How incoming LA City Councilman Kevin de León plans to reduce homelessness and transform the local economy

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Central downtown LA has lacked a representative on the City Council for months. Jose Huizar, the former councilman of District 14, is under federal indictment for selling his influence to developers to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But later this week, Kevin de León will be sworn in to represent downtown, Boyle Heights, and parts of northeast Los Angeles. 

Kevin de León speaks with KCRW about homelessness, cutting through red tape, and the future of police.

KCRW: During your election night speech, you said homelessness is the largest humanitarian crisis in the history of LA. Skid Row is in your district. What can you do to improve things for people living on the streets?

Kevin de León: “If LA is the epicenter of homelessness nationwide, then city [district] 14 is ground zero. We have more unhoused individuals and families than any part of the country. And it's both shocking as well as it's shameful. Because we are clearly one of the richest cities in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in the world. 

So what I want to do from day one, when I raise my right hand and take the oath, is I want to cut through the mindless Kafka red tape that exists in City Hall, and make sure that all housing projects that are dealing specifically with our unhoused community go to the front of the line, no questions asked. 

We need to make sure that we expedite quicker all the huge queues that exist of housing projects that are specific to our unhoused community. Because we need to put a roof over their heads. 

Listen, you can't cheat yourself on this. You can't cut corners. Ultimately, you have to put a roof over the head. What kind of roof — that is always up for interpretation. I always believe you need to get value, to get the volume that you need to house as many unhoused individuals that we have living on our streets. 

… This is a human catastrophe unlike anything we have ever seen before. And quite frankly, it's embarrassing.”

How do you get rid of the red tape? You describe the red tape as Kafkaesque. There are hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that's coming into the city to get these people into some sort of shelter situation.

“We have to take on the bureaucracy just head on. I think we need to work in a collaborative manner, no question about it. But if we can't work in a collaborative fashion, then you have to take on the bureaucracy. Because ultimately, at the end of the day, this is a Democratic majority city. This is a Democratic majority City Council. I would venture to say if you took a secret survey of all the hardworking men and women in City Hall, a lot of them lean [on the] Democratic side. So this is an issue that is internal amongst ourselves. When we look in the mirror and we see who are the greatest obstacles, it is us.”

A lot of Angelenos have been demonstrating and asking to “defund the police,” at least move more money into services and away from the LAPD. Where do you stand on that issue? Do you think the term “defund the police” accurately portrays what folks want?

“I think ‘defund the police’ means a lot of things to a lot of people. I think we're at an inflection point in our city, in our state, in our nation's history. We have an opportunity to reimagine and revision what law enforcement looks like. 

I think law enforcement works very well in certain parts of the city, unquestionably. It's very clear historically, especially in communities of color, in those communities of the lowest economic strata, that law enforcement hasn't worked very well. And it's a mixed bag in many poor countries throughout the city. But especially in city [district] 14 with Boyle Heights, there are without question strong supporters of our local law enforcement agency, in this case, LAPD. 

And there are folks who believe that they have been at the end of the sharp tip of the spear because of the color of their skin, because of their economic status. So this gives us an opportunity, I believe, to reimagine and revision what law enforcement looks like. 

Do we want safe communities? Absolutely. But do we want communities that can engage in a collaborative, respectful fashion with our local force, local law enforcement agencies? That's ultimately what we want.”

In the case of moving money from public safety to more public services, if you were on the City Council during the George Floyd protests or when Black Lives Matter LA said to get more money to these services programs, where would you have come down on that? 

“I would be very open to supporting that. There's no question about it. So we can have preventative measure type of investments that are needed, as opposed to the back end when we send our folks to San Quentin, to Pelican Bay — as opposed to UCLA or Cal State LA. It's the right type of investments that we make that are absolutely critical. 

And if you look at certain zip codes … the vast majority of crime rates are extremely high. Although relatively speaking, they have decreased. But we also see where a lot of our young men and women, particularly young men of color, where they don't end up going to a community college or to a Cal State or a UC school, but rather they end up in some sort of correctional facility. And we need to sort of destroy, if you will, that school to prison pipeline, which I think is very critical. And I think that's where a lot of folks, that's what they've been saying for decades.”

Your predecessor Jose Huizar is under federal indictment. Another former City Councilman, Mitch Englander, has pleaded guilty. He's cooperating with the feds. Can you blame people for feeling like there's corrupt cronyism at LA City Hall, that people are pocketing money, they're letting developers get away with whatever they want?

“Yeah, no question. The very fact that there is a little sense of trust in City Hall, in elected officials and politicians as a whole, regardless if you’re at the city level, if you're at the state or federal level, no doubt about it. 

I don't blame constituents as a whole for having a lack of trust. Not all elected officials are the same. This is more of an aberration … [than] a norm. So I think that what we can do as elected officials is roll up our sleeves, put our nose to the grindstone, and get to work with a sense of urgency to deal with the biggest problems that we're tackling right now in city 14. 

Again, homelessness is the issue of displacement and gentrification in the enormous market forces that are imposed on working families who have been prohibited from entering the workforce because of the shelter-in-place edict by LA County because of coronavirus. The very fact that in city 14, I have nine major freeways … that crisscross the district like a serpent that choke the air, the oxygen out of a young girl's lungs. 

We need to really move forward in transforming our economy in Los Angeles and making LA the epicenter for a green revolution, where we put people to work. And at the same time, we clean up the dirty air in America. 

And a lot of my constituents who breathe all of that air from those nine major freeways because there were politicians and there were non-elected officials — planning commissioners at the local level, you had Caltrans at the state level, you had folks at the county level — they made a subjective decision. ‘We're going to build freeways in these communities, we're not going to build them in those communities. And those communities, we're going to build parks and preserve green space and open space. And these communities, we're not going to give them any parks, and if they want parks, they're going to have to fight for it. They're going to have to make it a political issue if they want it.’ It shouldn't be that way. 

And that's why I want to give a voice to the voiceless, bring my experience from the state capitol as the former senator and as the former president of the California State Senate, now Senate President Emeritus, I want to bring that experience and that fight to City Hall.”

You were a state senator. You ran against U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and lost. Here you are on the LA City Council. A lot of folks would say maybe that's a smaller ball than you used to play. And then other folks believe you're ready to run for the city's top spot, perhaps for mayor. There seems to be some smart money on that. What do you say to that?

“I hadn't even set foot in City Hall. So I haven't even had a chance to think about what my future is going to look like. But I know in the immediate, my focus is 100% on the constituents of city 14. … These are incredible times.

But extraordinary times require extraordinary action because of the pandemic, coronavirus. Because our unemployment is unlike anything we've ever seen before. We have an economic recession that easily dwarfs the economic recession of 2008. We have the tsunami potential … of eviction moratoriums that will expire at the end of January of 2021. 

If we cannot handle our estimated 60,000 unhoused individuals and families living in City of LA and LA County today, how are we going to handle close to 400,000 newly unhoused individuals living on our streets? That's why it's all hands on deck. This is what Angelenos want. They expect and they want leadership from their so-called elected leaders.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Christian Bordal