The five candidates hoping to step in as the new representative for Council District 14 weighed in on Little Tokyo’s future, amongst other topics important to Downtown, during a candidates forum at the Japanese American National Museum National Center for the Preservation of Democracy last week.
With less than a month to go before Downtown residents hit the polls to select their next councilmember, the candidates engaged in a last moment discussion on Thursday, Feb. 6 on topics ranging from the preservation of historic Little Tokyo businesses, to affordable housing and the homeless population in front of a crowd of about 50 people.
The primary election will be held on March 3 and the forum was attended by everyone who qualified for the ballot including former State Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, nonprofit organizer and former Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council Vice President Cyndi Otteson, social worker and educator Raquel Zamora, Los Angeles Unified School District board member Mónica Garcia and nonprofit executive John Jimenez.
The event was organized by the Little Tokyo Community Council in partnership with the newspaper Rafu Shimpo. The newspaper’s Senior Editor Gwen Muranaka moderated the discussion, which was comprised of questions constructed by both the newspaper and the audience members.
After a introduction by LTCC Board Chair Chris Komai, which included a rundown of some of the injustices committed against Little Tokyo by the local, state and federal governments, each candidate agreed to support the Sustainable Little Tokyo plan, a community plan designed in partnership in 2013 by the Little Tokyo Service Center, Little Tokyo Community Council and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center to promote economic and cultural sustainability in Little Tokyo.
On the subject of the Mangrove Lot, a parking lot next to the Nishi Hongwanji Los Angeles Betsuin Buddhist Temple on First Street currently leased by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Otteson said that to ensure that the property benefits Little Tokyo, any type of negotiation has to be made transparently. De Leon said that the Sustainable Little Tokyo plan would have to be the guiding document for the property, and that the Mangrove Lot represents an opportunity to add more affordable housing to the neighborhood.
“Because of the housing crisis that we are facing today, we have the incredible opportunity to make sure that housing we develop on Mangrove is workforce housing,” de Leon said. “We have such an oversupply of luxury market housing right now and a lot of it is incredibly vacant.”
Zamora, who touted her grassroots campaign and avoidance of developer contributions, said that she would ensure that roadblocks are removed to make sure that the intended vision is completed. Jimenez noted that he was running nonpartisan and his history working in the nonprofit and volunteer sector.
“I don’t look for flashy things or expensive things, I always want to serve the people “ Jimenez said.
Garcia was the last candidate to answer the question. She said that the way that she would ensure that Little Tokyo residents and stakeholders had a say in the property would be to bring them to the negotiating table.
“I absolutely believe that community driven projects are the best projects,” Garcia said. “You have already done the work.”
On the subject of the preservation of small businesses in Little Tokyo, like the 117-year-old confectionary Fugetsu-Do, and other long-standing community businesses, Jimenez promoted rent stabilization and sliding scale rents depending on income. Otteson said that the only way to prevent displacement is to provide “some type of economic incentive” to building owners, which often means bringing in new business. She mentioned creating a preservation zone in Little Tokyo to protect some of those businesses. Zamora and de Leon mentioned a similar course of action as a way to insulate some of the older businesses and added that there are a lack of protections for small businesses. De Leon added that a strong and experienced leader would be able to push back against developers.
“These legacy businesses are without a doubt a cultural foundation for Little Tokyo,” de Leon said.
Garcia said that she would like to build a strong relationship between the community and her office, if elected, to identify “what would be most significant for those owners.”
“There is value that we need to understand is beyond a financial value,” Garcia said.
Proposition HHH and Homelessness
The forum touched on homelessness, Proposition HHH, and the slow rollout of units funded by the billion-dollar bond measure.
De Leon, who served as a state legislator for 13 years, noted his No Place Like Home initiative, a $2 billion initiative that rerouted certain funds into a new pot to combat homelessness. Close to $800 million of the initiative was earmarked for Los Angeles.
De Leon said that he would use all available funds to build affordable housing, direct city staff to identify vacant properties that could be used for housing and the use of prefabricated modular units to aid in speedy construction.
“We’re not going to do what we did with HHH which was to use $600,000 per average unit,” de Leon said. “We’re going to do $100,000-$150,000 max.”
He added that he would like to work with the federal government to increase the value of Section 8 vouchers to match up with the rising cost of rent.
Zamora said that she would like to identify the root cause of why each individual is facing homelessness while the city and county attempts to build more housing. Jimenez mentioned the gangs that operate in areas like Skid Row and the impact that it has on combating homelessness.
Otteson said that we can’t simply wait until housing is built and that the city must explore new ideas, stop criminalizing homelessnes and decentralize services out of Downtown.
“For far too long, Downtown has been the place where the majority of people experiencing homelessness has congregated. We need to decentralize services and we need to bring mobile toilets, showers and mental health services,” she said. “We need services, not sweeps and only until then can we start to think that people can get back to stability.”
Garcia said that she would like to make it clear that combating homelessness is a “shared responsibility” and that she would like to increase rental assistance programs. Lastly, she said she would like to create a bond for more workforce housing and would work toward decentralizing Skid Row.
“This is a government-created rotation that must be stopped,” Garcia said of Skid Row.
Another takeaway from the forum was the question of whether the candidates would commit to a full term in office. Almost every candidate agreed to at least one full term if elected, except for de Leon, who promised to serve to the best of his ability while in office.
The response was met with silence before an audience member questioned: “Was that a yes? It’s a yes or no question.” De Leon did not clarify.
The primary election is March 3, but early voting has already begun. If a candidate does not receive a majority of the votes, a runoff vote will be held during November’s general election.