The top two candidates vying to represent Council District 14 and Downtown Los Angeles squared off for the first time at a private candidate forum in Downtown this month.
Former State Senate President Kevin de León and Los Angeles Unified School District Board member Monica Garcia fielded questions that largely centered on affordable housing, public safety, homelessness and economic development.
The roughly 75-minute candidates’ forum, put on by the business lobbying group the Central City Association at the City Club on Tuesday, Sept. 17 and moderated by KCRW housing and homelessness reporter Anna Scott, was limited to candidates who raised above a certain threshold for CCA. In this case, the fundraising requirement meant that only de León and Garcia received invites to participate.
The first major meeting between the two, Garcia and de León largely agreed on the majority of the topics, while splitting on mobility issues and how they would go about addressing the homelessness crisis in the district.
Homelessness and Affordable Housing
Following opening statements from both candidates, the discussion quickly turned to one of the most pressing Downtown issues: affordable housing and homelessness.
Scott raised the issue of how each candidate would try to resolve the crisis and asked how they would get people off the streets, while also respecting homeless individuals’ rights.
Garcia called the homeless situation in Los Angeles a public health crisis, and said a distinction should be made between “those harming themselves” and “those harming others,” a reference to the gang members that law enforcement officials say prey on homeless communities.
“We cannot allow organized crime to hide behind the biggest humanitarian issue that we’re all facing,” she said.
Homelessness has ballooned in Los Angeles over the past year. According to the 2019 Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, homelessness has increased by 16% citywide, and 12% across the county since the 2018 homeless count. In Council District 14, which includes Skid Row, homeless increased by 11%.
De León agreed with Garcia’s sentiment that homelessness in Los Angeles has spun into a public health crisis, adding that the issue deserves a crisis-like response from local, state and federal officials, similar to if an earthquake had hit the region.
“The bottom line is this, when it comes to homelessness, this is the epicenter,” de León said.
On the subject of housing, including affordable housing options for Downtown’s workforce, both candidates said they supported continuing Downtown’s development boom to house the 125,000 people who are expected to move into the Central City by 2040. Currently, 80,000 people are estimated to live in Downtown.
Garcia remarked, “everything that we can do, we should do,” when it comes to building new affordable homes. She added there has to be balance within the new housing crop for different income levels.
“I want to make sure that there are homes for all, shelter for all, we have to have that as a value” Garcia said. “But the other piece is that we have to make sure that we are welcoming all the thinking on how to do this.
As part of addressing the issue, the candidates agreed that the city should look at other options for adding new housing stock. Local government officials have been criticized for the slow pace that supportive housing projects have been built following the approval of Measure HHH, which raised $1.2 billion for permanent supportive housing projects.
The cost of the units has raised eyebrows as well. According to data provided by City Controller Ron Galperin, the average total development cost per unit of supportive housing is nearly $520,000.
De León said that he supported exploring cheaper alternative housing options, such as repurposing shipping containers or modular homes. He also said that he supports denser housing projects.
“Everyone should have a home,” he said. “Every man, woman and child should have the dignity of a roof over their heads.”
Lack of Specifics
If anyone was looking for fully defined strategies from both candidates, they didn’t receive them from the CCA forum. Garcia was light on specifics on addressing some of Downtown’s most glaring issues, regularly returning to her work in education for examples and comparisons.
Although de León was heavier on details, regularly citing his time in Sacramento working on bills and initiatives, he also offered stances that lacked thorough definition.
At one point, Scott pushed de León for more specifics on what motion he would submit his first day on the council. The question was met with references to addressing homelessness, including finding alternatives to currently expensive-to-build supportive housing.
“What’s the motion? You’re going to have to give me a draft of it,” de León said to laughs.
Restoring the 14th
Whoever is elected to the District 14 seat will replace sitting Councilman José Huizar, who has represented the district since being elected via a special election to fill the vacated seat in 2005. He was subsequently reelected three more times.
In November, FBI agents raided Huizar’s home, City Hall and Boyle Heights offices as part of a larger inquiry involving foreign investment in Downtown. He was later removed from all of his City Council committee seats. Although he has not been charged with any crime, the investigation has left a black mark on the CD14 office, raising questions of whether Downtown was being properly represented on the Council.
Both candidates were asked how they would restore the district’s faith in the post, in light of Huizar’s ongoing legal troubles.
De León refused to speak on the allegations, but mentioned his time in state government while a number of different FBI scandals racked the state. Garcia offered that you restore faith, by focusing on the needs of the public.
“People are really done with Government they can’t trust,” Garcia said. “This is a big election; people are going to lean in because there are more expectations for CD14.”
While Garcia spoke of serving until she was termed out, de León would not definitively answer how long he would hope to stay on the council. Councilmembers can serve up to three, four-year terms on the council.