City Council candidates talk on issues of our time

| January 29, 2020 | 2 Comments

Incumbent Councilman David Ryu is joined by three  other contenders in the race for the District Four seat on the City Council. The election is part of the Super Tuesday March 3 Presidential election. Last month, Chronicle staff sat down separately with Ryu, Sarah Kate Levy, Nithya Raman and write-in candidate Susan Collins.

Homelessness and traffic were key concerns for all four candidates seeking to represent the second largest (by area) council district in the city.

Here are snapshots from those individual interviews: The candidates’ websites are listed at the end.

Sarah Kate Levy

Sarah Kate Levy

After Sarah Kate Levy graduated from Yale University she headed west to Los Angeles, where she leased an apartment for $300 a month.

Twenty years later, that same apartment is in the $2,500 range, and the 734 percent jump is why the mother of four is running for City Council.

“This city had so much opportunity for young people… It’s gotten much harder. Families are leaving…”

She explains that they’re moving to Texas and other places, where they can buy starter homes or larger ones for growing families.

Levy is active in numerous groups (see her website). Professionally, she is a screenwriter (she has a master’s degree from USC) and is a member of Writers Guild of America West.

When the native of Westchester County, NY, arrived here, she saw many duplexes and triplexes in surrounding areas, she recalls. She says that today, developers with deep pockets who can afford the land and the city’s lengthy permit process are not building similar affordable housing.

“We really do have a giant supply problem, because we haven’t built in a long time,” especially affordable housing, she says.

The city is now largely renters (60 percent); and while some can afford to pay rent, many can’t come up with down payments on a home and pay mortgages, adds Levy.

After returning from Florida to get out the vote for then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, Levy says: “I felt like a lot of other women. I looked at the council and assembly, and there weren’t any women in any of the seats.”

She reached out to her political contacts to find potential women candidates to run, and, to her surprise, they suggested she enter the race.

She’s learned a lot in the last 18 months talking to people and canvassing the district.

“People are sleeping in tents, traffic is worse, and climate change is burning up our hillsides…

“The councilman is slow to act and ineffectual,” she said, adding that career politicians are exacerbating the problems.

The council has the power to change this, she says. “People have to get off the sidewalks… before the whole city turns into Skid Row… We have to be more proactive on homelessness, on traffic…”

She supports Safe Parking L.A., a program that gets people who sleep in their cars off the street. “We have city parking lots all over the district,” and they can be especially useful in CD4, where 1,500 people are counted as homeless, up 54 percent in the past year, she says.

In addition, she says, 20 percent of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District and the city’s community colleges are “housing unstable.”

Then there’s the traffic.

“We need to be able to find ways for people to be close to where they work or get them out of their cars,” she says.

Many workers commute into the city and then take their tax dollars elsewhere.

Rapid bus lanes and an overall bike network are among solutions, she says, and she also hopes to add revenue to city coffers by encouraging small businesses to open and stay here. “There’s so much we could be doing so that business thrives here…

“This is where dreams happen. We lead in imagination for the whole world. I want our county and city to take back our roads,” instead of giving rideshare businesses an “awesome bonanza” at everyone else’s expense.

Asked about state bills to change local zoning, specifically State Senator Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 50, she says she supports SB 50, while also saying: “Let’s do better here, so we don’t have to [work with the state].

“I want to show the rest of the state how it’s done.”

Nithya Raman

Nithya Raman

“We need to take a more holistic approach, have more consensus building,” says candidate Nithya Raman.

“There is an absence of vision and what the future of Los Angeles could look like… That is part of the work of a councilmember, to articulate that vision. We’ve accepted so little from our councilman.”

Raman and hundreds of volunteers are taking her message to the 140,000 registered voters in Council District Four, she says.

The mom of young twins, and most recently executive director of Time’s Up Entertainment, Raman did not set out to run for public office.

An urban planner on the staff of the City Administrative Officer of the City of Los Angeles in 2014, she wrote a report on homelessness.

The report showed the city spent $100 million on largely jailing people for three days and then released them back onto the streets. Stable housing with access to services was not in the plan.

When she wrote her report, the city’s homeless population was 23,000; six years later, it has hiked up to 37,000.

Critically homeless individuals need housing now, she says. “We can do a much better job making services available when they need them.”

Meanwhile, rents have risen 65 percent in the last decade while income has gone up less than half, says Raman.

As the homeless population grew in her Silver Lake neighborhood, Raman and some neighbors started the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition in 2017. (SELAH stands for Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz, Atwater Village and Hollywood.)

Once a week, SELAH volunteers provide an access center equipped with a shower, serve a hot meal and show a movie. She continues to co-chair the group, which has expanded to include Glassell Park and other locations.

Raman was born in India, and moved to the U.S. as a child. She holds a master’s degree from MIT and an undergraduate degree from Harvard.

Her work on poverty issues reaches back to India where, post-college, she returned and began Transparent Chennai, bringing vital resources, like running water, to slums.

Environmental issues and mounting traffic are tied to the homeless and unaffordable housing, she said.

“We’re looking at the worst air we’ve had in decades… 90 percent of the pollution is from (commuter) cars and trucks driving in and out of the city.”

Buses make a difference, she says. “They are the most effective movers of people,” and they’re cheap, yet “we’ve made it very hard for people to take the bus.”

She believes that every problem, from homelessness to traffic and even potholes, is traced to career politicians in City Hall who have vested interests with city department representatives and unions.

She states that our problems have reverberated to the state level, where recently passed legislation is aimed at changing our zoning to increase housing.

“It’s not a question of building more, but protecting people who are here…

“Los Angeles has had developer- and real estate-funded elections and homeowners who have not wanted much development.” The combination has made for a worst-case scenario, she concludes.

“I want to make sure that we don’t need people in Sacramento telling us what we need. We should be able to do it ourselves. I think there’s lots of ways we can increase affordable housing stock that we’re not using. We have failed to use that power.”

She also suggests that immigration is another area where our leaders have failed, especially in the Trump Administration. “One third of our residents are foreign born. If anyone is impacted by these issues, it is us. This is a time that the City Council should step up to protect us.”

She sums up that the city’s $10 billion budget needs to be “about our collective good… We deserve better.”

David Ryu

David Ryu

Addressing homelessness is nothing new to incumbent Councilman David Ryu.

“I’ve been working on homelessness for 16 years,” he said.

After graduating from UCLA, Ryu was a senior deputy to Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke and later a special investigator for Los Angeles County’s Auditor-Controller. Just before his election to CD4, he was director of development and public affairs for the private nonprofit Kedren Acute Psychiatric Hospital and Community Health Center in South Los Angeles, having worked there for six years.

What’s new, Ryu told us, is “this is the first time where we’re all working together. The first time the community is engaged…

“I’m very encouraged with this newfound activism.”

When he was a freshman councilman, elected to his first term in 2015, the topic of homelessness wasn’t much on anyone’s radar, he recalls.

During his first campaign, “it was the fourth issue,” after development and housing, traffic and infrastructure.

“I would contend there were more homeless before,” but in recent years, “It’s become localized… You see it more.”

That said, he added, “I will take the responsibility head on…. Homelessness is a citywide crisis that requires a citywide approach.”

Ryu says the homeless numbers in CD4 have increased by 54 percent, from 777 to 1,115, in the last year. While this is an increase, the numbers are small compared to the rest of the city, he adds. Most of the homeless in District Four are on the borders of Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks and the borders of Hollywood, he said.

Ryu grew up here as an immigrant, and he says he understands firsthand the city’s diverse population, and what individuals can accomplish with a little bit of help and a lot of hard work.

Ryu notes that he is on track with fulfilling the 15-member City Council’s goal of 222 units of permanent supportive housing per district by July. “My plan is to exceed it.”

He’s overseen construction or approved proposals for 300 transitional units in seven projects.

Ryu adds that homeless programs of all sorts are picking up steam, but “not enough. We need to be able to build more, build faster and cheaper.”

He contends we don’t have a housing crisis. “We have a moderate- and affordable- housing crisis.”

He told us that in the last five years, 91 percent of Los Angeles development has been in the luxury housing bracket, which the average teacher and firefighter cannot afford, “yet developers can’t pencil it out otherwise — the land is too expensive.”

He’s looking into solutions, from a combination of a vacancy tax, renters’ rights legislation and ways to get developers on board.

He’s also co-introduced a Paid Parental Leave Policy and pushed forward a child savings account program in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Both were passed by City Council, and both are key to homeless and crime prevention programs, he argues.  “It starts from birth. ZIP Codes determine your place in life…” he says.

As the underdog candidate in his first election, he made several promises (“It was a long list,” he says), and the promises included long-overdue (80 years) concrete street repair in Hancock Park.

He also set out to rebuild trust and transparency and created a nine-member community discretionary funds task force.

He’s counted more than 500 meetings with the community since he was elected, “and that’s just me personally.”

He notes that his “revolutionary” Campaign Finance Reform motion to ban developer funding was passed by the Council in May.

“I tell developers that I want to base [your project] on the merits of your development. Everyone gets the same parameters.”

He refuses to take money from developers, yet he has garnered a hefty campaign chest. So far, he’s counted 2,000 donations totaling more than $900,000.

“I let my record speak for itself,” he said. “I am very proud of my body of work, and what my team and I have accomplished in the last four-and-a-half years.”

Susan Collins

Susan Collins

(Write-in Candidate)

The homelessness crisis and the city’s “lack of handling of it,” motivated Susan Collins to run for office.

She opposes the conventional wisdom, as expressed by most public officials, as well as the other three candidates interviewed.

The city’s response to the crisis — adopting both the national “Housing First” and state and city bridge housing programs — makes neighborhoods, communities and businesses less safe, she says.

And, she adds, they are harmful to people they are supposed to serve.

“I’m very opposed to bridge housing where people who are the most vulnerable are housed next to drug addicts.”

“I want people to get the care they need and communities to feel safe and supportive.w

“It must be a win-win for everybody.”

A realtor based in Sherman Oaks, she put her business on hold when the city attempted to put two homeless facilities in her area, one at the National Guard Armory, another near a market and the freeway. Neighbors shot down both projects.

Her research into the city’s homeless crisis took her to the 45-bed, El Puente shelter next to El Pueblo Park (Olvera St.), the city’s historic city center and the city’s first Bridge Housing site.

In Hollywood, she visited the 124-bed YWCA bridge housing for women and the Los Angeles LGBT Center Anita May Rosenstein Campus.

She concluded that, as a result of these facilities, the neighborhoods were “dramatically different… more tents, more people” after the housing sites opened.

One business owner told her, “When they moved in, the drug dealers lined up in front of my house.”

Subsequently, the situation is much improved at the LGBT Campus on McCadden Place after local businesses hired a private security company and installed exterior lighting and security cameras.

Also, “The [LGBT] center has been much better about talking to people and letting them know they cannot camp or otherwise participate in activities that are harmful to the surrounding businesses.”

It is these kinds of problems that lead Collins to be disappointed with our leaders, and to prefer independently funded programs that refuse federal funding and its regulations against sobriety. Among such programs, Collins told us, is Solutions for Change in Vista, near Oceanside. It has “solved homelessness for 850 families” since 1999, according to its website.  It offers a 1,000-day program that teaches self-reliance and includes personal and financial skills training.

Another site that Collins  advocates as a model is Door of Hope in Pasadena. It houses 25 families in its transitional program.

Her multi-layered solution targets the city’s lack of affordable housing and includes expanding and simplifying Section 8 for tenants and landlords.

Existing rehab facilities and nonprofit providers could be better utilized, and she envisions a triage-like center to assess individuals for mental health or addiction issues or for criminal ones.

The “211 system” currently in place could be boosted with resources and dispatch agents.

Collins is active in her local neighborhood council and her home owners association, and she attends meetings at the Los Angeles City Council and Beverly Hills City Council.

Upcoming debates

Scheduled candidate forums include one organized by the League of Women Voters on Sun., Feb 16 at 4 p.m. at John Marshall High School, 3939 Tracy St., in Los Feliz, and one on Weds., Feb. 19 at 7:15 p.m. at Notre Dame High School, at Riverside and Woodman in Sherman Oaks.

On March 3, the candidate who wins more than 50 percent of the vote wins the seat. If there is no winner on March, a runoff between the top two vote-getters  will be held Nov. 3.

Campaign websites:

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Comments (2)

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  1. Thank you so much for including me in this article. I would like to clarify a couple of comments that were not printed as I said them. I didn’t actually say “I’m very opposed to bridge housing where people who are the most vulnerable are housed next to drug addicts.” there is only one word missing – but it’s an important one.. I said “I’m very opposed to bridge housing where people who are the most vulnerable are housed next to practicing drug addicts.” I have many, friends that are recovering addicts and / or alcoholics. They are incredibly successful in every area of life, and some of the kindest people I know. Being an addict is not an issue, being a “Practicing” addict is very different.

    Also, the housing first model encompasses Bridge Housing and permanent supportive housing. “Housing First” refers to the federal program that views housing as the first step to curing homelessness. The idea is : provide housing first, then hope the person stabilizes and accepts the treatment and services that they need in order to stay in housing and not return to homelessness. With the housing first model there is no requirement for behavioral changes, drug testing is not allowed, and participation in recovery services or rehabilitation services are suggested but not required. What I’m calling for is that we require people that are capable of participating in their recovery, to do so. I want to do everything we can to get people back to a life of independence, which will then allow more funds to be directed to providing quality care for the people that will never be able to live independently.

    Lastly, the McCadden project was an absolute nightmare for the surrounding businesses. They had to take the initiative and incur the costs of tree trimming, exterior lighting, private security guard service, installation of security cameras, and they personally went out daily and physically took down they tents. They then went to the center and asked them to step in and help them, which they believe they did. It was only by the very hard work and tremendous monetary expennditures of the business owners did the area change back into a place that they were able to function in.

    Thank you again for including me and I hope that this clears up any misunderstandings regarding my comments and my views on how we should be handling this crisis.

    Susan Collins

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