Rick Caruso: Use commercial, industrial areas to shelter unhoused

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Michell Eloy

“We're spending over $1 billion a year right now on homelessness, and homelessness is only getting worse. I can't understand why our leadership has allowed it. It's clearly a failure of leadership that we've allowed it,” says mayoral candidate and billionaire businessman Rick Caruso. Photo courtesy of the Caruso for Mayor campaign.

KCRW wraps up its interviews with the leading candidates running to be the next mayor of Los Angeles.

Past conversations include LA City Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León, LA City Attorney Mike Feuer, California Congresswoman Karen Bass, and community organizer Gina Viola

Businessman Rick Caruso is best known for developing real estate projects like The Grove and The Americana. He also served as the president of the LA Police Commission in the early 2000s. Most recently, he was the chair of the USC Board of Trustees until he stepped down to run for mayor. 

Caruso talks to KCRW about his plans to use commercial and industrial areas to shelter unhoused people and hire 1,500 more police officers, and why he thinks LA’s homelessness crisis is the result of leadership failures. 

The following interview has been edited for clarity. 

KCRW: The latest polls have you slightly leading in the mayor’s race, just a point ahead of Congresswoman Karen Bass. You are a billionaire who’s spent at least $10 million blanketing TV, mailboxes, and social media with ads. It’s prompted criticism that you’re buying your way into this election. What’s your response? 

Rick Caruso: I have not had the benefit of being in public office for a couple of decades like those that I’m running against. They've had the visibility. They've had their name out there. They've been in the conversations, in the mix, for a couple of decades holding office. So I had to spend the money to get my message out, [and] let people know who I am, what I've done, what I stand for, what my thoughts are, what my solutions are to the problems that I think are so pressing [like] crime and homelessness and corruption. And so I've done that, and the response has been extremely well. I don't believe people can buy elections. I believe people need to get their message out there, and then the voters will make a good choice.

You were a Republican for decades and registered as a Democrat just before you declared your candidacy. Why did you switch?

I was a Republican a decade ago, and then I left the Republican Party and became an Independent. I saw the Republican Party heading in a direction that I wasn't comfortable with. I frankly have always been somebody that doesn't believe in labels anyway, and I've reached across the aisle. And I always try to find common ground. That's why I became an independent. I'm very much a centrist. And the Democratic Party aligns more closely with what I believe in. And frankly, I'm concerned about where the Republicans are going to go in November and don't want to be associated with that.

Who did you vote for in 2016? 

I'll say this: I was very critical on the record — and it's well documented — on [former President Donald] Trump. So that probably tells you what I did. And in the most recent election, quite frankly, I was a big supporter and contributor to Mayor Pete [Buttigieg]. So I've always made my decisions on who I believe is the best at the time. And that's what I did in the last couple of elections as I have with every election I've been a part of.

So you voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016?

All I’m going to say is it’s very well-documented — my criticism for Donald Trump. 

Instead of releasing tax returns from the last five years like other candidates, you disclosed a two-page paper that notes you paid $1.6 million in personal income taxes and $2.3 million in personal business taxes. Can you clarify what percentage of your income that money reflects?

I was very clear when I was at the debate on the stage that I would release what I paid in taxes. And I have released that. 

I think the whole tax return is a diversionary tactic. We have a Form 700 that's required of candidates and elected officials, which documents everything that I own or have invested in. It's about 800 pages. It's a public document. And so if somebody would like to see what I own or what I've invested in over the years, the Form 700 lays it out in much more clarity than a tax return ever will. 

And I also don't think every candidate has released all their tax returns. I think there's one candidate that hasn't. And we don't even have a picture of what he's paid in taxes yet. So I've done what I said I would do, and I'm going to stand by that.

You have said if you’re elected, you want to build 30,000 shelter beds within the first year in office. How would you do that, and how would you pay for it? 

Money is not the issue. As you know, and your listeners know, we've got more money in Los Angeles, the state of California, [and] the federal government in order to help support these kinds of programs. 

We're spending over $1 billion a year right now on homelessness, and homelessness is only getting worse. I can't understand why our leadership has allowed it. It's clearly a failure of leadership that we've allowed it. The growing population on the streets, sadly enough, are families and the elderly. We need to get people in dry beds, safe places, mental health services, services for those that are drug addicted, and services for those that need retraining and a helping hand getting back on their feet, which many of them do. 

I can build 30,000 beds within a year. We currently have 14,000 beds. That would provide at least a temporary, safe, warm, [and] dignified location for people to be living [in] very quickly. 

At the same time, [I would] unbundle the overregulation that we have in the City of Los Angeles, and start building low-income housing. We're desperately short. 

We're not building housing in Los Angeles because it's been so overregulated. And what's being built by the government under Proposition HHH that all of us agreed to tax ourselves $1.1 billion has been fraught with overruns to the tune of $800,000 per dwelling unit. You got a lack of leadership on that front. [We’re] supposed to build 10,000 homes. We've only built 1,100 in six years.

The average cost is actually around $600,000 for HHH-funded dwellings per unit. It’s a very high cost, but $800,000 is at the top of the range. That’s partly due to bureaucratic red tape and state laws, including the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). How would you get around that as mayor?

You don't get around state law. You have to work with the legislators up there and the governor. There's been a lot of talk for at least a decade through the Jerry Brown-era on revamping CEQA. And there has been some progress made on the fronts of sustainability. 

If you do a project that has a checklist, and you meet the checklist for sustainability, you get certain protections from these rampant lawsuits under CEQA. We need to mirror the same thing for low-income housing. I believe there's a will to do that. 

I would work closely with Governor [Gavin] Newsom — who I know well, and we've worked together for many years between government and private enterprise. I’ve been a big supporter of his and the legislature. 

In Los Angeles alone, we need, [according to] some estimates, up to 500,000 new dwelling units. And we've got to make sure that somebody that's trying to pull permits isn't constantly getting sued and held back. 

But we’ve also got to start at home and [make] sure that we've got regulations that are appropriate to protect neighborhoods in terms of overbuilding, but at the same time, give incentives to people to build low-income housing and other housing so we can meet the growing needs of Los Angeles.

As a developer, why didn’t you build affordable housing?

What we've done is spent our money — tens of millions of dollars — investing in communities to prevent people who are living at or below the poverty line from ending up on the streets. So there's a lot of different ways to tackle it. I wish I had the resources to tackle all of it. But through our efforts on philanthropy and our charitable work down in the communities of South LA, East LA and Watts, we have leaned in very heavily in supporting families that are hardworking families but are at or below the poverty line to make sure that they're not ending up on the streets.

What would you do specifically in regards to tent encampments, some of which are associated with crime, as well as residents who live on the streets who don’t want to go into shelters?

That’s a good question, and it’s a tough problem. It's not going to be easy, but that's where my experience in dealing with complex, tough problems comes into play because I have a lot of experience in dealing with these kinds of things. 

I believe strongly that living on the street in an encampment is an undignified, inhumane way to live. And so you have to start, in my view, with that. And it's not fair to the people living on the street. And it's not fair to the communities that are bearing the impact of it. 

So you do have crime emanating from some of these encampments. You have a lot of drug use. Drug use is rampant on the streets of Los Angeles in these encampments. 

At the same time, you've got communities. You've got young families and people trying to raise their kids and [not] allowing them to walk to school. You've got businesses that are being impacted because of encampments along the sidewalks. You got an enormous amount of people that are living in their own human waste. We have no bathroom facilities. At some point, you're going to have to go out to the community. 

I've got a plan: 500 caseworkers that are trained in mental health care and drug addiction care going out, triaging people, getting them the care they need, [and] getting them into [a] bed. 

Eventually, you have to say you're not allowed to have an encampment on the street. And I am a big supporter of the governor's CARE Court that he's trying to get through at the state level. So that you can have people that need mental health care or [have] drug addiction — hopefully that will be part of it — and get them into a conservatorship and give them the right kind of care. 

But you cannot allow encampments to remain because they'll just continue to grow and impact the communities where they're located. And that's not fair.

Getting people the care they need takes time. But you’re promising to house 30,000 people in a year. What happens if you run into time  constraints and an unwillingness to go into shelters? Many unhoused residents don’t like shelters because they’re unsafe, crowded, and would rather live on the streets. 

You're absolutely right. You're going to have a number of people that will take that point of view because they have the freedom to have drugs or live on the street. Right now, it's lawless, for the most part, on the street. Nobody's enforcing the law. But you can't do what we've been doing for the last decade, which is allowing it to get worse and doing nothing. 

So my commitment is to build 30,000 beds. I'm going to do my best in a very dignified, humane way to fill up 30,000 beds. Let's assume we fill up 10,000 beds, 20,000 beds — whatever that number is. We have to start moving people off the street. And so we can't plan for the lowest common denominator and say, ‘There's going to be a group of people who will never leave the encampments, so therefore, let's not do anything.’ That's been what our leadership has done so far. That's been what the candidates who I'm running against have done so far. They've not done anything.

You’ve criticized a lot of City Council members for not doing anything, but they’ve tried to build shelters in their districts and faced opposition from neighborhood groups. How would you get those groups to accept shelters in their communities?

I built my whole career working with neighborhood groups. My whole business is built on finding common ground with residents. And I've been very successful at it. There's always a way to have a compromise and meet the needs of the community. 

There's also 300 vacant parcels, surplus parcels, deemed surplus by the City of Los Angeles, so let's start in areas that are not impacting communities — areas that are more industrial, more commercial that don't have a lot of residential, and let's start there.

Your plan to hire 1,500 new police officers would cost approximately $200 million a year. How would you pay for it without cutting other services?

I don't think you have to cut other services. I disagree with the premise on that, with all due respect. 

You have an $11 billion budget in the City of Los Angeles. I know from my experience of running large organizations [with] billion-dollar budgets, there's waste that creeps into those kinds of budgets. Certainly, [from] my experience with government budgets, there's waste. We will find the money. Listen, the City Attorney's Office, their budget alone is half a billion dollars a year. That is a massive amount of money supporting the City Attorney's Office. 

There's going to be a shared responsibility with everybody's departments to say, “Let's go [and] cut waste in every department without reducing services.” Actually, let's enhance services. Let's grow the pie. Attract more businesses in the city. Have an increase in income in the city because there's more businesses [and] more job creation. That's what you do. That's what a business person does. 

A government person says, “The pie is only so big, so if I take one slice out of it, there's less for everybody else.” No. Grow the pie. And that's what LA has to start doing. We've been losing businesses in the city. Ninety percent of the businesses in Los Angeles are small businesses. They need a helping hand from the city to grow. And they've been so drastically damaged from COVID. We need to allow them to grow their businesses, grow the pie. 

I'll find the money. There won't be any new taxes. I am not in favor of new taxes. And we can hire the police, which we desperately need. We are underserved with the amount of cops we currently have in LAPD. Crime is rising, and we have 500 less police officers on the street. And that's why crime will continue to rise. 

You’re saying crime is rising because we have fewer police officers in the LAPD? 

It's one of the reasons, yes. You can't physically cover the geography of the city with the amount of officers that we have. The response times are very delayed in order to get across town. But we've got neighborhoods that have very little protection.

But crime is rising in every big city in America. 

With all due respect, that's like your child coming home and saying, “Mom, dad, everyone's using drugs.” Why are we worried about what every other city is doing? Let's focus on what's happening in Los Angeles. 

What's happening in Los Angeles is [that] you've got crime increasing and violent crime increasing. Crimes like hate crimes increasing 100%, which should not be tolerated. And you have 500 less officers. So you have a formula here that's creating an ongoing problem.

There might be other reasons for the rise, such as an increase in income disparity, or that lots of people were out of work during COVID. There’s all sorts of reasons that could be contributing, not just fewer police officers. 

I agree with you. And I said fewer police officers is one of the reasons. And yes, there's other reasons. And we need to go [to] work to solve those. But you have to start with having enough officers to protect the good people of Los Angeles.

KCRW is also a music station, and we’ve asked all the mayoral candidates what their guilty pleasure song is. What do you sing at the top of your lungs when no one is around? 

I've got sort of mixed feelings in terms of my music. I love music, and I know your music station. I love the great, old song “On the Sunny Side of the Street” because I like walking on the sunny side of the street. I'm blessed to be born an optimist, and I love that. 

At the same time, I love the old standards, and I also love The Chainsmokers. I love music that gives you energy and gets you going, and I think they do put out some great music. I love [Michael] Bublé. I've got a pretty wide spectrum. 

And I still love opera, so it just depends on the mood I’m in. 

What’s your favorite opera? 

I love [Andrea] Bocelli. I love, love, love Bocelli. And I love the duets that he’s done. So I’m all over the board. I think “Caruso” is one of the all-time great operatic songs, so I’m a little partial to that one too.