You're not given a key. I don't know why they call it Project Room Key. They’re supposed to have 60 seconds to answer their door. Folks just walk right into their room, male or female. it's, It's a very carceral solution right now, the way it is. 

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Kevin, what about in your district?

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: It's about eight blocks from where I live, but the encampment is no longer. They all have tiny homes right now, which is north of Colorado on Figueroa. Um, All of them are actually very happy. They get three meals a day, Uh, they have their own locked door. They can enter, uh, as they wish, uh, they have showers. Uh, They have, uh, bathrooms as well as washers and dryers. And I can tell you this, that a tiny home, uh, is a hell of a lot better than living out in a tent, on a sleep out on a cold slab of cement or asphalt, women who've been sexually violated on any given night, that only thing that protects them is a flimsy zipper. Because this is not theory, this is real life.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: Well, here's a quick followup about the, about the tiny homes for you and then we'll, and then we'll move on. But, um, you know, I know from reporting, one of the reasons that people,, sometimes are enthusiastic about them is the privacy, uh, over a congregate traditional shelter. But now your district is one of the city council districts that’s starting to require people to double up in these 8x8 shelters. And so are you concerned about that these are not going to be an appealing option anymore?

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: No, because the doubling up when you make the reference to double up, that only means if they're a couple, that only means that they want to do it, these are only couples. These are only relationships that exist with folks who come together.

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Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: More of the LA mayoral debate on homelessness...when we come back.

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BREAK 2

Stinger-

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: What's a specific thing that you think LA mayor Eric Garcetti did not do right on homelessness. And how would you do that differently?

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: Well I think that, um, uh, really two areas that we haven't talked much about and that’s substance abuse and mental illness. We have to deal with that as an issue. And let me just give you an example, there is uh, a hospital St. Vincent on Beverly Boulevard. It can house 344 people. The problem is that the federal government has limitations on how many people you can have in a facility who have substance abuse or mental illness: 16 is the maximum number. So that hospital is completely empty. It's in pristine condition and it's being used for film location. We need to have the federal government waive those two regulations. And by the way, the hospital, I don't know if the city has entertained it, but I know that the owner is willing to lease it to the city or the county. But that's a facility.

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: The owner of that facility is the owner of the Los Angeles Times.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Full disclosure.

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: A multi-billionaire who should actually be giving that piece of property.

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: So he hasn't connected with you?

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: I’ve spoken with the council member of that district and he says he will not return their phone calls.

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1:  Well you know what? He’ll return mine. 

Audience reaction…

Gustavo Mayoral Debate: Gina?

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: When we're making these decisions about these tiny sheds, all of it. None of it was done with unhoused people in the room, right? This was something offered to them. So they've been learning as they've gone, they've been discovering, they, things that are good, there are things that are bad, you're not listening to that. You're deciding that, you know, best you've put down these tiny sheds, it's much better than living in a tent and that's that. We need to bring unhoused people in and hear from them what their experience is like in those sheds. And it's something we can continually improve upon if it's a transitional solution.

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: I've experienced homelessness in my early 20’s. I slept on friend's couches, I slept my car, actually slept, you know, in the office where I worked at for two years. you know, When I grew up, I was, we were always on the edge of homeless. Living, you know, Renting a room in an already crowded house, renting a room in the bottom of a house in a basement. So expressing homelessness and housing insecurity is something that I know extremely well, at a very personal, deep level. So engagement not being paternalistic or condescending with our unhoused neighbors, but also moving with a sense of urgency because I believe if we move, if we can move heaven and earth to build football, stadiums and basketball, arenas and shopping malls. Then we can do the same thing for unhoused neighbors.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: So what's a specific thing that the current mayor you think did, did not do right. And what would you do different?

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: I think that what you were asking Karen that?

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: I think she answered. Yeah, you're up.

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: No hablo Ingles.

Gustavo Mayoral Debate: 

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: I mean, I can make some suggestions if you want.

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: What I would say is think what they did well, civic leaders, as well as the mayor, politically is they were able to persuade the electorate uh, to tax themselves through a permanent bond, which is HHH. But the housing edict for LA is, or the doctrine, is: how do we spend the most money and how do we take the longest time to build housing for unhoused people? And that's why it takes on average five years to open up that door and to have a family move in, that’s why on the interim, you have to move very quickly because you can't let the perfect get in the way of the good and for a lot of folks who live in a world of absolutes. In the theoretical world, there are people who are dying on the streets every single day. I don't believe it's either progressive as a Democrat or humane, that we allow people to die and suffer in such misery because we're allowing the perfect to get in the way of the good. 

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: So, how would you get it done faster and cheaper?

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: To the point on our chief executive, our current mayor, Eric Garcetti, price points should have been know, decreased quite dramatically on hard costs on soft costs, architectural feeds, structural engineering fees. It should have gone, Karen and I agree, it should have gone to the straight of the line on the queue VIP concierge. It gets done in one month in terms of all the permitting process. LAPD, LA fire department, building the safety as well as, a planning should have been working in concert with each other, to accelerate the housing production and it should have been done within the year, but the average is five years.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Yeah. Gina, as the one non-politician here, the council member has already said there’s all the different competing agencies, you use great metaphors of merry-go-round, different levers of power, you as a non-politician. How do you cut through all that of this?

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: The budget. The mayor has the say over the budget and our budget is a moral document and it says a lot about who we are as. The budget under mayor Garcetti for the LAPD has increased 52% in the last 10 years. No other line item has seen that kind of increase. That's all that the city has prioritized– over housing, over health care, over things that truly do keep us well and keep us safe. So that is something that needs to change. You know, the, The city's approach to houselessness, like I said earlier, has been with sanitation and with LAPD. There's no budget for housing there's no, we have not made it a housing first, there’s There's nothing in this budget that says housing is a human right. So if we're not starting there, we'll just keep spinning our wheels.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: There's another question from an unhoused Angeleno, Michael Williams has a question about the city's role in helping to end veteran homelessness, something that mayor Garcetti promises to do during his election campaign. Williams stays at a shelter program campus in west LA and is a vet himself.

Sound Bites_2 49_15: US Navy, Desert Storm, Desert shield veteran. Why isn't the VA being held more accountable for homeless veterans in the county? What is the plan and what are they going to do?

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: Gina.

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: I think it's abysmal that we put tiny sheds on the VA property. I don’t understand, there are barracks at the VA property that are sitting empty. This makes no sense whatsoever. At first we opened up the parking lot to let them use their tents in the parking lot before there were sheds. So we absolutely have a responsibility to house those veterans in the housing that's there already.

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: I don't know Gina, because, um, I'll tell you, the campus is big enough for tons of housing, but the housing that you're talking about that is there now probably reminds me of what you were saying about the housing in your area. I don't believe it's fit. Uh, I don't believe that it's safe.

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: Why would we let it, why would we let it sit empty? And get so run down when we have people living on the streets? 

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: I agree with that, but I don't think that it's right to put people in housing that is unsafe. That is delapatedand, and, and that needs to change. And so what need to happen is, and this was outrageous, I went there with the secretary and they said they had like 300 vacancies for veterans. So we're like, well, why are these people on the street? If you have all these vacancies? Well, because we're processing them and we have this paperwork, that's crazy mentality. Put them in the house, then talk about whether or not they meet qualifications. And if they don't meet the qualifications, change the qualifications. Did you serve our country? Then you're qualified. That’s what needs to happen. And you're right, it has been years. I mean Kevin and I were dealing with this when we were in Sacramento and they were using that VA property for all sorts of things that had nothing to do with the VA.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: I want to just, um, keep it on homelessness and piggyback off of this issue with the VA and that campus in west Los Angeles, which has been slated for a big project with homeless housing for many years. I mean, really this traces back to 2005, um, It's a ridiculous timeline by almost any standard and, you know, particularly council member, representative Bass, you guys have talked about turning to the federal government on this issue, a lot leaning on the federal government. Well, that's their track record, I'm curious to know here in LA, um, as mayor, uh, what, what are you going to do about land use? About citing shelters, about citing permanent housing? The things that are within your control

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: Yeah, let, let me say this, uh, in, um, I'm the newbie to the city council. And in one year I've been able to house 85% of unhoused people shelter, 

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: shelter

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: shelter, and house. 

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: Are you conflating or are you including tiny homes?

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: and tiny homes, of course,

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: okay.

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: Including tiny homes, including a Project Room Key–that's been converting right now into permanent housing. So a combination thereof in terms of housing. To me, the definition of housing is when you have a roof over your head and not congregate shelter. Congregate shelter, I think we all agree, the vast majority of unhoused neighbors do not like congregate shelter, and I'm not a firm believer in congregate shelter. But in just one year, Ive been able to house 85% of unhoused people in Northeast Los Angeles. I built the largest tiny home building–not in LA or LA county or the state, but in the United States of America– ahead of schedule and way under budget. Listen, this is about leadership. You don't have to have a PhD on the drivers of homelessness. You don't have to be an MFT or LCSW and you know, on the issue of drug addictions you know, schizophrenia, bipolar depression, you don't have to, but you have to do is you have to be a doer. You have to be a doer. And I can tell you this, for example, tiny home village, the largest off the 110 freeway, in Arroyo Seco Park and Highland Park. It was originally slated to be built in one year and two months, one year and two months. I said no way, impossible because we had the crisis right now on our streets. It was built in three months. was built in three months. The other tiny home village that's in Eagle Rock, Southern California Edison owns– of the largest investor owned utilities– owns part of that land. The county owns the other part the city owns the other part; rec and parks. Anyone would have said, that's too complex of a real estate deal. At the end of the day, we worked out the deal. I actually met at a meeting with the CEO, not the government relations director, but the CEO of Southern California Edison, the investor owned utility, we landed a deal and we moved very quickly. And now we have these tiny homes. And if you go to Eagle Rock, there's no one on the streets right now. They're all happy right now. They want to get into permanent housing. There's no question about it. So it's adaptive. Reuse is taking commercial property that's sitting vacant because the definition of work, employment, is going to change quite dramatically for those who have the educational attainment and the financial wherewithal to Zoom or Google, but not everyone does. So how can we quickly convert that and move quickly to build the housing units that are required to move folks off the street and into housing sooner rather than later. But that takes leadership. Ultimately at the end of the day, you know, can have a PhD, you can have a J D my challenge has not been the unhoused neighbors. They take the housing right away. My challenge has been every level of government and every bureaucracy that has gotten in the way.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: The mayor here, The mayor's seat in Los Angeles has historically been weak compared to other places. So given that and given all the, different agencies, uh, uh, representative, would you use your position to get as much power out of it as possible on this particular issue?

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: WellI think the job is what you need when you decide that. If you aren't going to be a weak mayor, that's what you're going to be. But I agree with Kevin, it's about leadership. It's about decisive leadership. It's about setting a tone. I would bring in all of my general managers, they would be very clear what the vision is, what the goal is. They would be held accountable to those goals. Any agent in any department that touches homelessness would have to work together. So I think that there is a way that you can send a message, but I also believe, frankly, that we need public participation and public support. I don't believe, as much power as elected officials might have, it's not enough. In order to deal with this issue, you have to have the city understand, meaning all Angelinos understand that we're all invested in this problem.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: How well do you think this current council did towards that Gina?

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: Not at all. I'm sorry. But to do it in silos the way they have, like, if you look at council district four, she's basically turned her entire staff into outreach workers. Because she's recognized that this is the issue of our time, right? So she has actually successfully more of CD four is on a path to permanent housing than anyone else, but it was slow. It was a slow process. She had outreach workers that, turned her staff into outreach workers, who make connections with people, who from the unhoused people, what they needed, You know, much to the chagrin of many housed people who were calling and terrorizing her day after day–“When are you going to get rid of these encampments?” You know, they, They disappeared slowly, but they are on a path to housing, many of them. you know, This is what we need to do citywide. I think the mayor, you know, having the power to present the budget to me is not a weak mayor. That's a strong mayor, right? You get to present the budget and I would adopt the People's Budget Los Angeles. I would have a participatory budgeting session in each of the 15 city council districts, with the city council person. I plan to be a working mayor. I plan to go to city council meetings, not just going to flip the switch on the city council city on the city hall you know, lights, because that's kind of what the mayor does now, unfortunately. I heard him say at the beginning of his term that homelessness was his biggest concern and that was the thing he'd worked on since he was an adolescent, frankly, as a volunteer. And I'm astounded at how many times I've heard him say that and how, and what terrible condition this is in. So somebody has to have the political will at some point to hold everybody's feet to the fire, be it city council, be it a state that has a $97 billion budget surplus. A lot of that money came from Los Angeles. You'll be giving that back to us.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: What do you think of governor Newsom's care court proposal? This is the proposal that would allow court ordered mental health or substance abuse treatment plans for people with severe disorders.

Gina Viola_Mayoral Debate 2: That scares me immensely. What I hear from that are mandated people going to prison. That's what I hear. We have a prison industrial complex in California that needs to be fed. Los Angeles has been leading the way on decarceration. Right? We've had measure R, measure J in LA county, we've had organizations like Dignity and Power Now, Curb Justice. LA has the biggest alternatives to incarceration in the county. The jail population is actually going down. The prison population is actually going down. And what I worry with Newsom’s mental health mandate is the plan is to fill these prisons back up with housing folks. And it frightens me. don't think people should be, you know, Again, we need a housing first approach. Do people need resources? Absolutely. But they need a house first, not a jail cell.

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: Okay, council member. Now you can have your turn. What do you think of it?

Kevin De Leon_Mayoral Debate 3: I think it's a good start. I think the fact that on any given night in Los Angeles and who hasn't seen this, someone who's naked running down the street, screaming at the top of his or her lungs, having a psychotic break. And what happens, there's no mental health services there. And what happens, folks call 911, cause that's the reflexive move from folks, And LAPD shows up. And the lap, They do not have the training or the expertise. And there is no facility for those individuals who are having psychotic severe breakdowns. And living on the streets, and you go to Skid Row, high acuity is especially high, in Skid Row and, and throughout the city of LA, it is inhumane and unfair for those who are severely uh, mentally ill and now drug addicted with crystal meth and fentanyl to be living on the streets because they're not getting the treatment that they deserve and that they need. And this, it's not a step forward incarceration prisons, that is completely inaccurate. And that's not what governor Gavin Newsom is proposing at all whatsoever, to open up the prisons, you know, whether it be Vacaville San Quinn or Pelican Bay, and have folks who are severely mentally ill go into the prison system.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Karen.

Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: As I mentioned, I worked at County Hospital. I worked in the emergency room. I took care of people who suffered from mental illness. I just think it is a tragedy that people can be on the street, profoundly mentally ill–it's clear they cannot take care of themselves– and we don’t take care of them. We leave them on the street to die, essentially. When I was looking at officer involved deaths, this is nationwide wide after George Floyd's murder, I looked about a hundred deaths and I would say 30 to 40% of them were police responding to mental health calls that they are not trained to do at all. And in fact, they increase, agitate the individual.  So I do think we need to deal with people who cannot take care of themselves. And right now all we have is a 72 hour hold. That is not enough. We bring them in and then put them right back out on the street. Here's my concern about the governor's plan. I don't know where people are supposed to go. If they do the legislation without figuring out where people are going to be taken care of, I'm afraid it will result in what Gina said. We have to build the facilities. This is the problem that goes back to Raegen when we deinstitutionalized people, we didn’t build the community based institutions that we committed to. 

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Karen Bass_Mayoral Debate 1: So if that is not a part of the plan, I'm going to be very worried that the only institution that is prepared to take care of people today– “take care of people,” that's a very loose term– is county jail and that's unacceptable.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: That's all the time we have for this conversation. Big thanks to our three candidates that are here. Gina Viola, Kevin de Leon, and Karen Bass. Round of applause. Thank you so much for being here. 

Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: And a special thank you to everybody at KCRW and everyone at the LA Times that made this forum possible.

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: And remember everyone listening, the statewide primary election is happening now and ends on June 7th. Please vote. Ballots have been sent to every registered voter, but if you're not registered yet, there's still time to do so. So do so. Check out more coverage at kcrw.com, latimes.com. And please again, go vote. I'm Gustavo Arellano.

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Anna Scott_Mayoral Debate: I'm Anna Scott, take care. 

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Gracias. 

Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: Thank you all. There’s still more to this mayoral debate if you want to hear all of it, and if you want to do that–it goes on for an hour–go to latimes.com/LAmayordebate and watch the recorded live stream video posted there. 

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Gustavo_Mayoral Debate: And that’s it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times.

Mario Diaz and Kinsee Morlan were the jefes on this episode.

Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Brousalian, David Toledo, Ashlea Brown and Angel Carreras. Our editorial assistants are Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.

And again, special thanks to my other audio bosses at KCRW for hosting this debate and for doing this with us. Teamwork! Let’s do it again soon. 

Like what you’re listening to? Then make sure to follow the Times on whatever platform you use. Don’t make us the Pootchie of podcasts! 

And of course follow KCRW, although they are not Pootchie’s by any sense of the definition. 

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

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