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Capital & Main
Capital & Main
Jessica Goodheart

Will Karen Bass’ Laser Focus on Tackling Homelessness Have a Cost?

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass signs a Declaration of Local Emergency to address homelessness on her first day in office. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass made her top priority clear by her first action in office: declaring a homeless state of emergency. In her second week in office, she launched a program to move people living on the streets in tents into hotel and motel rooms.

Capital & Main spoke with University of Southern California sociology professor Manuel Pastor about Bass’ prospects for addressing the city’s ongoing humanitarian catastrophe: 42,000 unhoused people and five of them dying on the streets of L.A. County each day. Pastor, a longtime observer of Los Angeles politics, described Bass, who was considered as a vice presidential candidate for President Biden, as a gifted politician with an unprecedented national profile for a first-term mayor. But he also sounded a note of caution about setting expectations too high. Bass has pledged to bring 17,000 people indoors in her first year.  

“When you’ve got an affordable housing crisis, taking 17,000 people off the street isn’t the same thing as seeing a homeless population decline by 17,000 because so many other people are being forced onto the street by high rents, insecure employment, particularly if next year brings a recession [and the] end of some eviction protections,” said Pastor, who directs USC’s Equity Research Institute. Pastor, who endorsed Bass’ campaign for mayor, is part of her 100-member transition team and is a member of Capital & Main’s advisory board.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Capital & Main: How optimistic are you that Karen Bass is going to be able to tackle the crisis of the unhoused?

Manuel Pastor: During her campaign against [candidate Rick Caruso], there was a conversation about whether we needed to heal the city or fix the city. Bass [a former social worker, nonprofit leader and physician’s assistant], projected many of her healing qualities as someone who dealt with the issues of addiction and mental health, which is part of the homeless crisis. The task for the mayor is to both heal the city and to fix the city. Karen Bass is trying to demonstrate that all her chops about healing and bringing people together are going to be matched by her skill at fixing. She has staked a lot of political capital on being able to address the homeless crisis. She set goals that are ambitious, but that were not fantastical, which is what Caruso’s goals were. She stepped in and declared an emergency. The recent moves to speed up permitting for 100% affordable housing projects are signals about her being very serious about addressing this crisis.

“There are a lot of other concerns in the city. How do we address climate resilience? What’s the right size for the police force? And perhaps more importantly, what’s the right behavior for the police force?”

Are there costs to her prioritizing the issue of the unhoused above all else?

There are a lot of other concerns in the city. How do we address climate resilience? What’s the right size for the police force? And perhaps more importantly, what’s the right behavior for the police force?  How do we extend procurement opportunities for small minority, women-owned, veteran-owned businesses with all the money that’s going to be coming in as a result of the World Cup and the Olympics and all these federal dollars? There are issues around road safety and trying to prevent the huge number of pedestrian deaths that we have in Los Angeles. There’s workforce development issues.

One of the juggling acts for her is going to be while she is laser focused on homelessness and really investing her political capital in making a big dent on that issue, how does she in the background cue up everything else?

Los Angeles has a weak mayor system, and how does that fit with her ambitions?

There’s formal and informal powers. We’ve got a weak mayor system, but Antonio Villaraigosa helped resolve a hotel worker strike before he even came into office and did a lot of work around cleaning up the ports, et cetera. Mayor Garcetti, although he was pushed to do more, did move forward on raising the minimum wage in a way that moved the county and then the state. It’s a bully pulpit.

The counterpart to a weak mayor system is a strong council system, and the council is a mess. The council is in the shadow of several corruption cases. They’ve got the challenge of a city councilperson, Kevin de León, who they would like to [see] resign, but they have no mechanism to force him to resign and it’s throwing their operations into chaos. [De León, along with two other councilmembers and the former head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, were caught on a secret recording making racist remarks. Only de León remains in office in spite of repeated calls for him to step down and ongoing protest.] 

If you look at that poll that was released recently, the mayor’s pretty popular. It’s the council as a whole that is not. The council is also going to be trying to find its way in the next four to six months because there’s several brand-new councilpeople who are significantly to the left of where the council has been. There’s one new member who is significantly to the right, perhaps, of where the council has been. And so her ability to be a more forceful mayor is also happening in the context of the main counterbalance to a weak mayor is a strong council. And this council is having challenges.

You said that Mayor Garcetti would be remembered more fondly in retrospect. Why?

There’s a huge record of accomplishment. The city’s minimum wage went up. Los Angeles County voters agreed to [Measure M], a transportation tax, [for which Garcetti campaigned]. There was significant movement on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power committing to become a cleaner electrical producer. There were two [local funding measures approved that are aimed at tackling homelessness], one for the city and  one for the county.

His management of the COVID crisis was pretty remarkable. The city stood up the largest testing and eventually vaccination site in the country at Dodger Stadium. There’s no city health department. [Yet] the city mobilized mobile testing and vaccine clinics that got to low income neighborhoods, providing, really, a model for the county and the state.

During the COVID crisis, the mayor and the council worked hard to make sure that benefits would go to undocumented Angelenos, if not through official federal mechanisms then through support for their landlords or direct assistance via the Mayor’s Fund, a philanthropic effort Garcetti put in place in earlier in his administration. [Pastor served on the board of the Mayor’s Fund.]

Some people are resentful of the Olympics coming to Los Angeles and believe that it will lead to gentrification, and that there was just gentrification and displacement on Garcetti’s watch. I think in 2030, when the Olympics have already happened, that’s going to be looked at as quite an achievement, particularly if all the stuff that people are hoping to stand up around it in terms of procurement opportunities for smaller businesses, et cetera, come to bear.

The really interesting question is why, on balance, a pretty strong record of achievement doesn’t get met with widespread adulation. On the part of some, there was a sense that while Garcetti would lead on some things, he was a very careful and calculating political figure on others. People wanted him to stick his neck out more on [reducing the size of] the police force. They wanted him to stick his neck out even more on [tackling] homelessness. The minimum wage was a pretty good example where the mayor led with a proposal of $13.25 an hour and got quickly eclipsed by community and labor groups who took it to $15 an hour.

“The bigger and more fundamental issue in Los Angeles is what is our economy going to look like and who is it supposed to deliver for.”

Karen Bass has declared a state of emergency on the homeless crisis.  I wondered if that was something that Garcetti could have done?

He did a lot on COVID leadership, and I think he probably felt like he bet a lot and I think his staff and supporters thought he bet a lot on addressing homelessness. But there wasn’t the speed and urgency and clearing away of bureaucracy that Bass seems willing to do right now. So should he have done it before? Maybe. I mean, I just want to back up and say again, she’s basically putting everything else on hold. Not completely, but she’s putting much of her agenda on hold while she tackles this and makes tangible progress.

Garcetti didn’t do that, faced a different set of circumstances, had much more perhaps on his agenda before this. We’ve had a homelessness crisis for a very long time. I think it’s become really exacerbated in people’s minds prior and certainly during COVID when encampments became more permanent.

What else should the new mayor be thinking about as she moves forward?

We can have a city where we tackle issue by issue: the homelessness that we’ve got in our streets, the lack of affordable housing, the nature of community safety and policing. But the bigger and more fundamental issue in Los Angeles is what is our economy going to look like and who is it supposed to deliver for. Our homeless on the streets is a function of an economy that’s malfunctioning. Our lack of affordable housing surely reflects our lack of production. But it also just reflects the sharp inequalities in our society such that the wealthy can outbid everyone else on housing and maintain empty condos in downtown L.A. for their occasional visits to arena to watch a game. We must have a broad vision of economic prosperity and inclusion. And I guess my hope is that the mayor, as she addresses these issues, also lifts up a deeper set of questions about who is our economy for, how do we design our economy in a way that investment and growth benefit not just a few but many.

Copyright 2023 Capital & Main

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