The Hang Out Do Good local advocacy group is conducting a series of “Looking Local” conversations with candidates currently running for local offices, including Los Angeles Mayor, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, LA County Sheriff, Los Angeles City Attorney, State Assembly District 51, and several Los Angeles City Council seats. The conversations take place on Sunday afternoons, via Zoom, and are open to the public (see the remaining schedule below). This conversation with Scott Epstein, one of four candidates who will be on the ballot to represent District 5 on the City Council, was structured as a Q&A with HODG hosts and took place on March 20. Epstein is a community activist who has been a public policy research analyst for the Rand Corporation and UCLA, was president of the Mid City West Neighborhood Council for seven years, and lives in the Carthay area. These were among the topics covered in the HODG conversation:
Please introduce yourself.
Epstein summarized his background as a public policy research analyst at the Rand Corporation and UCLA, as well as the longtime former chair of the Mid City West Neighborhood Council and a co-founder of the Mid City Homeless Coalition. “I am running to make LA work for all of us,” Epstein said. “I will bring leadership that is grounded in community, guided by passion, and focused on results.” Epstein said his priorities will be compassionate solutions for our unhoused neighbors, and addressing climate change with a multi-modal transportation system. Also, citing how the MCWNC helped to create the district’s only homeless shelter, he said he would bring the same kind of “proactive spirit” to the City Council.
What is your understanding of the city council’s job?
Epstein noted that the city council is both the legislative body for the city of Los Angeles (giving each of the 15 members a lot of power), and deals with a lot of more day-to-day problems, which require good grass roots organizing skills.
There are few places serving the homeless in CD 5 – just one shelter, one safe parking location, two Project HHH housing developments (totaling 99 units), and one undisclosed location for domestic abuse victims. Would you commit to building more permanent and bridge housing in the district…and if so, where? And how can you succeed when others haven’t?
Epstein said homelessness is currently the most important issue in both CD5 and the city as a whole. He said the idea for the shelter on La Cienega came from a local non-profit coalition, and was an adaptive re-use project. Another project, a supportive housing facility on La Brea, was also supported by the MCWNC under his leadership. But he said we still need more temporary and permanent housing in CD 5…and – because permitting processes are so slow – more sites for safe parking, safe camping, tiny homes and other faster options. We also need buy-in and willingness to host those solutions from every community, he said. “It’s important that all communities in the district buy in and are part of the solution.”
Epstein said other things we need to do are to cut red tape in the permitting process for supportive housing, get more creative in exploring various types of housing solutions, explore more options for supportive housing sites, and create a “well-resourced, well-coordinated” outreach system. What we don’t need, he said, is the controversial ordinance 41.18, which simply outlaws encampments in certain places. Epstein said that ordinance is just causing the city to spend millions of dollars – which could be spent instead on temporary housing – on no camping signs. “That’s a gross misuse of resources,” he said.
Instead, Epstein said we should also invest more in outreach to connect people on the street to services and housing that will work for them. And we need to allocate our resources to the right people, such as mental health professionals can handle those kinds of incidents instead of the police. This will actually save the city money, Epstein said, because mental health workers cost less than police.
Next, Epstein said that because the homelessness and housing crises are so closely entwined, we won’t solve homelessness without solving housing insecurity. “We are housing more unhoused individuals than ever before,” he said, “and yet we are creating more unhoused individuals every day.” To help keep people from falling into homelessness, Epstein said we need much more robust protections for renters, because the number one way people fall into homelessness is fighting eviction. Epstein said we do need to build more housing, especially “displacement-free” housing on commercial boulevards, but also invest more in other kinds of innovative housing models, such as acquiring often-distressed rent-stabilized housing, bringing it back up to standards, and renting it to a variety of income levels.
And finally, Epstein said, we also need better data collection and reporting about the rental housing market.
Where would you put tiny homes and safe camping in CD5? Does the city council really have the power to allocate mental health programs?
Epstein said we should look first at city-owned properties like city parking lots. He mentioned, in particular, the one at 728 S. Cochran Ave., which Councilmember Nithya Raman began analyzing for permanent supportive housing a couple of years ago. Epstein said he knows the community has concerns about that particular site, but we need to continue the conversations. Another promising site, he said, is the city-owned parking garage on Robertson Blvd., which is completely unused at night. He said we need a councilmember who is willing to advocate for these solutions, and who can also talk to potential non-profit partners about partnering for housing on other publicly or privately owned properties.
Does the city council have the power to allocate resources for mental health responders (since LA County generally oversees mental health services)?
“100%,” said Epstein. He said we’re now spending “crazy amounts of money” for police responses, which isn’t solving the problem because the police don’t have expertise in mental health issues. And their salaries are about $120,000 per year, so some of that money could be used for other things if they don’t have to respond to those kinds of calls. He said CD 4 councilmember Nithya Raman has created a four-person social services team in her office, which is doing direct outreach to people on the street, so “Don’t tell me the resources aren’t there. I believe they are.”
How will your plan succeed?
Epstein noted that there are already some allies, like Raman, on the city council, so he would start building a coalition there, and with local non-profits, like the Saban Clinic. But while they can help with outreach efforts, Epstein said, we also need places to send people – more housing and services, and more housing options.
What is your plan to tackle climate change in CD5?
Epstein said this would be a three-pronged effort. First, we have to make sure we’re investing and building for the future, with the right alignments for our transit projects (“It’s ridiculous not to include a subway stop at UCLA”), not specifically subjecting black and brown people to the noise and pollution housing near freeways, and making sure we do things do things right in projects like the Sepulveda Transit Corridor and Crenshaw Line Extension, which are now under public discussion.
Second, said Epstein, we need a “comprehensive bikeway system that’s safe for ages 8-80.” “I want to take my 4-year-old on this bikeway system and won’t be satisfied if it’s not safe for her to use,” he said. And that means protected bike lanes, not painted lanes next to 40 mph traffic, as well as “robust traffic calming on neighborhood streets.” And the system also needs to go everywhere people need to go.
Finally, Epstein said we also need to improve our buses, “the workhorse of our transportation system.” The bus system, he said, needs to be more efficient, more pleasurable to use, and safer…with better bus stops (more shade and seating), all-door boarding, and better space for buses on our streets (such as dedicated rights of way with red painted bus lanes), so they don’t have to weave in and out of traffic. And both the bike and bus systems, he said, are “relatively cheap investments,” with “better bang for the buck” than many other kinds of transit projects. And they would not only make things better for people who already use transit, but would attract new riders, too, which is important.
As the subway is planned now, is there no stop at Westwood?
Epstein said the Sepulveda Transit Corridor plan is now in the middle of the public review process, with about eight different alignments under discussion. And it would be “insane” he said, to do something that doesn’t include a subway connection. But he said there has been some opposition to a subway, similar to the concerns raised about possible effects on Beverly Hills High School when the Purple Line Extension was first planned. But this project, like that one, he said, will not affect existing homeowners, and we need leaders who will speak honestly about it and provide factual information.
Also, regarding proposals for fare-free, publicly funded transit, Epstein said the city had a great real-world experiment with this during the pandemic, when fare collection was suspended for more than a year. “Not only was it a wonderful thing for equity,” he said, but it also attracted more people to buses and lowered our carbon emissions tremendously…so it’s something he would support in the future. Using public transit is a cleaner, greener choice, which makes air cleaner and healthier for everyone, he said, so it would be nice to reward people for using it.
There have been a lot of high profile crimes in and around CD 5 recently. Can you share thoughts on public safety?
Epstein said he shares the community’s safety concerns, including recent “very troubling” increases in violent and hate crimes, which we need to address. That said, however, “I don’t believe the solution is throwing more cops at it,” because simply hiring more cops isn’t the answer. He likened the situation to simply widening the 405 freeway every time congestion gets worse, which only leads to more congestion over time. Instead, he said, the future of policing should be a leaner, more efficient, police force, based in the community. In other words, he said, we need to take officers away from the jobs they’re not equipped for (such as responses to calls involving mental health and traffic stops, where police presence can actually escalate situations and lead to violence). Instead, he said, we should use technology and/or unarmed responses for those kinds of problems, and reallocate some of those resources to actually solving crimes, while also returning to true community-based policing, such as small, Japanese-style kobans in the community, and more police on foot instead of patrolling in cars.
Finally, he said we also need to deal with police misconduct and violence (such as we saw in the 2020 riots at 3rd and Fairfax, where peaceful protestors were met with police in riot gear), and do the hard work of transforming the culture at LAPD, especially in communities of color. But none of these goals are mutually exclusive, he said, and we need a council member who can address all of them.
What do you mean by “community policing,” and how will it work?
Epstein said that part of the way we can make communities safe is to re-build relationships between the police and our neighborhoods. But that can only happen if the police are on the ground, walking and talking to people, hosting community forums on issues of concern, and participating in local events like National Night Out. Those kinds of opportunities for communication are really important, he said, because if you actually know your senior lead officer, and have their phone number, it can help to shorten response times when there’s a problem.
Which CD 5 blocks or corners make you sad or angry and why?
Epstein said Westwood Village is one of his favorite places in CD 5, but he gets frustrated because there’s so much potential for improvement. The area is home to one of the best universities in the country, he said, but there’s a 40% vacancy rate, and lots of parking lots where “nothing is happening.” He said we could build a lot more 1-3 story housing buildings there, for students and others, and they would fit in well and wouldn’t destroy any historic resources…but we can’t do that right now because of current parking requirements. He said there are lots of students involved in his campaign, though, and he would like to do right by then on this issue if he’s elected.
How should SB 9 (the new statewide law that allows construction of duplexes on any single family lot, and splitting of single family lots) be applied in historic neighborhoods?
Epstein said he lives in a duplex that fronts the street like a single family residence, so he understands the issue. But he also can’t afford to own a home in CD 5, and knows that it was legal to build duplexes, fourplexes, bungalow courts and other small multi-family buildings in the 1930s, and they helped to make our communities more vibrant and diverse. Part of the problem, he said, is that new housing in recent decades just hasn’t met the design standards of our neighborhoods very well – like dingbat buildings with parking in front of them, and too many trees removed to make room for large driveways in front of buildings. He said he loves living in Carthay Square, which has lots of older buildings and mature trees, so what we need to manage the changes from SB 9 are some good design standards, tree protections, and rules for driveway widths. If we can do that, he said, and reform our parking requirements, we should be able to make SB 9 compatible with our historic neighborhoods. “I plan to be a leader to make sure SB9 works for CD 5,” he said.
Do you support minimum parking requirements?
Epstein said he has been a longtime advocate for eliminating minimum parking requirements in the city…but that doesn’t mean eliminating parking altogether. Instead, he said, it means legalizing different kinds of housing for people with different lifestyles, which is a matter of social justice. For example, he said, if you want to live near the subway, and don’t want to own a car, that’s great. We shouldn’t make it illegal to build housing that meets your needs. There are other policy solutions to the problem of parking, and we shouldn’t make certain types of housing illegal to solve it.
If elected, what three things would you do on day one of the job?
Epstein said he would start with the kinds of quick fixes that would help to solve the biggest problems. First, for example, he said he would have a staff meeting about Vision Zero, and look at the data on where the biggest traffic safety problems are in CD 5, because there has been a “total lack of progress” on this issue.
Second, Epstein said he’d do a full inventory of where we might be able to put temporary and permanent supportive housing (something he’s actually going to do even before the election), and then book a meeting with the city’s chief analyst to discuss those options.
And third, Epstein said, he’s going to convene a meeting with service providers and other groups to start building a CD 5 outreach system for unhoused neighbors, similar to the one created by Nithya Raman in her office.
What are your strengths and weaknesses as a collaborator?
Epstein cited his experience as chair of the Mid City West Neighborhood Council for seven years, overseeing a group that could often be contentious (unlike the city council, where votes are often 15-0), and much collaboration was required to pass just about anything. Epstein said his proudest example of this is the neighborhood greenway project he spearheaded. He got the idea, he said, by biking in the area and studying maps and design options. Then he took it to the MCWNC transportation committee, where people made further suggestions. From there, the idea went to the full neighborhood council, which made more suggestions before overwhelmingly approving the project. Then Epstein said he advocated for the project with city council representatives, and other city leaders, including meetings with the Department of City Planning, Transportation, and City Council Districts 4 and 5. He said he organized a bike ride for people from those offices, during which they also looked at alternate routes. And then he did a lot of community engagement to get neighbors’ buy-in as well. That effort, too involved an organized ride with about 40 community members traversing 6 different intersections for more feedback. And after Councilmember Paul Koretz decided to back the effort, city planners wrote a grant to Metro, and won $2.3 million in funding. Epstein said the effort started in 2013, and he’s still working on the project because he wants to build a more bike friendly CD 5.
Would you consider requiring affordable housing in exchange for reducing or eliminating parking requirements?
Epstein said said that both the the city’s Transit Oriented Communities guidelines and the older statewide density bonus las, SB 1818, already do this, by allowing developers to include less parking if they include certain numbers of officially affordable units in their projects.
To learn more about Epstein, or to donate to his campaign, see https://scottforla.com/.
The next HODG “Looking Local” event is scheduled for this coming Sunday, April 3, at 4 p.m., with City Council District 5 candidate Sam Yebri. Sign up here for the Zoom link if you’d like to attend.
The remaining candidate conversations include:
4/3 (4-5 pm) Sam Yebri, City Council District 5 (confirmed)
4/10 (4-5pm) Mitch O’Farrell, City Council District 13 (confirmed)
4/17 (4-5pm) Kate Pynoos, City Council District 13 (confirmed)
(5-6pm) Dulce Vasquez, City Council District 9 (confirmed)
4/24 (4-5 pm) Hugo Soto Martinez, City Council District 13 (confirmed)
5/1 (4-5 pm) Teddy Kapur, City Attorney (confirmed)
(5-5:30pm) Eli Vera, Sheriff (confirmed)
5/8 (4-5 pm) Hydee Feldstein Soto, City Attorney (confirmed)
5/15 (4-5 pm) Faisal Gill, City Attorney (confirmed)
5/22 (4-5 pm) Bob Hertzberg, Board of Supervisors (confirmed)
5/29 (4-5 pm) OPEN
6/7: ELECTION DAY
About Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.
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