CD14 Candidates Weigh in on Housing and Transportation at Debate

Last week's candidates' debate, organized by DLTA Strong, featured (from second left to right) Kevin de León, Monica Garcia, and Cyndi Otteson. 

Last week, Downtown got a chance to hear from three of the candidates vying to replace José Huizar in representing the 14th Los Angeles City Council district.

The debate, held at Broadway’s Million Dollar Theater on Wednesday, Dec. 11 included former State Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León, Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Monica Garcia, and Cyndi Otteson, board president of the nonprofit Miry’s List and head of marketing for the tech company NOM. Downtown-based business consultant and broker Hal Bastian was previously scheduled to attend, but suspended his campaign earlier that day due to a signature collecting snafu. Only candidates who raised more than $25,000 or have collected more than 500 unique contributions by Dec. 1 were allowed to participate.

DTLA Strong, a community advocacy group that formed in 2018 and previously focused on increasing LAPD foot beats around the area, organized the event. Roughly 80 people showed up at the Broadway theater to watch. The event was the second gathering of candidates in Downtown since a September candidate’s forum organized by the Central City Association that featured only de León and Garcia. Last week’s event served as the first debate between the candidates prior to the election.

“This is a large district. In the northeast, it goes to El Sereno, down to Boyle Heights, into Downtown,” said Sara Hernandez, co-founder of DTLA Strong. “This district represents 250,000 people, so these races are incredibly important.”

The evening was more substantive than the September forum, with candidates questioned on a wider variety of issues by DTLA Strong co-founder Gerren Kelsaw and offering more detailed plans on how they would handle the issues facing Downtown and the rest of CD14. Throughout the debate, Garcia was light on specifics, repeatedly turning back to the topic of children and schools, while de León and Otteson had more focused points. The two-hour event covered a variety of issues, including earning Downtown’s trust, how best to handle the 2028 Olympic Games, and others, but mostly centered on the following:

Housing and Homelessness

The biggest topic that Kelsaw and the candidates kept returning to was homelessness in the district, the city and the county as a whole. All agreed that the current situation is untenable and that more services are needed, and that services should be decentralized from Downtown in some capacity. They also spoke of building more workforce and middle income housing to keep the district equitable. Garcia called for a full review of how and where the city builds affordable housing to find more efficient and cost-effective means of construction. Otteson meanwhile noted that luxury housing isn’t helping to alleviate housing concerns, and that the cost of living continues to go up.

“We’re already on track to be San Francisco,” Otteson said, referencing that city’s high cost of living.

De León argued that the city needs to pursue as much state and federal aid to construct affordable housing and expand services for homeless individuals.

Regarding helping those on Skid Row and other unhoused people, Otteson called for more mobile units, providing showers and other services where they are needed. (The nonprofit LavaMae does provide mobile shows in Skid Row and City Hall at various times throughout the week.)

De León in turn suggested expanding the number of ReFresh Spot hygiene centers on Skid Row (currently there is only one on Crocker Street). Garcia suggested a Metropolitan Transportation Authority-like agency with jurisdiction to take action, and also called for declaring a homelessness emergency in the city.

According to the most recent Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority homeless count, homelessness has increased in Los Angeles County by 12%, and 16% in the city, compared to the previous year, bringing the total number of unhoused people to close to 36,000.

At the debate, de León presented the biggest change, proposing that LAHSA should be reformed or dismantled, calling it out for the lack of results despite its $400 million annual budget. He also took aim at the high cost of building permanent supportive housing, saying that the city needs to find a way to build as quickly as possible, and as cheaply as possible, using the $1.2 billion in Proposition HHH funds before that money sunsets.

City Controller Ron Galperin released a report in October that criticized the use of Prop. HHH funds, taking aim at the high cost to build units using the funds.

Governance

Kelsaw also discussed the upcoming 2020 redistricting process, which would redraw district lines based on population, and questioned if the candidates would support keeping Downtown unified. All agreed that Downtown should not be split up in the 2020 redistricting process, however neither the candidates, nor the moderator acknowledged that Downtown is already split, with a sliver in the southwest in CD9 and Chinatown in CD1.

Otteson said that the city should look at greater representation, noting that while 15 council districts made sense when Los Angeles had a population of one million, with nearly four million people calling Los Angeles home currently, and each district representing more than 250,000 people, the current split is too big.

Downtown Los Angeles alone is expected to add an additional 125,000 residents by 2040, making it one of Los Angeles’ most heavily expanding residential bases. In response to that, the three candidates spoke of the need to increase residential infrastructure and make it more welcoming to families, including more schools and green spaces.

“We need to have people stay in the city,” Otteson said. “There’s not enough parks. We need to have more walkable options [in the district].”

Transportation

All three of the candidates spoke in favor of expanding CD14’s transportation infrastructure, with Garcia and de León suggesting making free public transit for some or all Angelenos as a way to encourage and foster better ridership. Since 2014, ridership on Metro buses and trains has decreased by early 20%.

On the subject of the long-proposed Downtown street car, the candidates said they supported something along those lines, with de León suggesting an electric bus lane running up and down Broadway, as well as dedicated bike and scooter lanes. He also promised to ensure the construction of the West Santa Ana Branch Transit Corridor that would link Downtown to Artesia.

Public Safety

DTLA Strong was formed in part due to concerns about safety in the area. The group grabbed headlines in May, when close to 50 of its members arrived at a City Hall budget hearing in support of more footbeats for Downtown Los Angeles. The three candidates agreed that more foot patrols, as well as just more foot traffic and eyes on the street from Downtown residents throughout the day can deter crime. Otteson suggested police call boxes, increasing the number of officers in the area, but also the number of trained service providers who can aide in ways that police cannot.

Garcia also favored expanding the number of surveillance cameras across the district, noting that other countries and cities use similar systems as a way to address crime.

De León said that the next councilman should meet with Central Division and LAPD leadership to discuss why so many officers go from Central to the elite Metropolitan Division based out of Rampart, and if Downtown is losing experienced police as a result.

What’s Next

The debate was civil, with the three candidates mostly agreeing on general points, with the sharpest critiques coming in the closing statements. Garcia vowed to stick around for a full 12 years if elected and reelected while Otteson said that CD14 needed someone fresh, not a career politician looking to use the City Council seat as a stepping stone to another higher office. De León argued that given the crisis Los Angeles is facing, now is the time for an experienced candidate. It’s worth noting that Huizar, the representative being termed out of CD14 in November, has served as Downtown’s councilman since 2005.

The event was the first Downtown forum to feature Ottesson, who lived in the Arts District for seven years before moving to Eagle Rock. She brought more focus to specific issues facing the rest of the district despite the Downtown theme of the debate, such as concerns over the 710 Freeway expansion, and displacement in Boyle Heights as a result of gentrification (something de León echoed further into the night).

The debate served as a primer for the primary election that will be held on March 3. If no one wins a majority, there will be a runoff election on Nov. 3.

nslayton@timespublications.com.