May 30, 2024 - From the May, 2024 issue

A One on One With LA 43rd City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto

Hydee Feldstein Soto, the 43rd City Attorney of Los Angeles, has restructured her office to improve transparency, accountability, and collaboration, establishing new branches focused on real estate, public rights, and consumer protection. Her priorities for the upcoming year include legislative efforts in Sacramento, community engagement initiatives like "Coffee with the City Attorney," and technological upgrades for the Criminal Branch. Feldstein Soto discusses her close working relationship with Mayor Karen Bass, particularly in addressing homelessness and housing challenges, and has implemented innovative solutions like the public health and safety receivership for the Skid Row Housing Trust and the Community Outreach Court. She is focused on combating human trafficking, copper wire theft, nuisance abatement, and corruption, aiming to transform the City Attorney's office into a modern public law firm dedicated to justice and public service.

“I don't think there's been a closer relationship between a mayor and a city attorney since the days of Tom Bradley and Bert Pines.”


It's been almost a year and a half since you were elected the 43rd City Attorney of Los Angeles, and began serving as General Counsel, Chief Prosecutor, Legal Advisor to the Mayor, and the Advisor to city boards and agencies of the city. Could we address your evolving priorities and relationships since your election?

Hydee Feldstein Soto

I spent my first year looking inward and learning the job – my focus was on restructuring the office to ensure we had in place the kind of organization that permits transparency and accountability, inspires collaboration across lines, produces data that can be tracked, and that is deliverable and accountable not only to management of the office, but to our clients. In that regard, I made a lot of changes.

During my first year, it took a couple of months to form a new Real Estate Branch. I pulled the real estate out of the Municipal Branch and hired from the outside because a lot of the City Hall noise was around issues regarding real estate and development– I didn't look back. I wanted to make sure that we had the infrastructure in place to ensure transparency, integrity, and accountability. The new Real Estate branch has been in place since February 6, 2023, which is less than two months after I took office.

In addition to the Real Estate Branch, I restructured the Criminal Branch, and as part of that restructuring, I moved civil law enforcement to a new “Public Rights” branch, protecting the public from unfair business practices, consumer fraud, nuisance abatement and environmental violations.

I don't have a Chief of Staff – I have schedulers who fit things in to make sure I don't make mistakes. Instead, I have two Chief Deputies. One of them helps manage the work and is in charge of all things court and office-related, including supervising the Criminal, Civil Litigation and Public Rights Branches while the other supervises the Municipal and Real Estate Branches and the three proprietary departments – the DWP, Airport and the Harbor Port. These are examples of how I've restructured the office to be responsive and organized.


What are my priorities for the upcoming year?

Hydee Feldstein Soto

I’m focused on looking outward this year. Looking outward means a lot of different things, including taking legislation up to Sacramento. I took up nine bills, five were introduced, and two made it through the initial committee process. I’m hopeful that those two will be enacted by the governor this fall, as legislation is a high priority for me this year.

I'm also looking outward in terms of communities. We've implemented a program called “Coffee with the City Attorney,” which is structured around different groups to let them know what we're doing in the areas of interest to them and get feedback as to what we're doing right and where our office can be more supportive of our residents’ needs. So far, we've had three of these; the first one was in March in honor of Women's History Month, the second one in early April with business groups, and the third one was in late April, with great representation from environmental groups.

I consider “outward facing” to be the rest of the City and other agencies. My office belongs to a group that consists of the City Attorneys of large Southern California cities, almost all of us happen to be women. I've been focusing on issues facing the criminal branch and fighting for the technology that we need to bring this office into the 21st century.


It is noteworthy that TPR has addressed consistently - in past interviews of all your predecessors - the LA’s City Attorney Office’s urgent need to upgrade its technology.

Hydee Feldstein Soto

It’s noteworthy that we now have a selected provider, and we’ve spent about $1.9 million on designing the system that we need; but there's about another 2.6 million to put in. It’s critical to the operation of the Criminal Branch that we get the funds needed to upgrade our technology. 

The court has moved to Odyssey and Odyssey is not completely compatible with the current ColdFusion platform my office uses. We're wasting time with manual translation and it's very difficult for us to pull out data and reports in a usable form under the current system. The system has not been upgraded since 1992. There have been tweaks and fixes but the system is still the original 1992 system – it needs replacement.


Pivoting. Many civic observers have noted that you have got a particularly close and positively evolving relationship with L.A. Mayor Karen Bass. Could you address the value of that close relationship?

Hydee Feldstein Soto

The Mayor and I did not know each other before we were both elected. She was my congressional representative, but if we had met, it was in passing. Once we were both elected, we set up a lunch meeting that was supposed to last an hour. Two and a half hours later, we still hadn't run out of things to talk about but we had to stop. It was just a very good first meeting. 

At that meeting, we agreed that we would stay in regular communication. The best way to do that was to have a weekly lunch, and that's what we did. That's what we still do– we try to meet at least once a week.


For the public, what's the value of that close relationship?

Hydee Feldstein Soto

I don't think there's been a closer relationship between a mayor and a city attorney since the days of Tom Bradley and Bert Pines. From my perspective, I represent the municipal corporation that is the City of Los Angeles. I represent the City Council and the Mayor, so I try to represent the City as a whole.

On a day-to-day basis, it’s the mayor and her departments carrying out the executive functions of the City. I would describe our lunches as working lunches. They provide both of us with the opportunity to look with hindsight at what has happened in the recent week to think through what worked and what didn't. We look at the present to consider our priorities and how to address the part of our bureaucracy that is not working for the city or our constituents. Lunch also allows us to look forward to upcoming events and allows us to prepare together.

I value my relationship with the mayor very much. She's been an excellent partner to my office, a wonderful client, a wonderful colleague, and has become a friend – I'm very proud of that.


With Mayor Bass’ first priority being homelessness and housing, and the Skid Row Development Corporation fiscal collapse hitting you almost from day one, what you're allowed to talk about in terms of addressing the city’s homeless challenges.

Hydee Feldstein Soto

I don't set policy. I don't command resources. I cannot go out concerning a particular encampment or a particular situation. However, my office designs and drafts the legal documentation to try to minimize the risk of liability to the City. We set up the legal framework under which a policy can move forward.

In terms of Skid Row Housing Trust, I took a move that was bold because the City doesn't usually move for receiverships, but I had been in office for four months when we had a meeting with our Housing Department and Skid Row Housing Trust, which was not privileged because they were there. I don't remember the exact dates, but it was a matter of days, not weeks. They told us that they may not be able to make payroll, and then they’d have to shut down. That meant something like 1,500 tenants on the street and 2000 affordable units in Downtown LA in financial free-fall.

I drew on my background as a bankruptcy lawyer to think through what could we do fast enough that would be effective. Under that timeframe, there was no time to get council approval. Maybe you could have tried to set a meeting on 24 hours' notice, but it would be hard to explain it sufficiently and get a closed session. You can’t put in City money without council approval, so we didn't have the money at that time to consider other options. City council is the ultimate decider on things like funding, and bankruptcy would not provide us with any control.

The one thing that we could do was use a tool under California State Law, called the Public Health and Safety Receivership. It’s a regulatory action by a government entity for when a given entity is a sufficient enough threat to public health and safety, it should have the oversight and funding to fix its problems. I worked with the mayor's office, and for the initial receiver, we didn't have a lot of time to interview. At the time, it was someone who was Mr. Public Health and Safety receiver throughout the state, and he said he didn't need money from the City because he had his own line of credit. So that's what we did. We went forward and, over time, there were any number of issues which you can read about in the court papers.

I'm a bit of a stickler for clarity, reporting, and accountability. I don't react well to not having that visibility into a proceeding where it was becoming increasingly clear that the City was going to have to write a check if the receivership was to continue. We asked the court to change receivers last June,  and we've been working with the new receiver to improve and transfer the remaining properties ever since.  We began with 29 properties, and we’re now down to 18 buildings still in receivership. The ones that have exited were stabilized to the point where the original equity investors with the tax credits that had funded them were able to take them back over. So, we've at least saved those 11 properties even if nothing else happens – 11 buildings with their tenants and over 750 units of affordable housing.

The City has advanced, I think, $36.5 million, and this is no secret. The City has a couple of interests that we will not waver from, including to whom these buildings are sold. First, we want regulatory agreements that ensure that the units remain affordable. That's why we put up the money and why we initially called for a public health and safety receivership. We need to make sure that that survives. Secondly, given the population of these buildings, this is not just an affordability issue. Many of the folks who are housed in these buildings need ongoing onsite services, from medical to other kinds of supportive services whether it be counseling, rehabilitation, job training, or even help with their groceries – they need ongoing services.

In addition to the affordability covenants, we insist that the buyer either has experience with permanent supportive housing or partners with somebody who does. The third piece of it is that going forward, we are in a position to monitor compliance with existing rental subsidy programs for HACLA and the County of LA. Yes, we're willing to work with the new owners and provide a timeframe and a proposal to bring the buildings fully into compliance, but at the end of the day, long term stability has to be the goal. We're working with the County, Department of Health Services, the Department of Mental Health, and HACLA. We're also working with the state.


Are all the public and provider stakeholders perfectly aligned in addressing the City’s homeless / housing affordability challenges?

Hydee Feldstein Soto

Believe it or not, HCD (California Dept. of Housing & Community Development) has its own views on things, and they're not always perfectly aligned with the City. We have to continue to work with federal subsidies for Section 8 vouchers and the money that comes that way to ensure compliance. It is important that in SRHT, all 29 properties have been cleared from Firewatch except for one, and that one will be removed as soon as the receiver’s staff can arrange for an inspection. When we entered the receivership, all 29 were on Firewatch, meaning there was a fire/life safety condition that required 24-hour monitoring at each property by onsite staff. 

At the beginning of the current receiver, Kevin Singer’s tenure, we had 2080 dwelling units in receivership. After the 11 properties exited, we had 1267 units left in the receivership. The remaining units are 73.8% occupied, which means that there are 332 units vacant. Of those 332 vacant units, 80 of them have already been matched with prospective tenants.

What are we doing with these buildings? We're housing people. We're bringing the units into compliance. We're exercising our regulatory authority in the way that we should, and we're not backing down on the original public purpose of the receivership for financial or other reasons. I understand that lots of people have opinions, but based on the aggregate number of affordable units saved, this receivership has been a tremendous success based on where we were a year ago.


To toggle between challenges and opportunities, you've turned some housing challenges into opportunities, and thus share and elaborate on your office’s Community Outreach court program - its purpose and how it’s being rolled out & scaled?

Hydee Feldstein Soto

It was very easy for me to just say yes to this program. It was being explored for a while by the Superior Court as a partnership with City and County agencies and offices, including Mayor Bass and Supervisor Solis. Mayor Bass loved the idea and she asked me whether I could help design and participate in it.

We call it Community Outreach Court and, in other jurisdictions, it's known as Homeless Court.

I believe there are at least two other cities in LA County that have their own version of homeless court - Long Beach and Redondo Beach.

We’re the first Court in the City of Los Angeles that has launched in a community setting. We found an outdoor spot on Skid Row, The ReFresh Spot, that is accessible to the local community and open 24 hours, seven days a week. They were gracious enough to allow us to use their location for purposes of having a courtroom in the community.

Someone who is unhoused has difficulty in responding to requests to come to court because they're incredibly suspicious of law enforcement and official buildings, often don't have a means of transportation to the location, and are loath to leave their belongings behind outside because chances are that when they get back, the belongings will be gone. By bringing the court to The ReFresh Spot, we help folks who want help and are trying to work within the system. We help create a space that is comfortable for them. We started the pilot on September 15, and we had approximately 40 participants who were offered services.  As of February, we have offered services to over 200 individuals that are either unhoused or at risk of becoming unhoused. 

We partner with various service providers that provide onsite services, such as mental health, employment and reentry resources. We also have housing navigators present that can provide housing options depending on the participant's needs. And we have our Homeless Engagement and Response Team which administers the LA County Homeless Court Program, providing ticket clearance services. The LA County Public Defender also provides expungement services. The goal is to remove barriers to housing, services, and employment.

Hopefully, participants leave with not only a solution to their legal problems, but with a connection to help them get off the street. It's proven to be very successful, currently operating every third Thursday of every month, from nine to noon, at The ReFresh Spot. 


Before concluding this interview, share for our readers’ benefit the important work your office is engaged in regarding human sex trafficking of minors, as well as on criminal justice reform, corruption in city government, and even copper wire theft.

Hydee Feldstein Soto

Treetops, it's massive. When you say human trafficking, I am focused on the commercial sex trafficking of minors, which is a major problem. Figueroa Street in South L.A. was where we started. We did multi-jurisdictional and multi-agency projects, and I’ll skip to the bottom line: a 62% reduction in homicides, a 10% reduction in aggravated assault, and a 6.5% reduction in street robbery and theft. Over 800 johns received Dear John letters, and over 100 perpetrators and pimps were arrested or cited. 71 sex workers voluntarily took our offer of help, and of those 71, 60 were minors. The youngest was 12 years old. Stay tuned, we're going to roll it out in other parts of the city. Again, the focus is stopping the sex trafficking of minors, we're not arresting any sex workers–adult or minor.

I've also spent a lot of time on copper wire theft. Part of the trick to this petty theft is finding a way to deter it at scale. Arresting someone for pulling copper wire out of cement did not seem to me to be an effective tool. We sent out 661 letters to all of the regulated resellers of metal recyclers, and we're watching them, keeping a registry. It is an effort to dry up the demand for copper wire.

On party houses, same thing. Yes, we are enforcing against party houses, nuisance abatement, and hoarders. I have 4000 single-property cases in my criminal regulatory branch alone, that are those kinds of cases. To deter the problem at scale, we brought a public rights action against the Nightfall Group, a party house platform, to shut down that platform and we are going to continue to do the same with unlicensed short-term rentals.

I've been working on organized retail theft and shutting down avenues for corruption at City Hall. I’ve enforced the competitive bidding procedures of the City Charter since day one. I've streamlined the contracting and RFP process, taking it from 28 pages to 5. I've added language on settlement agreements and other contracts that are binding on the city to certify that the individual signatory attests have no personal pecuniary or financial interest in the contents of the agreement for both parties. I’ve appointed an officer upon the formation of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) group within my office that has a mission and is resourced to advise various city departments. I'm really proud of these accomplishments.


For context, you've spent much of your legal career in private law and outside of government. Now you're the lawyer for the City of LA and likely have the largest public law firm office in California. How different is the practice of law now that you’re representing the public, as opposed to private interests?

Hydee Feldstein Soto

It's very satisfying. I work very hard but I don't feel like a cog in a wheel. When I get up in the morning, I have purpose. I'm doing good every day I can. I have my executive team in place as a result of the restructuring I mentioned, and I'm better able to delegate. I'm looking forward to the more affirmatively good things that we can do. Looking towards more initiatives, not just on minor sex trafficking or copper wire theft, but I intend to roll out initiatives to help all our communities. Currently, I’m trying to staff up the Community Law Corps, which is a public-facing unit focused on improving the quality of life in neighborhoods across the city.

I hope that my legacy is a 21st-century public law firm that renders the highest quality legal services to its clients and constituents, representing the People of the State of California fairly and justly in a way that deters crime and includes pathways to restorative justice. Our office must work for its constituents and their neighborhoods to demonstrate the tangible good that the government can do, as opposed to the wastefulness that too many people see and choose to focus on.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.