September 8, 2021 - From the September, 2021 issue

Councilmember Mike Bonin Addresses LA Homelessness, Evictions & Social Housing

Following LA City Council’s vote in August to oppose both of the State Legislature’s upzoning bills SB 9 & SB 10, TPR interviewed District 11 Councilmember Mike Bonin for a much needed & nuanced discussion of the intersecting challenges presently driving housing displacement, gentrification, and homelessness in metro Los Angeles. Representing much of the City's Westside and strongly opposed to trickle-down housing mandates by the state legislature, Councilmember Bonin underscores the systemic challenges undergirding homelessness and lauds recent efforts by the council to ensure equitable access to affordable housing citywide.


Mike Bonin

A big factor in whether or not to support a piece of legislation in Sacramento, regarding housing—given my stated belief that I'm not a trickle down guy—is that I want to make sure we're getting affordable housing as part of the mix. Where are affordable housing organizations? Where are tenant organizations? Where are racial and environmental justice organizations? There's not a lot of them that have been flocking to these bills.”—Mike Bonin

Mike, let's begin by affording you an unedited platform to share your nuanced position on how, as a Councilmember, the city of Los Angeles ought to deal with the pressing challenges of homelessness?

Homelessness is the biggest crisis of our time, certainly of my generation, and it demands an incredibly aggressive response from all levels of government. The city being a big part of it, but the city can't do any of this alone. This crisis requires us to address multiple different things that all get called homelessness.

I often liken homelessness to cancer in that we use one term to describe all the different ways it manifests. And just like cancer, each type requires a different treatment or intervention with a different prognosis, so too does homelessness. There's a big difference between somebody who has been chronically homeless for 20 years and someone who recently became homeless because they lost their apartment. So, we need to look at it from very, very different perspectives and figure out what works best in each situation.

For a very complex problem there is a relatively simple common denominator to the solutions, and that's housing. A lot of people these days will say, “homelessness isn't a housing issue, it's a drug issue,” or “this isn't a housing issue, it's a mental illness issue.” It’s all of the above. If somebody is homeless and suffering from a mental illness, part of helping them requires housing. If you can successfully treat somebody's mental illness or addiction while they're living on the streets, God bless you because that's a very difficult thing to do, but if you succeed at that, they’re still homeless at the end of it, unless they get housing.

Almost everybody recognizes that we can't wait for permanent supportive housing for everybody. A larger group of people are now finally coming to understand as they delve deeper into homelessness that permanent supportive housing isn't the necessary or appropriate solution for lots of forms of homelessness; housing is. But permanent supportive housing, which is very expensive, takes years to build, comes with wraparound services, and is the appropriate solution for people who are chronically homeless, which is 20 or 30 percent of people who are out there. We don't need that level of intervention for people who are newly homeless.

One of the things I've been trying to draw attention to is that we don't do enough to house people as soon as they become homeless. We have a system that historically views the newly homeless as not homeless enough to qualify for assistance. To extend my cancer analogy, it's a bit like telling somebody who's newly diagnosed with lung cancer to come back when they reach Stage IV. At that point, you're much harder to treat and your prognosis is much more grim.

So, I've been pushing for earlier interventions, which are less expensive both in the short run and in the long run to get people off the streets before they have become traumatized, before they may fall into addiction, before mental illness may manifest, before they become victimized by crime, and before they've been bitterly disappointed by the system.

And that comes in the form of purchasing hotels and motels, rental subsidies, and housing vouchers. It comes in the form of scattered site master leasing, which the County has done a phenomenal job with. One of the most successful homeless programs in Los Angeles County is one of the least known, and it's the county's Housing for Health program, where the Health Department has helped house people in scattered site housing.   

Building off what we just did in Venice, Mark Ridley Thomas and I, joined by Curren Price, have proposed what Mark calls a Housing Now Program, which uses a lot of the money that the city is now getting from the state budget surplus to invest more in these types of solutions and try to find a rapid way of getting 10,000 people off the streets in partnership with the County. I think that has some promise.

Councilmember, your eloquent response essentially frames homelessness as a shelter issue—a housing issue with lots of important service components. Some will pushback asserting that the scale of the homelessness crisis in LA is much more an economic issue. Your frame suggests otherwise—that the public sector is primarily responsible for addressing this problem by providing shelter unavailable in the marketplace. Question: if 60,000+ without shelter in LA is in great measure an economic challenge (resulting from income inequality, digitalization of jobs, and the globalization of the economy), is it feasible for the City to provide the unsheltered with the necessary income and resources today to obtain housing in the private market (and/or to make a living wage in Metro Los Angeles)?

Well, yes and no. I understand that I come at this from the local government angle, so there's a certain prism that I view this through. What is absolutely undeniable—and this is where I'm going to reflect my progressivism—is that homelessness is the inevitable byproduct of the way our economy and our health system and our housing systems operate. We have vast income inequality in a system that does not sufficiently invest in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health services, and affordable housing—and those are just three things that contribute to homelessness, there’s also domestic violence, the foster system, and our criminal justice system.

 Most of those roots are not within local control. But in terms of the solutions to dealing with the problem once people are on the streets, the inevitable common denominator is that we need to put a roof over people's heads and really give people security.

The region has endured a series of economic challenges in the last decade, even before the pandemic. Clearly, the upending of the “normal” economy has led to dislocation in employment, the acceleration of the digitalization of our economy, and downward pressure on small retail and service businesses. Your council district actually has benefited from the growth of innovation start-ups and now demographically includes an influx of tech savvy millennials. As their local representative, how do you address both the constituents who are well paid and want a more gentrified 11th District, and those who wish to keep their residences and the neighborhoods that they love? Clearly, a daunting political challenge.

It's a tremendously daunting challenge because those economic factors have sort of reordered society in Los Angeles in a not particularly good way. It leads to housing unaffordability, which results in gentrification and greater segregation, both economically and racially.

There are a number of things local government can do. I don't know how profoundly impactful they are, but we are regionally trying to harness Measure M and the modernization of Los Angeles International Airport as ways to create jobs, both construction jobs and more service sector jobs.

Paul Krekorian, Marqueece Harris Dawson, and Paul Koretz, working with the mayor, have tried to create career pathways into good middle class jobs and city jobs for people. All of those things are vitally important for us to do, but they are just drops in the bucket.

It appears the jobs you're lauding and primarily promoting to address the city’s housing crisis are primarily public sector jobs. 

No, I’m interested in both private and public sector jobs. It's public resources that have created private sector construction jobs through Measure M. There are a combination of public and private resources that have led to the modernization of the Los Angeles International Airport. It’s private sector jobs with a at the airport that have given us some leverage to raise wages or working standards. I think it's about figuring out where you can exert influence. Clearly, we have influence over the public sector, but the public sector has influence over its intersection with, and its investments in, the private sector, and that is a place where we can use our leverage.

The Los Angeles regional economy, as opposed to San Francisco, New York, Chicago, etc. is essentially a small to middle market economy (with AECOM announcing this month it is moving its corporate leadership to Texas, USC is now the largest LA County-headquartered, private sector employer). What then ought to be the investment strategy of the city and county to further strengthen the metro’s private sector job-producing economy?

A couple of different ways. We need to do a much better job at finding opportunities for Metro through LAX for government contracting for both small and medium sized businesses. I've heard Jackie DuPont-Walker at Metro over the past couple years talk about how Metro has invested a lot in small businesses, but then once they start to be successful, there's not an opportunity for them when they get to medium size. We need to be using our leverage as government agencies to be supporting small and medium sized businesses.

I think that for the restaurant industry, the Al Fresco program that we pushed at the beginning of the pandemic was a lifesaver. We are now looking to make that permanent in a lot of places because it continues to be a lifeline for a lot of them. The work that the city and the county did together to try to provide assistance and streamline some the government assistance programs was beneficial. It was certainly complicated by some of the issues with the state getting money out the door, but those are all things that are important to do. Whether it's homelessness or whether it's small business, we always need to listen to the people who are most impacted and ask them what the best ways are that we can help.

Perfect segue, Mike. You have been deeply involved for years, as a councilmember, in the City’s housing issues. As we do this interview, the city council this week voted not to support, for the third year in a row, state legislation—SB 9 and SB 10—which would, in part, usurp the power of local government over zoning and planning. You, at the same time, are an advocate for creating greater housing supply. Elaborate on your thinking.

It's important to look at what the council discussed on Wednesday with SB 9 and 10 with what the council discussed the day before with housing policy generally and inclusionary zoning, particularly.

Largely teed up by Nury, the council was pushing forward on the Planning Department to do more to put housing into resource-rich areas like mine to do more to address redlining and to make equity a fundamental component of our planning system. One of the things I want to be very thoughtful about as we approach this is how do we get more housing in my part of town where we need it and that people can actually afford to live in?

 I am not particularly interested in seeing another 40,000 units of luxury housing in my part of town. I would like to see housing in my part of town that the grandchildren of a third-generation family in West LA can afford to live in or that a student from LMU can afford to live in when they graduate. I would like housing on the west side, so that if you have a kid in grade school, there's a chance that their teacher doesn't have to commute an hour and a half to and from work every day because they can't afford to live near the school.

The discussion I want to have is about how to get affordable, low income, and workforce housing in my district, and I don't think that trickle down is the way to go. Just more housing is not going to get us where we need to go. What you would need to do to get the right mix of housing in a high opportunity neighborhood like the Westside might be different than what you need to do somewhere else in other parts of the city with different economic dynamics.

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 I've long been an advocate of inclusionary zoning. Maybe we don't need it in the whole city, but I do think that we should have inclusionary zoning on the Westside that not just incentivizes, but at least for some types of projects, makes it mandatory. In terms of the SB 9 and SB 10 discussion, as we noted in Council the other day, this has become almost an annual ritual where the council discusses and opposes the latest Sacramento bills with, I should note honestly, a growing level of discomfort with the way Paul Koretz frames the discussion in his motions. He's been the one who's brought forward the resolutions to oppose the bills, and I think a lot of us are uncomfortable with the talk of turning LA into Dubai or the end of single-family housing.

Every member of the council may have a different nuance for why they came to this decision. For me, as a local, you're always reluctant to give up local control. I am of the belief that we are going to lose local control if we don't get our act together. I'm hoping that the discussion earlier in the week, leads us in that direction.

But for me, a big factor in whether or not to support a piece of legislation in Sacramento, regarding housing—given my stated belief that I'm not a trickle down guy—is that I want to make sure we're getting affordable housing as part of the mix. Where are affordable housing organizations? Where are tenant organizations? Where are racial and environmental justice organizations? There's not a lot of them that have been flocking to these bills, and that concerns me. I want to see legislation that those communities are comfortable with and enthusiastic about—ones that they feel will produce affordable housing, prevent displacement, and adequately address the history of racist zoning.

In this whole discussion, there's been a lot of talk by the state of California YIMBY movement about the racist history of zoning and single family neighborhoods, which is certainly how Los Angeles developed. They will point to a lot of neighborhoods in my district and more affluent areas as the beneficiaries, which is true.  But when we're having these discussions, we are also hearing from members of the Black and Latino middle class who over the past generation or two have gotten their hands into some generational wealth. People who have homes in South LA and other neighborhoods, who are very nervous about some of the impacts of these bills that will displace a lot of lower income families in South LA. I think a bill in Sacramento that is going to do changes statewide needs to really appreciate that dynamic, and that's where my concern came from.

There have been three legislative sessions in a row where similar bills have been proposed: SB 827, SB 50, and now SB 9 and SB 10. Obviously, there are sophisticated political representatives and staff in the legislature, and few are blind to the considerations that you express. Why then have the authors of such bills rejected over four years including affordability and income inequality provisions into these bills? 

It's hard for me to put myself in their shoes because there's entirely different political calculus in Sacramento than there is down here.

Elaborate. 

When you're a local official here in Los Angeles, you are never not dealing with the dynamics of the job. Every second, you're either making a note that you just ran over a pothole or overhear saying they can't afford their rent. We hear from the interests, but less so now that you know people aren't in council chambers standing behind columns trying to get elected officials to talk to them. But, that's much less of the culture here.

It's pretty clear to me that this legislation is a very complex Rubik's cube trying to get a variety of interests on the same page: developers, the building trades, affordable housing activists, environmentalists, and municipalities. It's hard to get three of those, really difficult to get four, and certainly impossible to get five on the same page. It feels like the bills start with the development community, and then figure out who to pick off from affordable housing or EJ. If the conversation was centered more around the question of housing affordability as opposed just to inventory, I think the people who want just more inventory will wind up getting more inventory because the conversation will move further along.

Returning to an earlier question and answer, your council district and LA’s Westside (Silicon Beach) have attracted thousands of new high-paying jobs in the last decade. Knowing that the economic success of Silicon Valley has driven out over decades its minority community from home ownership and from the politics of the Bay Area, is there a successful solution to gentrification resulting from simply incenting more market housing?

I am not from a policy perspective the most optimistic person in the room, but I can't just throw my hands in the air and give up on this issue. It’s not something the city can do by itself, although I'm very interested in how effective the universal basic income pilot is going to go in CD 9. That was a great initiative by Mayor Tubbs in Stockton, and it's certainly the kind of thing I would like to see the state or the Feds engaging in.

We have a limited ability to make dramatic changes at the local level on those broader dynamics, but that doesn't mean we're not trying to chip away at it. The $15 minimum wage a few years ago was an impossible dream when I took office, and 18 months later it almost had a sense of inevitability about it.

TPR recently interviewed new Councilmember Nithya Raman and asked what she thought about Judge Carter's homelessness ruling. The first half of the opinion she loved, but the rest she had some real reservations re whether his order would work. What do you think is evolving from that ruling and how might implementation be employed to best address homelessness? 

One of the biggest problems with our homeless system in Los Angeles is that we don't sufficiently listen to the people we are trying to lift out of homelessness. Any major service industry does customer satisfaction service; how is our system working or not working? We don't sufficiently do that with people who are unhoused. It's very easy for an elected official to think that if we put $40 million into outreach, everybody's going to be hearing from a caseworker every day. That's not happening.

I have proposed, and think it would be extremely valuable for us to actually have, a commission of people who are or have been homeless in the past couple years who can tell us what's wrong with the outreach and the real impediments to getting into housing. Ten years ago, we were all baffled. Why aren't people going into emergency winter shelters when it's raining out? Until you understand you're telling people to leave their girlfriend, their pets, and all of their belongings behind, and go with a stranger to someplace they’ve never been, and then we're going to throw your ass out at 6am, we listened and learned to adapt.

By listening, I and others have come to understand that there is a vastly exaggerated narrative of service resistance. There's a whole cottage industry of media and social industry saying everybody on the streets wants to be there, that they're choosing this lifestyle and don't like the rules. There are few places in Los Angeles where that narrative was written as indelibly as Venice Beach. With St Joseph's Center, LAHSA, and other agencies in six weeks, we were able to bring 211 people indoors; people who were always described as not wanting housing. Through time, trust, transparency, and offering a pathway to actual housing, people said yes. The difference was it wasn't just temporary shelter. We offered a motel room for a couple months and a permanent housing voucher to get into a real house. And people said yes, which really busted the myth of service resistance.

At the moment, I honestly don't know where the litigation is going or what the impact will be. I was thrilled when the judge engaged, because I think it put the fear of the Lord into the city and the county, which created a lot of momentum that wouldn't have existed otherwise. I'm not sure that every direction it pushed us was a good one. 

Lastly, UCLA Luskin’s Ananya Roy recently was quoted in the New York Times  blog on housing affordability sounding the alarm on the impending eviction crisis once the moratoriums expire. Address the eviction crisis—what's about to happen and how the city and county will react.

I'm glad you mentioned Dr. Roy. I've been a fan and a follower of hers for a while. I make a point to read the reports that she and Gary Blasi write, which sort of informed my push on Project Roomkey and Project Homekey a year ago.

One of the things that Dr. Roy talks about is something I've been pushing at the city level, which is social housing.  She writes about how in parts of Europe and Asia, they have what's known as social housing, which may be a better way of saying public housing, except it's really different from the public housing we have here. It is publicly owned, or publicly purchased, and given to a nonprofit or a land trust, but is mixed income. Government officials, artists, custodians, waitresses, bus operators all live on sort of sliding scales. And they build it different. They don't neglect it or put it in a corner and forget about it. It's part of a community. It's near transit.

Because it's so difficult to piece together affordable housing through the complex advanced calculus of tax financing, we need to have, at least as part of our housing stock, social housing that’s publicly-owned in a public trust that stays affordable forever.

Frankly, my interest in that came about as a result of the looming eviction crisis. I proposed social housing about a month before the pandemic because I was concerned just about the number of evictions as a result of the Ellis Act and condo conversions and other things that have been put on pause during this pandemic.

 One of the scariest, most daunting moments as a public official was in the middle of March 2020 because you didn't need a crystal ball to see that if the closures lasted more than a week, that a huge segment of Los Angeles was going to face economic devastation and was going to wind up on the streets. It really became imperative to do whatever we legally could to prevent evictions.

What really became necessary though was that both landlords and tenants needed rent relief or needed rent forgiveness. The system was falling apart, and so I wish that some of the bills we got from the feds and the state were a little simpler and a little more comprehensive, but hallelujah and thank God for anything they've given us because it has saved lives.

 I am still really scared about what happens when the moratoriums end. There's pent up demand for evictions and court hearings for unlawful detainers for the people who haven't made the 25-percent back-rent payment with the state. Their rent debt won't be converted into consumer debt but  will be something they can be evicted for, and that's a scary situation.  It's kind of a dystopian forecast, but we're going to have to find ways to keep people housed.

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