On Thursday, May 26, the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council teamed up with three other neighborhood councils to host two back-to-back city council candidate forums at the Ebell of Los Angeles – one for City Council District 5, and one for City Council District 13. Each session drew about 75-100 people to the in-person discussion, which was also simultaneously livestreamed for those who preferred to watch online. (Recordings of the two sessions are now available here and here.) This report covers the CD 5 forum; our story on the CD 13 session will run tomorrow.
The first session on Thursday evening, moderated by Fox 11 journalist and five-time Emmy award winner Elex Michaelson, was a cooperative effort among the GWNC, the Mid City West Neighborhood Council, and the Palms Neighborhood Council. Introductions were handled by GWNC President Conrad Starr and MCWNC’s Dre Guttag, who also provided background information about the City Council and its election system. Then moderator Michaelson invited each of the four CD 5 candidates – Jimmy Biblarz, Scott Epstein, Sam Yebri, and Katy Young Yaroslavsky (the latter participating quite seamlessly on a large monitor via Zoom, since one of her children had just tested positive for COVID-19) – to introduce themselves, answer several long- and short-form questions, and offer closing remarks.
Epstein said he is “running to make Los Angeles work for all of us.” He was chair of the Mid City West Neighborhood Council for seven years, helped found the Los Angeles Homeless Coalition, and during his time on the MCWNC opened the only homeless shelter in CD 5. He said he will focus on ending homelessness and addressing climate change.
Biblarz said he grew up in the Pico Robertson area, and after he and his parents were evicted from their longtime home, they fell into substance abuse and addiction. Biblarz now teaches at UCLA Law School, and said he wants to focus on housing affordability, and to help everyone in LA thrive again.
Yebri introduced himself as the son of immigrant parents, who has spent the last 20 years as a non-profit lawyer, working with immigrants and tenants, often on a pro bono basis. He said he’s running to make LA “safe, vibrant, clean and affordable for all.”
And Yaroslavsky introduced herself as an environmental attorney who believes we need “efficient, ethical and proven leadership to make LA a place where we all can thrive.” She has worked as a senior policy advisor to LA County Supervisor Sheila Keuhl, and has been endorsed by the LA Times, the Sierra Club, and many other local organizations.
Most people support the idea of bridge housing, but potentially adjacent residents tend to oppose it – so where would you put new bridge housing, and how would you overcome local resistance?
Yaroslavsky said bridge housing is a very important component of the overall housing puzzle, so we have to make it more palatable to people by using a fully transparent process and bringing neighbors into the discussions early…which she has a track record of doing in her previous work for LA County.
Epstein said this is an issue of political will, and “I’m the only one who’s done it.” There is a city-owned parking lot in Miracle Mile that would be a good location for bridge housing, he said, and there are many other potential locations, too.
Yebri said, “Bridge housing is how we save lives,” because people are dying on the streets every day and this is morally the right thing to do. Bridge housing is also how we get people out of parks and other public spaces, he said, and the city owns lots of parcels that could be used, including one 37-acre site near LAX.
Biblarz said we need two things to make it bridge housing siting work: good messaging and political courage. Having bridge housing should be a point of pride in our neighborhoods, he said, and we need to center our messaging strategy on the fact that many people’s kids move home after college, but then wind up either staying with their parents or moving far away because they can’t afford to stay here.
It’s likely there will be a magnitude 7.5 or greater earthquake in LA sometime during the lifetime of kids who are now in school – how should we prepare for that?
Biblarz said COVID-19 has given us a model for resilience, and we need to make sure our buildings are up to code. But that’s the easy part. More difficult is the physical/technical infrastructure. And it’s also about poverty – we know a quake will amplify housing issues.
Yaroslavsky said the city’s Emergency Management Department is underfunded and needs to be better funded. We also need to build in preparedness redundancy with block-by-block preparation efforts and block captains. It’s not a question of if, but when…so we need to overhaul our system, and sufficiently resource the elements that are not ready.
Epstein said Eric Garcetti had a big success with getting soft-story buildings repaired and retrofitted, but now our pre-1970s concrete buildings need work too (like the Park La Brea towers). We also need to get our communities ready through our Neighborhood Councils, and make a good emergency plan.
Yebri said we need to work on three things: address infrastructure (much of which is 30 years overdue for upgrades), invest in emergency responders, and empower neighborhoods and provide money for preparedness, because this is a local issue.
Can you give an example of a time when a stakeholder changed your mind about something?
Epstein drew a blank on specific examples, but said that in his decade as a community leader, he was always learning new things. And one of the things he learned during this campaign is the specific set of issues faced by hillside communities and high-fire districts (since most of his previous experience has been in the flatter parts of the city).
Yebri said the test of good policy makers is whether they can fight for specific issues. An example he cited was Councilmember Mike Bonin’s recent proposal to give tenants easier access to housing by making it harder for landlords to screen them. Yebri said he thought that was a good idea, too, at first, but then he talked to landlords and learned that there could be definite real-world consequences, and landlords would feel less safe if they could no longer screen tenants thoroughly.
Biblarz said he’s an academic, and academics are not known for being grounded in details. But he said he learned by engaging with people during this campaign about the importance of providing good constituent services – because potholes can symbolize trust – and pothole repair is “the greatest anti-corruption tool.”
Yaroslavsky said the big thing for her is housing. We need more affordable housing, but we need to focus on our community plans to figure out where to put it, which is not just along major corridors, but near job centers, Metro lines, and more.
Most new housing is market-rate – so how can we build more affordable units?
Yebri said we need to build more affordable housing, and we can do it by prioritizing and streamlining the permitting process, doing more adaptive reuse of existing buildings, acquiring more existing buildings to reduce the overall cost per unit, and preserving naturally occurring affordable housing. And if we build new housing, he said, we need to make sure we’re not losing any affordable units.
Biblarz said this is the most important issue in his life, and we need to fight for every affordable housing dollar we can get. But we can’t rely entirely on subsidies; we need to regulate the system to keep the market affordable and to help build more affordable units.
Yaroslavsky, a former land use attorney, said there’s no one thing that will solve the problem. Instead, she said, we need to tackle it from many angles – including preserving naturally occurring affordable housing, which is cheaper. We also need to enter into more public/private partnerships, like a project now being built on County property in Chinatown, and deploy rent vouchers to help make market rate housing affordable.
Epstein said he’s a renter, so the issue is personal to him. Abundance is one piece of the puzzle, he said, so landlords would have to compete for renters. And we should make sure that it’s not illegal to build naturally affordable dwellings like duplexes, fourplexes and bungalow courts. Currently, he said, there are too many roadblocks to building affordable housing.
What hasn’t been talked about enough in this race?
Epstein said the homelessness discussion hasn’t been ideal, and that Sam Yebri is the only one who supports the new anti-camping ordinance. Encampments do present a health and safety issue, Epstein said, but simple enforcement just doesn’t work. Instead, he cited the approach of CD 4 Councilmember Nithya Raman, who has been taking a care-first approach, which is working – she eliminated a large encampment by the Hollywood Bowl by providing outreach, services, and housing. That’s the approach that can best deal with encampments and homelessness, Epstein said. And if elected, he would try to get those kinds of programs up and running in his first 100 days in office.
Biblarz called out the blizzard of combative campaign mailers, which he said just isn’t his style. We have real issues, and we won’t solve homelessness or anything else by verbally assaulting each other, he said. Politics doesn’t have to be about such things, and his campaign has focused on ideas. So the mailers are “not who we are,” and his campaign has knocked on more than 25,000 doors to reach out to people in person.
Yaroslavsky said that she’s different from other candidates in both experience and temperament, as well as the only one who’s actually worked in government. She said she knows issues are both regional and intersectional. She knows where the money is, and how to leverage it. We can’t solve problems all on our own, she said – we need collaborators on the city council, because everything requires eight votes to pass, and that requires good relationships. So her combination of experience and temperament is the reason for her many endorsements – she’s already been doing this job, and is ready to step in and lead.
Yebri said that what differentiates him from the other candidates is his policy ideas – including public safety, gun violence, and mental health – which haven’t been talked about enough. Also, he said, we need more homeless shelters. He said he’s already been helping build new housing on Pico Blvd., has fought for tenants and single mothers, and has served the city for a long time. He’s also the only candidate who is calling for more police now, he said, and he has the broadest coalition of support among the four candidates.
People living outside make our streets unsafe – yes or no?
All – Yes.
In and Out is the best burger in LA.
Yaroslavsky and Biblarz – Yes
Yebri and Epstein – Apple Pan is better.
Our need to build housing outweighs our need for historic preservation.
Epstein – Yes, but it’s not a zero sum game.
Yaroslavsky and Yebri – We have do to both.
Biblarz – More housing is an emergency. Preservation is great, but it can’t get in the way of building more.
LAPD funding is at the right level now.
Yarsoslavsky – LAPD needs additional reform, and that costs money. And we need an audit to figure out where to spend the funds.
Biblarz – Yes for LAPD, but public safety in general (such as mental health treatment) is not adequately funded.
Yebri – No. LAPD needs more officers, training, and technology.
Epstein – Yes. But we need to reduce overtime, and reallocate some kinds of tasks to other types of responders.
The City Council should be expanded.
Yebri – Yes, to 30 members.
Biblarz – Yes, but it’s not a silver bullet.
Yaroslavsky – Not sure that will solve our problems. We’d also need to expand council office resources. Chicago has a larger city council and it’s still corrupt.
Epstein – Yes. We need to expand representation and diversity.
School playgrounds should be open to the public on weekends.
Biblarz – Yes, they’re a tremendous green space resource.
Epstein – Yes – community/school parks are one of the things he’s most excited about working on.
Yaroslavsky – Absolutely. Measure W, which she worked on, does this.
Yebri – Yes, but there’s been lots of talk about it and we just need to do it.
The Dodgers will win the World Series.
Biblarz and Epstein – Agree
Yaroslavsky – I hope so.
Yebri – I’m pessimistic.
You would ratify the Mayor’s 2023 budget as written.
Epstein – Disagree. It needs more resources for mental health treatment and homeless outreach.
Biblarz – Disagree.
Yaroslavsky – Disagree. It needs more money for homeless prevention.
Yebri – Disagree. It needs more funding for enforcement of things like AirBnB rentals, along with eviction preventions.
Should there be a vacancy tax?
Yaroslavsky – Open to this; might help incentivize landlords.
Epstein – Agree it could be a useful tool, but it’s not a panacea…just one tool.
Biblarz – Yes, in theory, but it plays into the fiction of housing scarcity.
Yebri – No, it’s not going to solve the problem.
If you do not win, you promise not to run for another office for at least two election cycles.
Biblarz – Disagree. “I’m in it” now, and would like to serve in some capacity.
Yebri – Agree. Only interested in the City Council seat.
Epstein – Agree. “I’m super focused on this.”
Yaroslavsky – “I’m not interested in anything else. My background and skill set is good for this particular job.”
We should restrict individual water use due to the drought.
Epstein and Yaroslavsky – Yes.
Yebri – Yes, but we should use a combination of carrot and stick.
Biblarz – Yes, but it’s about education, and we need more things like gray water systems.
I have been mischaracterized in this campaign.
Yebri – Yes. He hasn’t taken money from developers.
Yaroslavsky – Yes. The California Apartment Association has launched a smear campaign full of lies and inaccuracies.
Epstein – No. “You get what you see tonight.”
Biblarz – He said he’s been called eager and an idealogue. “I am certainly eager, but I am by no means an idealogue. I’m a pragmatist and believe in bringing people together and having hard conversations…but people’s political views are not as hardened as we may believe at the outset.”
Yaroslavsky said she would be the first woman elected in this district since 1965, she has the experience and temperament to serve on the city council, and she’s already doing the work. She’s ready to step in and would be “deeply honored and gratified for your vote.”
Yebri said this is a city of endless possibilities, but people have lacked the energy and creativity to lead us. We need to move forward with common sense solutions, he said, and he has the widest coalition of anyone in the race. He wants the city to be the same kind of place it was when he first arrived as a child.
Biblarz said he’s a teacher and loves statistics. Real wages in LA have been flat for 50 years, but housing costs have risen are now 11 times what they were 50 years ago. This is responsible for much of the hardship we see today, where being able to afford housing is like winning the lottery for the young.
Epstein said this job is about political courage. We have an affordability crisis. The world is burning and our electeds have failed to embrace change and fix issues locally. He’s not afraid to challenge power, fight for housing, and more.
For more information about, and remarks from, each of the four CD 5 candidates, please see the Buzz’s previous coverage of their more in-depth discussions as part of Hang Out Do Good’s “Looking Local” candidate conversation series: here, here, here and here.
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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