August 28, 2020 - From the August, 2020 issue

Council President Nury Martinez on Addressing the Cloud of Corruption over LA City Hall

In this exclusive TPR interview, LA City Council President Nury Martinez, responding to the deep-pocketed pay-to-play corruption scandal encircling Los Angeles City Hall and disgraced Councilmembers Jose Huizar and Mitchell Englander, elaborates on the three motions she just introduced—just months before this November's Council elections—to increase transparency of the city’s entitlement and development review process. Her intent, she asserts, is to begin to address the considerable erosion of public trust in City Hall. President Martinez further shares her commitment both to keeping Angelenos housed during the COVID public health and economic crises and to opposing one-size-fits all housing solutions currently under consideration by the California Assembly.


Nury Martinez

“The last thing I want to see is multinational corporations buying up properties in my neighborhood—this is what some of the advocates do not understand. We have got to figure out how to help people make rent because otherwise minority property owners or small business owners are going to lose their properties… This is something that I'm very fearful of and that we have got to be very careful with.”—Nury Martinez

"There is a black cloud over City Hall right now, and if we do not seize the moment and do right by our neighborhoods, then we have failed… This has to be a teachable moment for everyone. Whether we're getting lobbied by lobbyists or consultants, it doesn't matter, we got elected to do one job and that's represent our districts.”

Nury, you were elected by your colleagues to lead the City Council just months before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down on a string. How have your, and the Council’s, policy priorities necessarily evolved over the course of 2020 since pandemic struck the region and the world?

My priorities have not so much as evolved, as they’ve sharpened; during the pandemic, they have only become more focused.

I grew up in the community of Pacoima. My parents are Mexican immigrants. I was a child of the working poor. My father was a dishwasher for 30 years who never drove in his life, and my mother was a seamstress who became a worker in the factory across the street where I grew up, in Pacoima. Who I am and how I see the world is really sharpened by growing up in the North East Valley most of my childhood.

So, when I became Council President in January, my priority was a family-first agenda that would prioritize working families, disadvantaged communities, black and brown communities, as well as women and children on the verge of homelessness, or kids who are living in motels.

In January, these families were barely getting by and having to work two or three jobs just to put enough food on the table. When the pandemic hit, people were shocked by the impacts on disadvantaged communities and people living at the bottom of the economic ladder. I was not surprised. These are the same people that I've been fighting for my entire political career.

These families were not only going to suffer the economic devastation when this pandemic hit but they were also going to be the most affected health wise. The people who are dying are Latino and black. To me, that wasn't a surprise. A lot of these folks don't have the luxury to work from home. They're essential workers, and they need to keep working to be able to provide for their families.

So, my priorities just became so much more focused. And we got to work immediately.

TPR has interviewed this year a number of locally elected and civic leaders about the challenges — exacerbated by pandemic — of meeting the systemic economic and survival needs of the public. What, in summary, is the City of LA’s economic recovery strategy/plan to meet both immediate and long-term needs families and communities? 

First, we've had to take steps to protect the most vulnerable in our city to try to create a safety net for them. One way we did that was in creating the most robust eviction moratorium in the state of California.

Also, we put $100 million into our emergency renter's relief program that's going to assist more than 50,000 families to make sure that they stay in their homes. That program is  not only going to help renters, but the money goes directly to property owners to keep these apartment buildings and duplexes from going into foreclosure.

We're also earmarking as much as $50 million for a Right to Recovery program—a paid leave program for low income Angelenos to stay home if they get sick or until they can recover and safely return back to work. Just yesterday, we passed $30 million dedicated to child-care assistance and alternative learning centers to assist some of our parents in about 50 of the neediest parks throughout the city of Los Angeles to be able to provide childcare and vouchers for parents who can't afford childcare but have to go back to work. So many women, particularly single moms, have had to make that tough decision to go back to work or stay home to do distance learning with their children, if they even have a job to go back to.

We also voted on $30 million in small business grants to help some of our small businesses recover from the pandemic. We are laser focused on making sure that we are targeting businesses in black and brown communities who have not been able to apply for federal assistance and are having a hard time navigating how they're able to get back to business as usual.

It's not only about putting programs and money in place and actual cash in people's hands, but we also need to continue to advocate for more federal assistance if we truly intend to keep people housed and want to be able to assist small businesses get back on their feet.

We do this interview as both parties' National Conventions draw to a close and while there's still been no resolution in Congress about a fourth round of funding that includes supplemental unemployment assistance as well as state and local financial support. How dependent is the city, given the cratering of the economy, on that federal support to do what your council members have voted on and prioritized?  

Everything that I just outlined is coming from that first round of federal stimulus and COVID recovery money.

It's immoral that the Senate stopped negotiating the $600 supplemental unemployment assistance. If we want people to live and stop spreading the virus, we need to pay them to stay home and pay their bills. It's unconscionable that the Senate just stopped negotiating, and they won't even debate the House proposal to assist local and state governments to be able to stay afloat.

There's no doubt that we're going to need billions more dollars in assistance from the federal government to be able to get people back to work and for us to be able to help our businesses, particularly small businesses in black and brown communities, be able to get back on their feet. Our small business grant program is great, but it's just simply not enough to allow us to reinvest in some of these neighborhood businesses.

We're going to have a very different conversation in the next couple of months when we start to figure out what we're going to do next fiscal year. God forbid if we have to start talking about more furloughs or layoffs. But we are going to be facing serious economic devastation across the city if we do not figure out how to get more federal assistance in Round 2 to continue to be able to pay people to at least stay home for the time being so that we can control the virus from spreading further.

You, as City Council President, introduced this past week "Sweeping Development Reform Legislation to Increase Transparency and Address Corruption." Elaborate on the “problem” your council motions are intended to address and what the reforms proposed are, in summary.

Looking back at what's happened over the last couple of months going back 18 months, we have to begin to restore public trust in city government.

So, we’ve taken steps to make our process more transparent to eliminate some of the loopholes that a corrupt official or developer might have taken advantage of. It’s hard to legislate personal integrity; I cannot legislate moral high ground.  You know, when someone is elected, I would hope you're getting elected to do the job that your residents elected you to do.

After looking at what's happening in our city, what I wanted to do is to ensure that one of the things we wanted to look at is developers requesting entitlements or to get relief from certain aspects of our zoning code.

I introduced three motions in Council to cut back on some of the entitlements and create a more transparent process. That includes creating procedures for how the planning department will allow entitlements to move forward, such as evaluating whether they serve existing priorities. Do they actually serve a public good, for example, by creating more affordable housing?

Typically, a developer will contact a council office before moving forward to the planning department to request entitlements. This conversation in my opinion needs to be transparent and it often isn't.  I'm calling for a new policy to make those conversations between a developer and the City Council office regarding entitlements to be part of the public record.

The other area that I'm focused on are the high value projects. Since the Great Recession, various parts of the city from the Valley to Downtown have been redeveloped with really large projects valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. Many of these projects need to request entitlements, so they hire teams of consultants and lobbyists who will often target the PLUM committee, which gives that committee a lot of power over land use. This includes the ability to overturn recommendations even from the Planning Department or the Planning Commission.

I think it's necessary to look at having these high value projects bypass the PLUM committee and go directly to the full City Council for a vote. I think this will provide, again, more transparency to the public. These projects are valued at hundreds of millions of dollars and to be honest with you, these issues were all the things that Jose Huizar was able to exploit to his benefit. Reading what these indictments have outlined during this – through these private negotiations with developers and other lobbyists, he extorted bribes, according to the DOJ. this includes residential high rises in the Arts District where he received direct bribes, as well as money for his PAC.

There was a project in the Arts District, in particular, with entitlements worth tens of millions of dollars, including a General Plan amendment and a zone change. This is a 35-story building in a neighborhood with two to three story buildings. Those are the kinds of projects that make people distrust this process, and so I’m trying to figure out how we can put the right measures in place so that developers, lobbyists, and even members who are not there to do their jobs don't get away with it.

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Another thing that was concerning to me in reading the indictment was that he then used his position as PLUM chair to change Planning Commission requirements. For example, he changed the requirement that 11 percent of the units be affordable to very low-income households to let just 6 percent of the units becoming moderate income. That is troubling.

One of the fundamental reasons we’re in this situation with our land use process is because of our outdated codes that we need to fix. For example, I know that the community plans are underway, but they're completely outdated. Our Sun Valley and Panorama City community plans were last updated in the 1990s, and it looks like we’re going to have to wait until 2030 to be able to update some of the community plans in my district.  The city’s outdated zoning makes it even more necessary for many of the projects to seek entitlements, so we need to ddress that as well.

Do these motions, in your opinion as Council President, have at least eight votes in support?

I haven't done a vote count because I don't work that way, but these motions have just been introduced and have not gone through the process. They haven't even gone to committee yet. After we do that in committee, we will have more of a sense of what the debate’s going to look like and once people from the outside like the lobbyists and developers weigh in. I haven't received a whole lot of feedback, but it's obvious to me that this process rewards those who have the resources to hire consultants and lobbyists. That's how they get these entitlements and zoning changes because they have the ability to pay for an army of consultants and to lobby City Hall and make some of these changes. That stuff just needs to be transparent and we need to start with updating our zoning code.

For context, in March of 2017, TPR interviewed Jose Huizar immediately before the Measure S vote in Los Angeles in which he promised some of the same land-use development reforms as your motions. None of those—after the defeat of Measure S — were ever enacted so the likelihood of these being adopted given what you just described as the political leap behind leaving the system is pretty significant. So again as council president, do you think you have a chance of winning?

If we don't do something now to be able to restore public trust then we have failed. The last couple of months we have seen an outcry from different communities and neighborhoods about the trust in City Hall. There is a black cloud over City Hall right now, and if we do not seize the moment and do right by our neighborhoods, then we have failed. This has to be a teachable moment for everyone. Whether we're getting lobbied by lobbyists or consultants, it doesn't matter, we got elected to do one job and that's represent our districts.

And so, I would hope that my colleagues would agree that we have to seize the moment and be able to close these loopholes and be able to be more transparent in our conversations with developers and lobbyists on some of these projects. We need to begin to restore public faith. That is what's wrong with the system. People don't think that we are transparent and we're negotiating behind closed doors wheeling and dealing with some of these lobbyists and developers. There are some of us who don't do business that way, but unfortunately because of what's happening, and because of Mr. Huizar and bunch of other folks that have been involved in this corruption scandal, we are all being seen and cast into the same cloud of suspicion. It's up to us to rebuild public trust, and we need to do it as soon as possible.

Some of our most loyal & informed readers have argued from experience that as long as electeds retain their power, officially or unofficially, over the development approval process there will be developers using legal and illegal means to influence the politicians. In other words: that transparency is not the only issue; rather reform, to address corruption, must address where the power resides to award these developmental rights in these processes. Do you agree?

I disagree. I mean, no one developer can have that much power over my decision-making process. I still live in the community that I grew up in.  I was sent to do a job by the very community that wants to see a different type of development project come into our district. I'm very much in tune to what our community sees as a good project. My job as a city council woman is to represent my district. Like I said, if I could legislate your moral integrity and doing your job without being taken advantage by the money, by developers, by these high rollers who come in and fundraise to convince you – but if that's what's going to sway you to do your job, you should not have been elected to begin with; it’s that simple.

This week, TPR published excerpts from a South LA town hall called in opposition to state legislation, SB 1120, a bill now pending that would eliminate single-family housing in all but a few areas in California. Last year, the city council came out in opposition to SB 50 & like state legislative efforts proposing one-size-fits-all zoning. What is your and the council’s position on this state housing legislation up for consideration in the Assembly & state Senate this week?

California has a massive housing crisis, I don't think anybody can argue against that. And particularly, it affects low-income communities of color in my district. I have families living in converted garages and tiny apartments. I’ve got families living in motels. Exclusionary policies, particularly in wealthy areas, have greatly contributed to this crisis. There are exclusive suburbs in Los Angeles, as well as parts of the Bay Area where the number of jobs have doubled, or even tripled, over the last 50 years, but the population has remained flat.

These types of exclusionary policies are rooted in racism. I grew up in Pacoima, which was one of the only places in the entire San Fernando Valley where African Americans, Latinos, and people of color were able to buy property. My parents bought their home in the mid 70s and this was the only place where, after World War II, African Americans could buy property with their GI bill.

But the City of LA is not afraid to create housing.  Over the last five years, the city has accommodated about 50 percent of the growth in a region where we make up about 20 percent of the population. We're committed to ensuring that we build the additional 450,000 new units of housing and meet the regional need, but Sacramento cannot make policies that are one size fits all.

Neighborhoods are created differently. What applies in La Jolla and Palo Alto does not apply for communities like Sun Valley, Arleta, and Panorama City in my district; this is why we hesitate. If communities do not begin to change their attitude about building affordable housing in some of the most affluent areas, we're going to continue to see Sacramento dictating policy to us on how to ensure that housing is being built and that mentality needs to change.

You still have this resistance of folks who do not want to see a certain type of housing or a certain type of person live right next to them, so now Sacramento is dictating to Los Angeles how we're going to be able to meet this housing crisis. Fundamentally, we have to address that as a city.

TPR published a report that shared how the hedge fund Blackstone and its ilk are now the largest owners of residential real estate in the five largest cities of California—a sort of Wall Street in my backyard. Does that come up in the debates in Council about the ownership changes in Pacoima and South LA?

The conversation has come up during this pandemic, because what we are afraid will happen—particularly in my minority areas—is that when people stop paying rent, minority property owners who work their entire life to buy one or two duplexes still have to make a mortgage every month. We're afraid that a lot of these folks will lose their property to these corporations that are buying up properties in our district.

70 to 80 percent of these people are small business owners who own most of these rental properties. The last thing I want to see is multinational corporations buying up  properties in my neighborhood—this is what some of the advocates do not understand. We have got to figure out how to help people make rent because otherwise minority property owners or small business owners are going to lose their properties to some  multinational corporations.

This is something that I'm very fearful of and that we have got to be very careful with. That debate has come up lately as people come forward, afraid of losing their property because people don't have enough money to pay rent or haven't paid rent over the last five to six months. It's terrifying for them to have worked all their lifetime and find themselves in a situation where they can be foreclosed on and lose their entire livelihood.

We often hear from our Mayor articulating what's happening in Los Angeles what needs to happen, and what we need to address, but give our readers a sense of the council and its collective views on what's happening now and into the rest of the year. What's the tenor of the Council?

One of the council's main priorities is to ensure that people remain in their homes. This Council has been very deliberate in ensuring COVID relief money is utilized so we're prioritizing communities of color and recognizing that some of these communities have been left out for decades. We're recognizing that we need to meet this time in history to ensure that we are investing and putting the necessary political power and political will to lift these communities out of poverty.

Having grown up in these neighborhoods, for decades, people would show up making promises and come up empty handed because these neighborhoods are still underserved. We're still not getting the necessary resources to lift our neighbors out of poverty, and I think this is an opportunity for us, particularly the members of color on this council, to do right by these neighborhoods. What this pandemic has exposed is how we can no longer afford to leave these neighborhoods behind; the very people who are dying are the very people who, for generation after generation, we haven't done enough to secure good jobs, build the housing that they deserve to live in, and ensure they even have medical healthcare.

I know it's not within our jurisdiction, but this is why people are dying. They're faced with insurmountable pressure to meet their family's needs, exposing themselves to the virus every single day, unfortunately getting infected, bringing it home, and infecting other members of their family. They're dying because they have no other choice.

In this country, for the first time in my recollection as a 47-year-old woman, I am finally hearing people say this is not a surprise. We have to do better, meet the moment in time, and make sure that we are prioritizing these funds and the neighborhoods that have been left behind for years, and this council is committed to doing that. This council also recognizes the public safety concerns, and we want to make sure that we're meeting that challenge head on.

These are all uncomfortable conversations. Talking about race, talking about police brutality, and talking to communities of color about how to make them feel safer are all difficult conversations to have, but they're long overdue. Our kids deserve better and we need to make sure that we are going to produce real results moving forward.

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