September 6, 2023 - From the September, 2023 issue

Santa Monica Councilmember Jesse Zwick on Homelessness, Civic Engagement & Land Use Priorities

Back from the brink of the “fiscal apocalypse” wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Santa Monica continues its economic recovery while focused on many of the ongoing housing affordability and homelessness challenges facing cities in the region. With a slate of new members on the City Council, TPR interviewed newly elected Santa Monica councilmember Jesse Zwick to hear his policy priorities and views on innovative models of community engagement as the city considers plans for the soon-to-be decommissioned Santa Monica Airport, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, and other opportunities that lay ahead for the city.

Jesse Zwick

"My campaign said that Santa Monica is a wonderful place to live and work. We have a wonderful school system and one of the best things we could do would be to allow more people who work here, allow more families and allow more low wage workers, to be able to live here and participate in our clean air, our good schools and our safe streets. I've been fighting for that in a number of ways."

Councilmember, you were elected to the Santa Monica City Council almost a year ago, advancing a number of progressive policies in your campaign. Now in office, assess how your views have, if at all, evolved.

Jesse Zwick: I think the famous cliché holds true to some extent that when you campaign you do it in poetry and when you govern, it's in prose. I think having had the benefit of working on campaigns and for elected officials in the city of LA, I was pretty eyes wide open about the realities of city government and both the joys and challenges therein. There's an additional complication in small cities, like the city of Santa Monica, where, due to the size of the city and the rules in the charter at this moment, the position of City Council member is very much considered part time. There's a small honorarium that's paid but it's something you have to fit in in addition to your day job and your family life. So, while I've been enjoying it very much, I think just the pure time management and ability to fit it all in is the toughest part.

Let's turn to policy. Elaborate on how your values shape your public policy positions what you are prioritizing on the City Council.

Homelessness and development are probably two of the biggest issues in Santa Monica, and I think that probably would hold true in many cities across California. I campaigned on a platform that said housing solves homelessness; we need more supportive housing; we need more affordable housing; we also need more market rate housing so that we don't create greenfield developments far from our urban centers that would contribute to traffic and be an environmental nightmare, as well as don't push into other neighborhoods in South and East LA and put further gentrification pressure in other parts of the city.

My campaign said that Santa Monica is a wonderful place to live and work. We have a wonderful school system, and one of the best things we could do would be to allow more people who work here, more families, and more low wage workers to be able to live here and participate in our clean air, our good schools and our safe streets. I've been fighting for that in a number of ways.

The biggest by far was the rezoning that our city has been going through in order to stay consistent with the housing element that was approved prior to my election. While that large guiding document was approved prior, there's a lot of room for interpretation as to how best to implement it; how to do the rezoning, how to meet those targets and goals that we set for ourselves, and also address the real risk that we would fall short of doing it and thereby fall out of compliance with the state and reopen ourselves to something like the builder’s remedy.

So, there's been a lot of talk and discussion and work that's gone into that, and I think in Santa Monica, it’s happened relatively quickly. We've already implemented a revision of our zoning code that went into effect June 1st, and we're already seeing some projects being submitted and resubmitted to hopefully allow us to have a city that has greater density, better public transit, less traffic, and more people who can work and live here, as opposed to commuting from hours away.

On the topic of your policy agenda, address the implementation challenges in Santa Monica—a city of about 100,000 people—and how you, as a council member, the city manager, and the city’s many departments interact and implement policy.

Well, that was something new for me because, in LA, the council offices are large and staffed with expertise, and you have a full-time position where you can make policy and do constituent services.  The City Council in Santa Monica, the best I've been able to understand and explain it is that it functions a little bit more like a board of directors for a city—meeting semi-regularly to review and set high-level policy. Whereas the city manager is more the CEO, and his staff are more in charge of executing all of the day-to-day work and constituent services.

I find it sometimes challenging because I am someone that likes to get my hands dirty in the details of things, but that's not really what the job allows. I think what I've quickly learned is that our staff is incredibly intelligent and resourceful, and we have some of the better talent among city staff in the state of California.

If you want to get things done, first of all, it's a matter, obviously, of getting four votes on the council. But it's equally a matter of getting buy-in from the longtime staff, who have been there before you and will probably be there after you, when it comes to getting your issue or concerns prioritized within the city.

TPR recently interviewed Alisa Orduña, formerly Santa Monica City’s Senior Advisor on Homelessness who helped craft the City’s holistic approach under City Manager Cole. Today, the latest reporting is that the city of Santa Monica has experienced a 15% increase in homelessness. What's driving that increase?

I think this is a challenging subject that is obviously larger than the individual jurisdictions of any city within the greater LA County, which is experiencing this crisis. Santa Monica has long been a leader in innovative and progressive solutions. We, in addition to receiving many services from the county, fund and stand up a lot of our own outreach and services that we pay for out of pocket in order to have full control over it.

Former city manager Rick Cole was very innovative in pioneering a program with multidisciplinary health teams that would focus on the highest acuity cases within the city. They would identify the 50 individuals who are by far using the most emergency, police, fire, and medical services and try to really focus our care and resources on them and get them into housing. And I'd say on a technical level, on the level of homeless services, we really do bring a sort of best-in-class set of services when it comes to helping people.

I think the challenge is we live within a greater county and region suffering an enormous affordability crisis. What I say to some residents who are very upset, obviously, about this — and they look sometimes to the beach cities like Manhattan Beach or cities like Beverly Hills and say, ‘they have less people suffering from homelessness there, why can’t we be more like them’ — the truth is, it’s because we’re not a small enclave that is disconnected from public transit and other things.

We’re a real city, we have around 100,000 people at night and upwards of 250,000 people during the day who commute here, and we have some of the biggest bus lines that terminate here in Santa Monica. We have the Expo Line which terminates here. I feel very proud that we are a city that is well connected to the broader region, but it means that we also suffer from the same ills that the region, as a whole, is suffering from. I'm very happy we have the Expo Line, but there are some residents who disparage it and say that it has made the city worse. I don't agree with that. But I will admit that they've done studies recently of Metro’s end-of-line policy where, down in Long Beach and in Santa Monica, Metro currently has a protocol where those unhoused folks that are riding the train each day, when the train terminates at the end of the night in Santa Monica, are all forcibly offloaded into the city and not really given any help or services at that time.

So we're currently working with Metro to try to figure out a way to better collaborate with them and make sure that when people are disembarked at the end of the day, either they're not all done so in Santa Monica or, if they are, then it’s done in a manner whereby there can be a warm handoff to people who can be offering shelter and services.

There is an issue in our downtown where there is a lot of homelessness and some of the issues that come with that. I understand and sympathize with the business owners and we're working hard to try to deal with that. But, you know, I think there is a bit of a reality here where, you know, as much as some would say, ‘we can just police this problem away,’ it's something that's going to take a lot more time and effort in terms of reaching the levels of housing affordability in other cities in order to get our numbers back in line with those of other cities across the country.

You've described yourself in the past as a pro business councilmember who also worked in the past to elect a very progressive LA City Council. Share what it means to be a pro-business candidate, elected official in Santa Monica.

I'd say my particular political orientation doesn't cleave entirely neatly onto the current landscape in Los Angeles. I share a lot of views with the progressive council members that I worked with closely, both Nithya Raman and Mike Bonin, I admire them. I think they have good principles. I think they have a lot of good ideas. But I have a few different beliefs namely when it comes to certain regulations, or at times, over regulation, of things in our city, like the ability to get a permit quickly and easily, whether it be for a business change of use or for a development. Things like that are slowing down progress and ultimately hurting the economic bottom line.

In Santa Monica, to me what it means to be a pro-business candidate is that right now, we have structured our economy for a very long time in a way that the downtown businesses were supported by tourists from afar, those that would drive in from far away to go shopping at the Santa Monica Place and Promenade and business office workers who would eat lunch in the downtown restaurants. And what we're seeing now is it wasn't a great idea because we created this wall of traffic heading west which is both an ecological nightmare and also one for the mental health of those that have to commute.

More importantly, as we see in the post-COVID landscape, our businesses are really struggling because they don't have enough patrons. The offices have not filled up again. A lot of the tech companies in Santa Monica are not going back to the office. They’re looking to downsize, or they're going to stay permanently remote. We're not seeing the same levels of tourism still from abroad. I think we really need to think more about helping our businesses in terms of, how do we bring in a permanent clientele for them, how do we create the kind of mixed-use streets and commercial boulevards where customers live right above shops, where businesses themselves aren't just selling luxury handbags to tourists from foreign countries, but we have a range of bars and restaurants and services that can actually encourage locals to come patronize and create a more self-sustaining economy.

I would say we're starting to see that. We’ve loosened zoning restrictions on the Promenade. We’re seeing a gym coming in, we’re seeing a pickle-ball court and lounge coming in, we're seeing Barnes and Noble come back, which was a surprise. I think the more we allow for a variety of uses and especially a variety of resident-serving uses, we will see renewed demand and growth within our small business community.

I also think that another thing that's very important from a business perspective is when it comes to your ability to recruit and retain talent, the cost of living nearby is very important. You’re going to have to offer significantly more money than the competition to recruit someone to come work in Santa Monica because they know that it has some of the highest rents and home prices in the country and a lot of that income is going to be transferred immediately to either a landlord or a mortgage loan.

So, I say to businesses a lot, as an anecdote, I have a young kid and I tried for a long time to get him into daycare. There are several daycares in the area, one of which I was on the waitlist for, and they said to me, ‘We keep having teachers quit to take lower paying jobs closer to where they can afford to live.’ And I think you're going to see this increasingly throughout the business community all the way up to the big tech jobs where, you know, a $200,000 salary to an engineer doesn't mean the same thing in Santa Monica as it means in other places.

So, I think if businesses want to continue to grow and thrive here, we need more residents who can patronize those businesses and we need more affordable housing so that we can recruit and retain good talent.

Santa Monica for years generated much of its revenue through tourism; hotel tax, restaurants, etc. The city just voted overwhelmingly to increase the transient occupancy tax, a politically easy tax to pass because the burden does not fall on residents. But it does impact tourism. Has the increased TOT affected the comeback of Santa Monica as an attractive site for global tourism?

Yes, the transient occupancy tax has always been a significant source of revenue for the city. It’s not something you can keep squeezing forever and expect it to just yield higher and higher returns without affecting the industry and thus the City’s revenue. But I would say, in this case, this was a measure that increased TOT by, I think, around 1% and it was pre-negotiated with the hospitality industry and with most of the hotels who were on board for it.

This was in recognition of the fact that we’re in a difficult fiscal situation right now. A deal was struck in which the hospitality industry was willing to support an increased tax on itself in exchange for that money generated to go to some very specific purposes around homelessness, mental health and public safety, specifically in our downtown.

We've started to receive some of that Measure CS money. I think the rates of occupancy in our hotels has been down a little but the prices charged has been higher and I think, roughly, we're seeing around the same amount of revenue starting to tick up to pre-COVID levels.

What we're starting to do is program that money in ways that I think the hotels are happy with. We’re hiring another homeless liaison team within our police department, which is a set of Santa Monica Police officers who are very well trained in specifically dealing with mental illness. They have a clinician with them and are trained in dealing with all sorts of social issues that might contribute to homelessness and work closely with our outreach teams to address issues in the downtown.

We are also stepping up our Public Works teams who are doing cleanups of the alleyways and other places that people have been concerned have become unclean. We've hired a new security detail to work in the parking lots that surround the businesses downtown to keep them safe and clean. So, I think the hotel and hospitality industry, in this instance, was very happy to tax itself a bit more in order to receive those specific services that it wanted. And it was in recognition of the fact that the city simply didn't have the money through its general fund and we were able to come to a deal that I think will benefit everyone.

Let’s return to your policy views on livability and housing in Santa Monica. What's your view on the state usurpation of local land use powers?

That's a good question. I think my attitude is probably different than that of most local legislators. I agree that it's great for localities to play the lion's share of the role in planning for what they want their communities to look like. Unfortunately, our homelessness crisis is a direct result of allowing each locality to say some equivalent of, ‘Well, we know we need housing, but we have enough here. We should probably build it somewhere else.’ When you have every locality in the state saying that, you have a collective action problem. When you have a collective action problem, in which all these localities are fobbing off their responsibilities onto others, you need a higher body of government to step in and say, ‘Actually, this is a priority for the state as a whole. Everyone must do their fair share.’

I think the RHNA was a very elegant solution to this because while the RHNA does dictate certain amounts of deed-restricted affordable housing, it doesn't dictate what it should look like and where it should go. There are certain broad parameters around Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing and other things, but to me the RHNA is a great thing because it's a way to determine what is the need in this community? What is the growth of population and jobs and concentration of public transit and other things in that area? And then as a community, we do have the ability to figure out how best to meet that need.

I do say to people that if you don't like the state coming in and usurping these powers, then we need to do a better job as a locality to do these things ourselves. If we don't do the hard work of planning for the future and for housing, whether it's for our next generation or those who are on our streets, then we are going to lose more and more of that power. I think we need to prove that we can do it and I'm very much in the camp that I think a city can and I'm very much pushing for us to be a good actor in that.

And I think on the whole Santa Monica has done a good job compared to a lot of other localities. We build more housing than other places, we build more low-income housing than other places, and what I say to people is, you should want the state stepping in because then the state will be making sure that everyone else is doing their fair share too. So even if you think that Santa Monica is doing enough, it's important for the state to be ensuring that every other locality is doing enough too or else we're going to still face those regional crises no matter what we do locally.

The hole in that argument is that the state, while stepping in to usurp some of those land use powers, has not stepped in to fill the vacuum created by Prop 13 in terms of funding local infrastructure. Post Prop 13, cities receive no additional funding from new development— just the opposite, a new development demands new infrastructure and great social services. Is the state, given the aforementioned, doing enough to correct that problem?

No. I agree that Prop 13 has created a real disaster for so many local cities that no longer enjoy the tax revenue to do everything that they should. It's led to all sorts of weird workarounds whereby the city tries to raise money in other ways, through impact fees and all sorts of other forms of taxation. Whereas, if we were able to properly recoup the value of the real estate that's in our city, we would have a better functioning city and city government.

It's a problem, of course, that people have tried to attack and I know, even over the last couple election cycles, there was an attempt to at least go to a split role in which, while residential would be untouched, business would face real reassessments. Even that failed at the ballot box.

I could be wrong but, because that was initially a voter proposition, I believe it needs to be voted on again statewide in order for it to be undone. So, while I'm unsatisfied with it, I’m trying to work within the constraints that I've been given. That is the law of the land, as of now, though I would happily support efforts to reform it.

Elaborate on two land use issues that have become high priority issues in Santa Monica: the conversion of the Santa Monica Airport to a park; and, the interest of the Santa Monica Unified School District in taking over the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

I'll start with the airport. It’s 227 acres of prime real estate in the westside of Los Angeles. It's an unheard of amount of land that, in some ways, is a blank canvas upon which the city can decide what's best to do with it and it's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime planning opportunity that I'm very excited to get to play a role in.

One of the things that I've said, when it comes to how we do that process, is if this is a once in a lifetime opportunity in terms of what we will build, I think we should also be equally innovative and ambitious with the kind of civic engagement and outreach that we engage in. Because, frankly, I think our current forms of outreach and community engagement are broken. The 6PM meeting that the same 30 people attend and use as a forum to yell at their local legislators is not really leading to good outcomes in our city when it takes eight years to permit vitally important green energy infrastructure or transportation or permanent supportive housing.

When we see the kind of meetings that occurred recently in LA, where Councilmember Yaroslavsky and Mayor Bass had to endure vitriol and insults from a small group of malcontents opposed to their plans to build homeless housing in CD5, I don't think that we're getting much out of this. I think that there's a lot of people who have become quite cynical about what our public outreach process does. They say, ‘Look, democracy is when people vote and elect their representatives who run on platforms that they should then be free to implement. It's not democracy when 12 to 20 malcontents succeed in disrupting and derailing that duly elected official’s plans.’ That said, I do think there are other ways we can consider community engagement that would be more democratic. I think that we could do more engagement that relies on polling and statistical sampling to actually capture broad sentiment within the community.

I'm very excited about something I've introduced to the city that I think they're going to do when it comes to their engagement on the airport, which is a fairly innovative qualitative approach, occasionally called lottery panels or democratic lotteries. It's essentially a jury duty for residents to serve on a resident oversight body, but instead of it being self selecting, it's randomly selected and compensated as a way to ensure that there's a really broad and representative sample of residents who get to participate in that process and not self select the residents that always have the time and energy and inclination to engage in that process. So that's something I'm pretty excited to get into when it comes to starting to envision the airport.

When it comes to what should go there, I'm fairly agnostic. I think there was a lot of really great work done by residents and the city prior to me in terms of decommissioning that airport, and most of it centered around a vision for a great park. I think their work in closing the airport was rather incredible. If I'm not mistaken, it was one of the first times the FAA was finally forced into a position where it agreed to settle and close an airport and I think it's to the benefit for all of our residents who will benefit from better use of that space over an airport that primarily served the richest of the rich when it came to private jets and other things like that. It's a testament to the vision and tenacity of those residents who fought for years to turn the space into a great park.

I support converting a large amount of that space into that kind of open space for recreation, education and culture. But what I'm telling residents is we also have to be practical when it comes to scenario planning. We need to think about public-private partnerships, possible additional uses for how we get there, because most estimates put the cost of developing a park at billions, if not tens of billions, of dollars and several decades worth of time. There was an estimate done that even if we just sort of tried to break up the concrete and plant grass and do nothing else, the city would be on the hook for upwards of $25 million a year just to mow it.

My ask of residents at this stage, whether they fought to keep the airport open or to turn it all into a great park, is to keep an open mind as we engage in this process and be willing to play out many scenarios for how we can realize this because, as I said, I live near there, I want it to be great, but I also want my son, who’s one year old now, to enjoy it before he goes to college. I want to be practical and realistic about how we put together the funds to realize this vision.

And the Civic?

When it comes to the Civic Center, it’s an interesting question. The Civic Center is a somewhat notable mid-century building that served a lot of uses and played a famous part in our city's history. It hosted the Academy Awards and several amazing concerts and all sorts of things. But the truth of the matter is it's been sitting vacant for nearly a decade. It was deemed structurally unsafe. The retrofit alone would probably cost $100 million, if not more. It’s a historical landmark, so in terms of various uses, it’s quite limited. I think I sympathize with people's desire to preserve it, but I think that letting it sit empty and rotting and deteriorating is not a win. I think we need to be creative about finding ways to get the money and resources to revive it in some fashion.

The school district, while I've been privy to some of their thoughts and some of their initial feasibility study, they have not yet submitted an offer to the city as to exactly the terms under which they would want to take over that property. So, I can't comment on it because there's no offer at this stage. But it's something I'm willing to entertain.

I would say to people who invoke history as a way of saying we should save the Civic, it’s also important to remember that for at least half a century prior to the 1950s in which the Civic was built, that neighborhood was a very historic Black neighborhood within the city of Santa Monica that was forcibly obtained through by the city eminent domain and a lot of black homeowners were forced to sell and ultimately lose ownership within the city of Santa Monica. So, when people say we have to save the Civic and keep it exactly how it is, I say yes, I believe it's a great building, but it also, before that, was a great black neighborhood. If we're going to do anything and make money off of that space, I think we need to think about reparations and other things that have to do with what that space was prior to when it was the Civic, not just having selective memory that only goes back five decades.

Wrapping things up, you’ve served on the City Council about 250 days to date; you're a Harvard grad with a family and a child. Is your wife okay with you serving on a part-time city council?

That's an interesting question. We obviously talked about it before I ran, and she encouraged me and gave me her full support, but that was before I actually started doing it and doing it is a different beast. I won't lie that at times, it’s tough on our family. It's tough every other Tuesday when I'm gone all night until two in the morning and she has to hold down the fort. It's tough with all the events that happen on nights and weekends, predominantly because that’s when most people are available, and it's tough to divide my time in that regard. She also didn't like that, because I was running such as a shoestring campaign, I just used my home address for all of our legal and other filings. So, you know, everyone who wanted to could see exactly where we lived, which probably wasn't her favorite thing either.

But, you know, I think we're all getting used to it. It's a part-time job, and if I was to make a decision at some point to try to run for any other position that was more full time, we’d have to have another conversation about whether that was right for the family or not.


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