October 12, 2022 - From the October, 2022 issue

Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson on Housing & Homelessness Priorities

Ahead of the LA City Council’s vote to end the city’s pandemic eviction protections, TPR sat down with District 8 Councilmember, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, for his views on housing and homelessness as the city’s top priorities ahead of the mayoral election.  Following this TPR interview, in response to leaked recordings of viciously racist remarks from City Council leadership, Councilmember Harris Dawson joined California Assemblymembers Isaac Bryan and Tina McKinnor for a press conference calling for the resignations of Council President Nury Martinez, Housing Committee Chair, Gil Cedillo, and Homelessness Committee Chair, Kevin De Leon. TPR shares an excerpted Q&A with the Councilmember on the impacts of failed leadership on community trust and the path forward for the LA City Council. 


Marqueece Harris Dawson

“That's the most important thing about homelessness: creating the urgency, both in declaring an emergency and treating it as one… Items 1 through 4 on the agenda are homelessness every single day until we build the momentum that we need.”

"Because it isn't just that these folks are members of the council: you have the leader of the council; the person in charge of the homelessness committee, who was so hostile to black people—40% of homeless people are black; and then the person chairing the Housing Committee. So, we’ve got to make sure folks who either act on or speak with that sentiment can’t take power in our city in the future."

Councilmember, it has been some time since we checked in with you. Given that you're the chair of the LA City Council's Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee—what are the PLUM committee's priorities today?

Obviously, we want to create a situation where housing can be developed quickly and efficiently, and  what I think is a growing consensus in the city: how we deal with density. We want to use transportation and our main commercial corridors as places to build density. At the same time, we try to leave the single-family residential areas as intact as possible, given the context of a growing city.

Pivoting to the municipal elections coming up in November, specifically the mayor's race, the two major candidates offer modestly different policy approaches to addressing homelessness. What are your thoughts on their priorities; on whether their proposed plans are appropriate?

I think both plans are reasonably good. Bass's plan stands out because it's a sustainable long-term solution. Shelters—for what they cost in time, and some houseless people, for various reasons, do not feel safe in these types of living situations—are not worth the investment they require. We definitely need shelters to deal with our emergency, but a plan that leans heavily on shelters is problematic and short-sighted. To that extent, I would give a little more weight to Bass's plan.

 The problem with homelessness isn't a lack of plans. There are lots of great ideas out there, but none of them are taken to scale because the city, the county, and the state have yet to treat it as an emergency.

The most important thing about homelessness is creating urgency, both in declaring an emergency and treating it as one. That means that every day you wake up, your first four priorities address houselessness. Then, maybe you ribbon cut at an art gallery or welcome a new tech company to the city. Items 1 through 4 on the agenda are homelessness every single day until we build the momentum that we need.

There seems to be some loss of confidence in LAHSA by the city and other social service agencies. Related to your prioritizing accountability and emergency, elaborate on what the City needs to better get the job done. If LAHSA is not the answer, how should public accountability be assured?

As a Councilmember trying to deliver services, I'm focused on two parts of homelessness: the humanitarian crisis it is and the fallout from houselessness, which affects businesses and the neighborhoods of those who are housed. My team and I must address the humanitarian side, and the legitimate concerns communities and businesses have about sanitation or nuisance issues. To do this, we engage numerous departments across the state, local and federal governments. Besides the city's bureaucracy, my office also has to navigate multiple bureaucracies and agencies needed to address our crisis. It's extremely frustrating. The idea that you could reduce that to one bureaucracy is very attractive to anybody doing the work on the city side.

That being said, I think there's some appeal to having a regional solution; homelessness does not respect the lines of municipalities or government offices. 

A set of appointees runs LAHSA. As an example, Metro is not run by a set of appointees. The actual principals run Metro. I think that's one thing you might look at if we believe LAHSA is a workable solution.

Let's pivot to a report from the Housing Department with recommendations for ending the city's pandemic tenant protections. With the full council set about to approve the recommendations, inform our readers of the implications of that decision.

It's clear that we needed to move away from the position we took at the height of COVID, where we implemented a wide-ranging ban on evictions.

The City Council adopted a limited extension of emergency eviction protections through January 31, 2023. 

When COVID became a pandemic, the Council and City Hall effectively closed down and still operates semi-remotely. Address the challenges of being a cohesive city council capable of addressing tough issues when you're not in the presence of one another and know each other well.

That's been one of the most significant shortcomings of this last time period that we've had. As you point out, we have new members who haven't met. We had more change on the council during that period than has happened during my entire tenure leading up to this point. We had stops and starts where we were in person and not in person. Now we're back in person except for committee meetings.

One of the things I always knew, but never felt in such stark relief, was that 60 percent of communication is nonverbal. To see someone say something in person is very different than on Zoom. The same words can take on an entirely different meaning or tone. 

In addition to COVID, at the beginning of 2021, we had four people running for mayor. We had about four other people running for other offices. When people are legislating in the context of a campaign, it's very different than when they're legislating outside of one. The problem-solving instinct comes to the fore when folks are not worried about what's happening next. The self-defense instinct comes to the fore when they are. 

We do this interview following Metro's announcement that the highly-anticipated K line will open next week. Talk about the opportunities the Crenshaw line brings to CD 8. 

For once, the historically African-American communities in Los Angeles will be connected to the rest of the Southern California economy through this rail line. One thing that happens in neighborhoods like South Los Angeles and all over Southern California and the country is this thing called leakage. It's where people from our community leave our community to spend money, but no one comes to our community to spend money. The K-line creates the opportunity to reverse this. 

When it was announced that the K-Line would be running above-ground down Crenshaw we knew this could either make or break our community. Then we came up with Destination Crenshaw, our District's approach to preserving our culture and building economic infrastructures. A year from now, you will be able to walk through Sankofa Park as you exit the K-Line in our district.

We're very excited that the train is up and running. It will make South Los Angeles closer to economic centers by about a factor of half. Suddenly, going to the Westside will be 20 minutes instead of 45. Going downtown, you'll see a similar cut in time.

Speaking of economic epicenters, what synergies have evolved between your LA City Council district and the City of Inglewood that enhance both?

 Inglewood is an attractive place for new development. It feels like it did when I was a kid when the Forum and the racetrack were there, then, it was a hub of excitement. That's returned with the Forum and Intuit Stadium coming online and SoFi Stadium.

The cooperation between the City of LA, the City of Inglewood, and developers has not been great. Part of the western border of my district is one mile away from SoFi. All these street improvements and beautification that happens in Inglewood (that you can see from over our border) stops right at the City of LA. 

It's frustrating. Neighbors feel like if they just lived across the street, they'd get a part of that. Meanwhile, the people and families in the City have to deal with the traffic and all of the nuisance that comes with it. Hopefully, this part of the City of LA  and Inglewood will work out a better deal in the future so that the entire neighborhood can be included in the benefits of these investments.

The State surplus and the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act by Congress portend a great deal of money coming to LA for infrastructure. Is the City up to the challenge of wisely and equitably investing these funds?

I think we're up to the task. We certainly have the tools, the opportunities, and the needs here. I'm looking forward to new leadership on the third floor of City Hall because I think we need someone to set a guide star, and that's something that only a mayor can do, frankly. Other people can propose ideas and solutions, but the mayor sets the tenor of the city's primary goals and organizes resources in that direction.

In the next period, the City of LA needs a new project. In the last term, our task was to rebuild the economy after it cratered in 2008-10. It was to get the city out of debt, in good financial standing, and improve the overall economy to make it a desirable place for investments. I think, by and large, we accomplished that.

LA now needs a new project. The first order of business on that project list is homelessness. Nothing else matters if we can't do that. Then, I think the second big project for not just LA but Southern California is to prepare for the 2028 Olympics. We are positioned to shift the Olympics from being a largely corporate-driven drop-in entertainment event to a world participation event. 

Pivoting from homelessness, please comment on the City Council's recent passage of an ordinance to ban new oil and gas drilling in LA.

I think it's huge. This is an area where Los Angeles continues to lead. Our economy was largely driven by oil and gas for upwards of a century, if not more. Now, it's been clear for some time that we have to transition away from this energy source. The question is, how do you do that without losing a lot of the benefits that we've gotten?

I think the approach that activists have taken has been good. They've surfaced the urgency of the matter so that we actually deal with it as an issue. At the same time, we're approaching it with the care that it deserves in the context of a more extensive discussion about energy in California and the world.

In our previous interview, you predicted the City Council would soon see a major change of personnel in age, temperament, and orientation. Your predictions have proven rather prescient. Elaborate on the change you have already observed and project what might happen in November, especially regarding what it means to reach a consensus going forward to address the City's daunting challenges.

I think we'll have to build a new consensus going forward with the new folks coming in.

 We have an increasingly progressive wave happening all over the city. Historically, we've had a more conservative or centrist city council, and contrasting that, we have a burgeoning electorate that will vote for Bernie Sanders by 25 points. You go, wait a minute, this council seems like more of a Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton crowd. We see a progressive electorate when people hit the ballot box in remarkable numbers.

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Look, my fundamental proposition has been that when you change the election date, you change the electorate. When you change the electorate, you get different outcomes. When you hold an election in the spring of an off-year when there are no other elections, you attract the most conservative property interests in the city. There's almost no time you could have had the elections and gotten a more conservative audience than odd years in the spring. Now that it's been moved, you will get many different people voting.

I'll give you an example. I'm in what people would call a relatively progressive district. Even I was mainly appealing to homeowners and seniors because that was pretty much who voted. Now that the dates have changed, when I look at my precinct worksheet, I suddenly have a lot of people in this apartment building that I need to talk to because it turns out they're always voters when the election is national or statewide. 

Lastly, what have you learned from your experience being a Councilmember in the second largest city in the United States and about crafting meaningful policy?

The role of a councilmember is to ensure that the City is functioning and focuses on problem-solving rather than generating new ideas and policies. That's not your primary role on the LA City Council. You're a board member of a municipal corporation, which is entirely different from being a policymaker.

Our policies are affected by state and federal policy and sometimes the courts, so we don't do much nitty-gritty policymaking. We solve problems. People who are diametrically opposed philosophically, on Monday morning at 7:30, we're both doing the same work. We're talking to people in encampments, for example. We may be saying slightly different things, but we both have the same goal: trying to solve the problem.

These issues can't be solved at the macro level. They've got to be solved intersection-by-intersection, alley-by-alley, block-by-block until the solutions are systematized enough that the next issue can be addressed.

That's the biggest thing I've learned. LA City Council members are not politicians or policymakers per se; they are directors of a municipal corporation.

 

 

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Following this TPR interview, in response to leaked recordings of racist remarks from City Council leadership, Councilmember Harris Dawson joined California Assemblymembers Isaac Bryan and Tina McKinnor for a press conference calling for the resignations of Council President Nury Martinez, Housing Committee Chair Gil Cedillo, and Homelessness Committee Chair Kevin De Leon. TPR shares this excerpted Q&A with the Councilmember on the impacts of failed leadership on community trust and the path forward for the LA City Council.

Councilmember Marqueece Harris Dawson: What we heard on the tape disqualifies them for service on the Los Angeles City Council. They have forfeited their leadership, in much the way I talked about Traci Park years ago forfeiting her leadership. Their place in our city and their place in our society is any place other than the Los Angeles City Council as a voting member. 

Nury Martinez had the opportunity to resign from the City Council. She chose at this point to resign as president. Is that enough? 

It is not enough. We can't have a city council where every day we come in, there’s someone's sitting there that called a black child a m*nkey. It’s not tenable; it’s inconsistent with the City of Los Angeles. It’s not who we want to be—I don't even think it's who she wants us to be.

These things take a while. This conversation was a year ago. They had no idea they were being taped. So, I'm trying to give them space to come to the space where they do the right thing,  but their service on the city council in untenable. 

How does the city heal from something like this because there’s just been so many scandals on the city council. This may be one of the biggest ones that results in three people resigning.

Well, it will result in three people resigning. It's not going to result in anybody being incarcerated. Because unfortunately, in the US, racism is not something you go to jail for. But I think the first thing that happens is folks need to do real apologies, they need to make amends, and they need to create the  space for people to heal.

I don’t think we can heal if their votes have to be counted on things that impact racial justice.

The voters should replace Nury Martinez. I always am in favor of the people deciding. The people were way out ahead of us when they figured out it wasn’t a good idea to send Gil Cedillo back. Turns out they knew more than many of us who endorsed him, like me. I think the voters should decide in the Sixth District and in the Fourteenth District as well.

A lot of people will criticize politicians for being two-faced. People, before this moment, might have thought those on the reporting that their priorities were supportive of people of color and their causes. What does this tell you about them and politicians in general? People are going to lose faith.

Well, what I tell the public is what my grandmother always told me, “listen to what people say, but more importantly, watch what they do.” And I think if you watch the track record of these three individuals when issues of racial justice come up, they've already told us who they were. I think the tape gives us that in a literal form and articulated in a clear way that's impossible to deny.

Were you surprised by what you heard?

I was surprised. I knew that that sentiment was there. I did not realize it was so intense, and so vicious. 

Have you spoken with Councilmember Bonin?

I have spoken with Councilmember Bonin.

Anything you want to share about how him and his family are?

When you’re talking to Councilmember Bonin, you're talking to a dad whose kid’s been kicked in the gut. You sign up to raise and protect a child, and because of your job, your child's been injured. And these folks put things into the ether that that child's going to have to live with for the rest of his life. And so, that's really all Mike and I have been able to talk about.

And what is the path forward for the council?

Well, the path forward is I think these three folks have got to remove themselves. I think there's got to be a healing process both inside the council and outside.

Fortunately, we're getting a number of new members, so we’ll get a little bit of a fresh start in December. We’ve got to set out some guidelines and set up guardrails so this type of sentiment can't ever take power. Because it isn't just that these folks are members of the council: you have the leader of the council; the person in charge of the homelessness committee, who was so hostile to black people—40% of homeless people are black; and then the person chairing the Housing Committee.  So, I think we’ve got to make sure folks who either act on or speak with that sentiment can’t take power in our city in the future.

So, you’re in favor of a special election if Kevin de Leon and Nury Martinez resign their seats?

Yes. Look, one of the things these people did in that room is they sullied the appointment process.  For folks who remember, Nury Martinez took the opportunity to basically say I was against a black woman because I questioned her appointment of Heather Hutt. The reason I did that at the time is because what's on that tape was in the rumor mill. And it was actually compromising Heather Hutt more than anybody. So, I think they've so damaged the appointment process that I don't think anybody can touch it anymore. I certainly wouldn't want to be an appointee of the city council given what they've just done.

 

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