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 Mitch O’Farrell, one of five candidates who will be on the ballot to represent District 13 on the City Council, took place on Sunday, April 10. O’Farrell, now in his second term serving the district, is the incumbent in this race. He’s a 30-year resident of Glassell Park, has also lived and worked in Hollywood, and is endorsed by a long list of elected officials, labor unions, community organizations, and non-profits. The conversation was structured as a Q&A with HODG hosts, and covered the following topics.
Please introduce yourself, and tell us your understanding of the job of City Councilmember.
O’Farrell said he has lived in Glassell Park, in the 13th District for 30 years, and lived and worked in Hollywood, also in the 13th District, for another ten years before that.
As for the City Council, O’Farrell said, “We are your most local, direct, governmental contact.” He said the job of a councilmember is to take care of the district’s neighborhoods, block by block, and street by street. Also, as someone who began his public involvement doing volunteer work for several non-profit organizations in the district, he said he knows that councilmembers also work with all sorts of volunteers and non-profit community groups, and are responsible for all kinds of quality of life issues and policy decisions that affect people where they live and work, especially keeping streets and neighborhoods safer. “I call it non-judgmental public service,” he said. “You don’t judge people’s lives, just evaluate what they’d like to see and build consensus around what neighborhoods want and then pull the levers of government to make good things happen.”
O’Farrell said the other part of a councilmember’s job is making policy for the city as a whole. And on that front, he said, he had hand in or helped lead most of the city’s early COVID-19 protections, including, rent subsidies, meal distributions, and more. He said he’s also helped create policy for affordable housing and fighting climate change, especially when it comes to making sure the city gets its fair share of services from LA County. And he also helped replaced Columbus day with Indigenous People’s Day (something he’s especially proud of as a person of Native American heritage), ensured that all officially covenanted affordable housing in the city has a covenant term of 55 years instead of 30, revived funding for city arts projects, and worked on animal welfare improvements.
Finally, O’Farrell said, being a councilmember also has a diplomatic side, representing the city and/or district at places like the League of Cities, and at Hollywood Walk of Fame start ceremonies. So he said it’s important to know a lot about your district, and that he would argue he knows more about the 13th district than anyone…and is honored to fulfill that responsibility as a councilmember.
Homelessness has grown significantly during your time in office. Can you tell us why…and what you’d do differently to address the issue if you’re re-elected?
O’Farrell said we just need to keep repeating what we’re doing, and do more of it everywhere. He said that so far, the 13th district has produced more affordable housing units than any other city council district outside downtown LA. Also, between now and June 30, construction will be starting on another 720 covenanted affordable housing units, including a campus at Madison and Beverly with 454 units, which actually began as a safe sleep site for the homeless. And another project will create housing at the old Louis B. Mayer building in Hollywood, where the CD 13 field office used to be located. In all, O’Farrell said, CD 13 has created more than 2,000 new housing units, and he will work to build more. “I have been in the trenches,” O’Farrell said. “I have supported this long before it was popular to do so.” At the same time, though, he also said that while he’s proud of this record, it’s still not enough, that there has been much less development in other parts of the city, and all districts should embrace the efforts to build more.
What is your plan to increase more affordable housing options for CD 13…and what would you do differently and/or similarly to what’s already being done?
In addition to the kinds of projects mentioned above, O’Farrell cited the new Hollywood Arts Collective building, which is now nearing completion with 150 units of low income housing specifically for artists. And another project bringing 109 new units to a vacated city parking lot in Echo Park, which will begin construction soon, will provide 2-3 bedroom units for families. “I’ll never back down from these challenges,” O’Farrell said. “I’ll always look for opportunities to do more.”
What is your plan to address climate change…what has been done so far…and what new changes would you work for?
O’Farrell noted that late last year, the City Council approved the LA 100 plan, a “blueprint” for fighting climate change, which was created in cooperation with activists, engineers, and community involvement, and aims to make LA carbon-free by 2045…or even 2035. He said he also supported the city’s electric car master plan, which will electrify the city’s entire vehicle fleet (the first electric fire engine will be coming soon to Hollywood), as well as install tens of thousands of electric car chargers throughout the city, to make it easier for apartment residents to own electric cars. And he helped negotiate the city’s first clean power agreement with the Navajo nation, which will supply clean energy to more than 4,000 Los Angeles households. O’Farrell said he wants to work on more such projects and is proud to be endorsed by the Sierra Club. In addition, he said, he’s a big proponent of reflective surfaces for streets, and a huge proponent of the urban forest. In fact, he said, CD 13 has not only planted thousands of trees, but committed to watering them for three years. And when park renovations are done, he said, his office requires that four new trees are planted for every one removed.
San Diego announced that it wants to lead the way on “15-minute cities” (where you can get to essential services with no more than a 15-minute walk or bike ride). The Livable Communities Initiative has a similar plan – will you support it?
O’Farrell said he loves the Livable Communities plan, and its commitment to human-scale development. He said he also aims to incorporate as much natural habitat as possible into our communities (after all, the beloved mountain lion, P-22, is a resident of CD 13), and he’s a big supporter of multi-modal transportation infrastructure (as exemplified by a new bridge near Elysian Park), so he’d love to encourage this kind of development, cut as much red tape as possible, streamline approval processes, and fight frivolous lawsuits and appeals that can slow things down.
There have recently been several high-profile crimes in our area, people don’t feel safe, and 128 pedestrians were killed crossing streets in Los Angeles last year (up from 2020). What does public safety look like to you, and what will you do about it?
O’Farrell said there are two categories of public safety – unsafe streets, and bad guys doing bad things. “If we don’t feel safe where we live or where we work, there’s no quality of life. It’s that basic,” he said. O’Farrell said he does believe in being very tough on crime, especially assaults and homicides. But at the same time, he’s also a big believer in helping people find redemption for some kinds of unarmed crimes. He said that we need to figure out why so many people currently feel unsafe, and then address those issues, while also supporting community policing, police visibility, and crime deterrence, which is best.
As for street safety, O’Farrell said we seem to have a “perfect storm” of distracted drivers these days, with people driving recklessly, on their devices while driving, and just not aware of pedestrians. He says he’s worked hard to improve street safety by widening sidewalks, installing bump-outs to bring people together at crossings, and installing dozens of signalized intersections and crosswalks, many of which also have respite islands where people can wait if they get caught when a light changes. Also, he noted, the new Hollywood Walk of Fame Master Plan calls for dedicated bike lanes, which we can create in more places, too, like the Sunset corridor, along the LA River, and on streets like Fletcher Drive and Virgil Ave. So there’s a lot more we can do, even there are some challenges in CD 13 because of our generally narrow streets.
Do you have any plans to improve streets in the Frogtown area?
O’Farrell said his office has already done a lot in the general Elysian Valley area, including the new bridge mentioned earlier, but that he’s also working on adding speed tables and resurfacing streets. He said he also has lots of plans for traffic safety in the area, including completing a new street lighting program in the next couple of years.
Do you have any information on bike paths planned for Hyperion, between Rowena and Sunset?
O’Farrell said this area is actually in CD 4, not CD 13, but that the community is working with the Council District 4 office on a plan for slowing traffic on the busy street. But he said he looks forward to seeing the plan, and will work with the community when he can, because it will affect a lot of CD 13 residents as well.
Is it true that you were the swing vote against a pandemic-period moratorium to protect renters?
“There’s no such thing as swing vote,” O’Farrell said, noting that he was one of eight council members to vote against the measure in question, which would have created a complete ban on evictions of any kind during the pandemic (even of tenants who might be a danger to other current tenants). O’Farrell said that kind of ban would have been illegal under the California state constitution, and would have just resulted in lawsuits that would have kept it from being enacted even if the Council had passed it (and that could also have put the city in financial jeopardy at a very critical time, too). Instead, O’Farrell said he and the other City Council members supported and enacted a different kind of moratorium, which was carefully designed to prevent evictions of people who had been specifically hurt by the pandemic, and which was extended for one year after the city’s state of emergency was lifted. And in addition, O’Farrell said, he also helped pass rent subsidies in both CD 13 and the larger city, which also helped renters survive during the pandemic.
Can you address the LA Times story on the homeless encampment cleanup at Echo Park Lake, which quoted a UCLA study that said of the 183 people displaced in that effort, only 17 found in long term housing while 48 are still waiting for temporary housing, 15 returned to the streets, and many more are now unaccounted for?
“There was zero displacement at echo park lake,” O’Farrell said, saying the majority of people there were placed in transitional housing of various kinds, including 4-star hotels. O’Farrell said that three of the UCLA study’s authors were actually people who had been protesting at the park, and fighting the transfer of park residents to temporary housing…so “take that with a certain grain of salt.” O’Farrell also said that the LA Times described the Echo Park Lake encampment as a “commune-like society,” when it was, in fact, “a tragedy of grand proportions.” He cited the death of an 18-y.o. runaway from cocaine and fentanyl, as well as three other overdose deaths at the site, which were tragic and dangerous. O’Farrell said that the usual homeless population at Echo Park had been 10-12 people, but that it “ballooned” during the pandemic, so he used some of his discretionary funds to hire additional outreach staff, who got to know the residents, and were able to find at least temporary placements for more than 200 people…many of who came to the park specifically because they’d heard they’d have opportunities for housing. He said his staff got everyone who wanted to be under a roof, but although his staff did a “warm hand-off” of people to LAHSA, that agency did lose track of some people. But O’Farrell said that in the months since, he has run into some of those people at local tiny home villages and safe camping sites, so they are still getting much-needed services, and no one is giving up on them and his staff is doing its best to make sure no one falls through the cracks. Also, he said, since the park was cleared, crime in the area is now down by 87%, and the action has served as a template for other encampment cleanups in Venice Beach and MacArthur Park…so the plan is being fine tuned and getting better as time goes on, with even more people getting into permanent homes and back on track to wellness.
The LA County Board of Supervisors commissioned a blue ribbon report that concluded County services are not being delivered as they should be. How can case managers do their jobs when they are responsible for so many people? Can you as a councilmember increase funding for case managers?
O’Farrell said this is the reason he led a delegation to Sacramento the week after this event, which he’s done three times since the start of the pandemic to specifically address addiction and mental health issues. He said he wants both LA County and the City of Los Angeles to get their fair shares of state funding, and to make sure that the city gets its fair share of resources from LA County, which is contractually obligated to provide health, mental health, and addiction services for the city. And that would include funding for both health care professionals and brick and mortar facilities. O’Farrell said he would like to create more places like the new Enlightenment Plaza campus at Beverly and the 101 Freeway, and that he’s been fighting for two years to acquire the old St. Vincent’s Hospital, which could provide 366 beds for an acute care center. And we need even more such facilities across the city, he said.
You can’t force unhoused people into housing, and no single housing option is right for all people. What can you do if someone on the streets doesn’t want a housing placement?
O’Farrell said that he believes most people on the street can be coaxed indoors eventually. Some have issues that impair their judgment, but in the end, if people can get help, they will come inside. And once we reduce the overall scale of the problem, he said, we can really focus on getting the people with the most acute needs inside, too. He said it took his office more than 20 contacts to convince one person to accept an offer of shelter, so you just have to be relentless, because many people have been through so much trauma, and are so damaged, it takes a while for them to trust people enough to accept help.
Every councilmember thinks he or she is doing a great job. Do you feel you’re doing a terrific job…especially with the homeless crisis?
“Anyone who knows me has never heard me say doing a terrific job at anything,” O’Farrell said. “I go around thinking the job is never done. I am often pleased with results, but rarely satisfied.” But the big secret, he said, is that the job is never done, so that’s not something he focuses on. Instead, he said he knows that his time in office is limited, so he focuses on what he can do with the position while he has it – because most people don’t even remember who their councilmember was 20 years ago.
What can policies can the city enact to bring rents down?
O’Farrell said it comes down to “product, product, product.” We’re half a million housing units short of what we need, so we need a “Marshall Plan” for cutting red tape and creating equity. One advantage the city has, he said, is that it’s big – 469 square miles of space – but there are a lot of underused parcels begging for development, so we have to ramp up production, and do that especially in mixed-income neighborhoods. Also, he said, we need to take some decision-making power away from individual city councilmembers, to help speed up the process.
O’Farrell said he wants audience members to know that he’s one of them – he started volunteering in the 1980s, taking AIDS patients’ pets to vet appointments through the PAWS organization, delivering meals to AIDS patients with Project Angelfood, and working with the Wildlife Waystation. He said the City of Los Angeles can only function with a direct connection to its volunteer corps, which are the “secret sauce” that make the city tick. Finally, O’Farrell said that as a leader, he also knows that experience matters in this job, as does understanding context, and the diversity of the city, which he shares as a gay man, a person of Native American heritage, and someone with humble roots (his dad was a Teamster truck driver, and he was educated in public schools). O’Farrell said he understands the struggles people are going through, believes in judgment-free public service, and is ready to tackle the city’s big issues and move forward.
The next HODG Looking Local event is scheduled for this coming Sunday, May 8, at 4 p.m., with City Attorney candidate Hydee Feldstein Soto. Sign up here for the Zoom link if you’d like to attend.
The remaining HODG “Looking Local” candidate conversations include:
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