It’s been almost a week since the election results were officially announced in City Council District 4, and since then, Council Member Elect Nithya Raman has been busy preparing for her December 14 swearing in – reaching out to other council members, thinking about staff (no big decisions or announcements yet), and a busy calendar of get-to-know-you appearances with various neighborhood and stakeholder groups. Among other meet-and-greets, she visited the Windsor Square Association annual meeting on Thursday night, she’ll be at the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council meeting next week, and she made time for a brief sit-down with our Buzz co-publishers yesterday afternoon. Here are some of the issues Raman will be dealing with in her coming term on the Council:
Raman’s campaign focused heavily on issues relating to homelessness – which she says is what motivated her to run for office in the first place. And the issue seemed to resonate with voters, too (as you can see in this votes-by-precinct map from the LA Times).
So moving into her new position in city government, and in her conversation with the Buzz, Raman was still very much focused on the topic, repeating many of the themes she ran on for the last few months. For example, Raman said there are two areas in which the city has really struggled with homelessness.
First, she said, is the way services are delivered to homeless residents, which she said “has been very lacking across the city.” At the moment, as has been widely discussed over the last couple of years, LAPD is the primary responder for calls relating to homeless individuals, and LAPD officers are the frequent first contact for homeless residents. But these mostly non-urgent calls take up a lot of our officers’ time, according to Raman and many others, and the people involved would be better served with an “outreach and services response.” Toward that end, Raman said, she would like to help redirect some of the city’s service dollars to establish community-based access centers for homeless services, which are firmly tied to their local neighborhoods. Staff at the centers would get to know the people they’re serving, and would work with them all along their path out of homelessness and into permanent shelter, rather than simply passing them along from one agency to another over time as too often happens now.
Raman said the second biggest problem in the city’s response to homelessness so far has been ensuring more shelter beds and housing are available to more people. The current process, she said, including the much-publicized Bridge Home program, has been too slow and too expensive. But Raman said there are good examples of cooperation between public and non-profit groups elsewhere in LA County, which have yielded more and faster beds. She said she believes there are significant opportunities to create more of those kinds of partnerships here in the city of Los Angeles, using a combination of city-level funding and the discretionary funds available to each individual council district.
It’s a big job, of course, but Raman says there is “quite a bit of momentum” right now – with three new city council members – and her proposals are “not radical,” but simply a “re-orienting” of current efforts and resources.
Along with homelessness, housing is another big area of concern for Raman. In general, Raman aligns with the vast majority of current planning experts and officials who advocate adding more density along transit corridors…but she said she also favors a couple of other measures.
The first is reducing parking requirements, especially in transit rich areas, because putting less parking into a new building makes construction (and the resulting housing) less expensive. And that means more people – including those most likely to use public transit – can afford the apartments that are being built near transit lines.
The second new-housing policy Raman said she favors is decreasing the size of new units and legalizing smaller units than are currently allowed in the city, to build new Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units and other “first-step” housing…both for people coming out of homelessness and for those at risk of falling into it.
For example, Raman said, most homeless individuals are single adult males, many of whom used to be accommodated in old downtown hotels that had been converted into SRO units. But over the last couple of decades, many SRO buildings have been turned back into luxury hotel stock, leaving a big hole in the in the lower end of the affordable housing market.
And finally, Raman said she also wants to help make sure people are not falling into homelessness, and that vulnerable people stay housed by working to make emergency rental assistance easier to obtain, and available to a wider range of people.
Raman said the final piece of her housing efforts will be working to create a central registry of rental properties in the city. Right now, she said, there is no comprehensive registry, and that makes it impossible to track things like occupancy rates and specific vacancies.
Since 2017, she said, there has been a registry for properties that fall under the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO), but that covers only 80% of our apartments. To be effective, however, Raman said the registry should cover all rental units, and include clear ownership information for each property, which is not currently available. Raman said San Francisco recently established such a registry, and did it fairly quickly, at a reasonable cost. She said the project would help “buttress” other housing efforts, “won’t break the bank,” and could save the city money in the long run by helping to keep more people housed.
Interestingly, Raman said she is not as excited about another previously-proposed housing regulatory measure – a vacancy tax. While this, too, is something that would require the rental unit registry she supports, she said there are a number of loopholes in the tax as previously proposed, so it might not raise as much money for the city, or go as far to help the homeless, as some people hope it would. She also said, however, that a vacancy tax could be one of many tools that might help our housing issues in the long run.
When it comes to preserving the historic character of existing low-density neighborhoods, Raman’s responses were both fewer and less specific than on previous topics. She did say, however, that when considering this issue, she likes to look at previous examples of what she considers good planning, such as the the development of Thai Town during construction of the Red Line subway through Hollywood in the 1990s. Raman said that in that effort, then-city-councilmember Jackie Goldberg led a process of intense community engagement in the riot-ravaged neighborhood, and successfully created new housing and commercial development around the transit line, while both preserving and showcasing the area’s ethnic heritage.
Supporting Larchmont Blvd. and Other Small Businesses
When we asked about ideas to support our Larchmont Blvd. business district, Raman also didn’t offer any specific solutions, but did say that she hears from troubled small business owners every day, and that Larchmont is one of many districts hard hit by the COVID-19 turndown, with many businesses closing. “Businesses came into the pandemic already facing severe rental stress,” she said, “…and then they saw the bottom fall out.”
But Raman said that while “we have a moment right now when businesses are struggling,” there is at least some hope on the horizon. First, she said, the news of a potential COVID-19 vaccine this week is promising…and there is also a chance that the city will receive more federal stimulus dollars, which could also be put to work for small businesses.
Raman said she also thinks there’s an opportunity for the city or state to help businesses renegotiate leases with their landlords, though the legalities of that have not yet been worked out. In addition, the current protections for businesses don’t necessarily say what happens to back rent and other debts at the end of the pandemic, so that’s something else she and the City Council might be able to help with. “There is a lot to do,” she said. “A lot of challenges.”
For more information on Raman’s plans and goals for her term on the City Council, she refers people to the Neighborhood Issues page on her website – http://www.nithyaforthecity.com – which provides statements on a variety of topics of interest to CD4 residents.
(One of these is her recently-announced opposition the proposed Mirabel development at 5411 Wilshire Blvd., which Raman says in on the web page should contain more than the minimum-required number of affordable housing units, and which – with its long list of proposed luxury amenities – would not, as currently proposed, attract the kind of public transit riders who could easily be encouraged to live in a transit-adjacent development.)
Raman is still busily getting to know her new constituents, and she invites both individuals and organizations who would like to share their thoughts or invite her to a meeting to reach out to [email protected] or (323) 300-4872.