By Tony Pierce
Los Angeles voters are witnessing a rarity in city politics — a tight race between an incumbent and his opponent for LA City Council.
On March 3, David Ryu — the current City Council member for District 4 — eked out 44% of the vote compared to his challenger, Nithya Raman, who won 40% of the vote and forced Ryu into a runoff on Nov. 3.
Council District 4 encompasses Central L.A. neighborhoods like Silver Lake, Hollywood and Koreatown, as well as parts of the San Fernando Valley. Like the rest of the city, the district faces an acute housing shortage and homelessness issue. Both Raman and Ryu took some time to talk with The Independent about their plans on housing and homelessness.
Q: What will you do about homelessness in L.A. that hasn’t been tried before?
David Ryu: We have heard a lot of talk about an “emergency declaration” on homelessness, but our city hasn’t put teeth behind that with true planning reform to build homeless housing faster and more efficiently. That’s why I introduced legislation a year ago to develop a true FEMA-like response on homelessness that approaches this like the humanitarian emergency that it is. I have been pushing for action on this legislation ever since.
Getting a homeless housing project build involves a shocking number of departments and bureaucracy at present. Housing & Community Investment Department, Planning, the City Administrative Office, Bureau of Engineering, Building & Safety Department, LADWP, the Mayor’s Office and of course the district council office are all involved. Sometimes even more.
[This] FEMA-like response would change this process by centralizing every step – from locating, zoning, allocating funding and constructing of homeless housing – into one central office. This way, individual Council members or city departments can’t slow down or stop the process.
Nithya Raman: The percentage of arrests of people who have been experiencing homelessness have gone up over the past few years [mainly for sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk and failing to appear in court for such offenses]. So I think this is still a primary strategy with how we’ve responded to homelessness over a long time in Los Angeles, and it doesn’t work.
Putting someone in jail, often for three nights … that response is not only really cruel, it is also ineffective at reducing homelessness. It doesn’t address the root cause of someone’s homelessness, which is they don’t have a home. In fact, if you are arrested it makes it harder for you to get a home because you lose your paperwork, you lose your ID cards, you lose your contacts with case managers that you need to actually make your way into a home because it’s not a day-long process, it’s many steps.
So I am proposing a change in how we deliver services in L.A. for people who are experiencing homelessness. I want neighborhood-based outreach and services. I want outreach workers in neighborhoods to know every single person experiencing homelessness by name. And I want them to be able to be held accountable for moving people into housing. I want there to be mental health caseworkers to come to the neighborhoods regularly to build relationships with people who are dealing with mental health issues.
Q: Affordable housing is such a nice word, but rarely is it ever defined. What should the cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood be to be considered “affordable housing”?
Raman: I don’t have a specific number off the top of my head that I would say is affordable. Usually affordable housing is defined as a percentage of the area median income. So we would need to look at those numbers — and there’s different percentages of affordability. So I think there’s different ways to define it.
For me when I am thinking about the question of affordable housing, I think about two kinds of housing. One is deed-restricted affordable housing that is affordable because of the nature of its financing or because those units are mandated to be provided to people who are making a certain percentage of the area median income — whatever you choose that percentage to be.
I think increasing the supply of those units is really important. We have had a large number of those units come up over many, many decades. Some of those units are being lost now because those covenants, those agreements under which that housing was set aside, are expiring. If we build housing today that was deed-restricted affordable housing, I’d want to make those restrictions permanent.
There’s another category called naturally occurring affordable housing. This is housing because of its structure, such as it’s size or lack of amenities, it’s naturally cheaper than other units. I want to make sure that our zoning code is designed to produce more of these kinds of units.
That means making it possible to build buildings without two parking spots for each unit, especially near big transit lines, which is kind of the norm in L.A. That increases the cost of every unit produced, making minimum unit sizes smaller.
Ryu: Affordable housing is usually defined as housing priced for those earning below the area median income [$73,100 in Los Angeles]. In Hollywood, I’m actually building a 100 units of affordable housing right now, which will be priced for low- and extremely-low income residents, to join the two A Bridge Home centers and the emergency shelter I’ve already built in Hollywood.
But you’re right, the term is often used broadly, and part of the problem is that even people earning the area median income have a hard time finding housing, because market rate housing in L.A. is far higher than average income. That’s why I was the first to propose a moderate-income housing plan for our teachers, firefighters, construction workers and middle-class families. We have enough luxury housing — in fact, we’re overbuilt in luxury housing, something I have been fighting against across the region — and we need more inclusionary zoning and more moderate-income and affordable housing to build vibrant, diverse neighborhoods where every community member has a say and a stake.
Q: Should people be allowed to sleep in cars in L.A.?
Ryu: In the interim, while housing is being built, yes. And in locations where they are safe and connected to services — which is why I have Safe Parking underway in Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks and more on the way.
Raman: For a long time it was illegal to sleep in your car on most streets in Los Angeles. In a city where [there were thousands of] people sleeping in their cars in the last homeless count, I think it is unjust to make it illegal to sleep in your car on most streets without providing an alternative. We have never done that in Los Angeles.
Through the Safe Parking program, they have made [less than] 250 legal parking spots available. That, to me, is an outrage. If you are found to be illegally sleeping in your car you can get ticketed, and if you get multiple tickets, your car can get impounded and then you’re not sleeping in your car any more, you’re sleeping in a tent on the street. That’s backwards policymaking.
Q: Should people be allowed to sleep in tents in L.A.?
Raman: In Los Angeles we have less than a quarter of the shelter beds that we need for our unhoused population, and that ratio of shelter beds to the homeless population gets smaller year after year. We cannot make it illegal for people to sleep in tents on the street while making no options available for them.
Ryu: We cannot criminalize homelessness, and during the COVID-19 pandemic I was the first council member to call off sweeps that displace unhoused neighbors.
When people have nowhere else to go, we cannot penalize them for sleeping in tents. It’s just not fair. But we also cannot become complacent — we should not and cannot desensitize ourselves to the humanitarian emergency of homelessnes, and simply “accept” that our neighbors are forced to sleep on the street. I have been working in homelessness for decades. I have worked in South L.A. I have worked in mental health care. I have committed my life to this issue. It will not be solved overnight, but we must never lose sight of the human right to safe shelter and the ultimate goal to end homelessness.
Q: Who is another council member who you admire?
Ryu: Mike Woo, who was the first Asian American elected to City Council and served from 1985 to 1993. He was a champion on ethics and campaign finance reform, which has been the issue I’ve championed in City Hall. He also was the first to call for Darryl Gates to resign from LAPD following the ’92 beating of Rodney King. He speaks truth to power and has always led the way for a cleaner, transparent government that works for the people.
Raman: I’ve heard both Council member Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Council member Mike Bonin say a lot of things that I really admire. I really respect both of their work — that’s not to say I don’t respect other people. These are two council members who I think have done some really inspiring things. I think the recent motion to remove armed police officers from traffic enforcement was really thoughtful. And Council member Harris-Dawson has built so many units of housing in his district and that’s really impressive.