On homelessness and safety, Mike Feuer demands humanity and order

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Vincent Nguyen, produced by Michell Eloy

LA City Attorney Mike Feuer appears at his home, March 30, 2022. “There's a real hunger in our community for leaders who have the attributes I described: who take responsibility, who act assertively, and are a force for good in our city. I've been those things and I'll be those things as mayor,” he says. Photo by Marcelle Hutchins/KCRW

KCRW is interviewing the top five candidates running for LA mayor, including City Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León, billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso, California Congresswoman Karen Bass, and LA City Attorney Mike Feuer

Feuer has held his current office since July 2013 and previously served in the California State Assembly and on LA City Council. He talks to KCRW about how he plans to provide a bed for every unhoused Angeleno, and addresses his role in the 2019 LADWP billing scandal and allegations of extortion and perjury. 

The following interview has been edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Homlessness is the top issue facing Los Angeles. One of your campaign promises is to make shelter beds available for everyone by the end of your term. How much money will that cost the city, and how will you pay for it? 

Mike Feuer: Well, we're going to get the latest homeless count results in just a few days. The last results showed that there were about 28,500 people on a given night without shelter on our streets. We have solutions for about half that number of people. So we need to obtain, roughly, another 14,000 or 15,000 additional solutions for people who are relegated to living on our streets. And that is an achievable goal through a variety of means. 

We're going to get some money from the state that's going to continue to flow into LA coffers. Our budget has expanded dramatically to address homelessness, far more than ever was — more than $1 billion. It was a pittance just a few years ago. There'll be additional federal funding available. A mayor that has an exceptional relationship with the federal government will be able to draw down additional HUD [United States Department of Housing and Urban Development] dollars. There'll also be private sector funding involved. 

One of my proposals is to create a $1 billion revolving private equity fund with which to build permanent supportive housing. That's housing that's been costing $600,000-800,000 a unit. That can be cut to a third of that cost using a private equity model that has worked on the streets of Los Angeles. So a variety of means will come together to achieve that goal.

So you expect Los Angeles to have enough beds within five years, enough that we’ll no longer see tent encampments on the streets of LA?

I'm expecting that we will have enough beds available, assuming that the number of people falling into homelessness doesn't continue to exceed the number of people for whom we have solutions every year. And that's a key aspect of this. And we haven't discussed prevention. 

So one of the pledges I made is that as mayor, I'm going to create a major emergency fund that enables people on the precipice of homelessness to stay housed. Studies have shown that as little as $1,500 per person can do that. And it is much cheaper to keep people housed than it is to grapple with their needs if they fall into homelessness. 

So if we coupled a prevention approach that has been proven to work previously, with the creation of additional solutions of a variety of means — from permanent supportive to temporary housing — we can make a huge difference on our streets. And I'm going to be a leader who is relentless in this.

I wrote a piece about four years ago for the LA Times. The piece said that if we had an earthquake, there'd be a FEMA field general here on the ground in charge of recovery. We have the moral equivalent of that disaster. It's homelessness, and there's nobody in charge. I’m changing that on my first day.

Are you saying the current mayor has failed to address homelessness in a way that would solve the crisis faster? 

There are two different issues that we should break out. The first is: I said four years ago, and I will say on my first day as mayor, that it's imperative that we have a single person who is responsible for the issue of homelessness, with transparent goals and timeframes to accomplish those goals. It's the right thing to do. And it's the most efficient thing to do. And it'll make Los Angeles much more effective when it comes to grappling with the issue of homelessness. 

An agency already exists. The LA Homeless Services Agency (LAHSA) is supposed to coordinate between the city and county of LA. How would you establish a unifying authority when there’s also the LA County Board of Supervisors to work with?

You're absolutely right that the city and the county need to be deeply collaborating on this issue. And there are some who said, “Look, the county has the control over mental health and substance abuse programs. Not the city. And the city has land-use authority and not the county,” and so on. But I think we need to cut through that paradigm because there's not a single constituent with whom I’ve spoken [with] who cares whether it's the city or the county. They just want the problem addressed. And that's the kind of mayor I'm going to be. I’m going to be spending a lot of time working directly with the leaders of the county. We should be meeting every couple of weeks with objectives that we focus on together holding each other accountable. 

I will say, regarding mental health and substance abuse systems — those systems are not actually adequate to the task now. And I want to work to help change that. The doctor in charge of the county's mental health programs has said we have an open-air asylum on our streets. And the county has 1,300 vacant substance abuse beds right now. Neither of these conditions can stay. 

We're gonna make big changes here. And I've said in my current role of city attorney, let alone what I'm going to do as mayor, to the supervisors, “I will travel with you to Sacramento and Washington D.C. because there are rule changes that need to happen that will make your approach much more flexible and efficient. Let's do it together.” That's the kind of mayor I'm going to be.

You’ve talked about giving unhoused Angelenos a deadline to either accept housing or be moved. This strategy was used in Echo Park, where about 200 people were experiencing homelessness. But according to a new UCLA report, only 17 people who left that encampment ended up in long-term housing and 48 are still waiting for temporary housing. The rest are unaccounted for, returned to homelessness, or died. That doesn’t appear to be a good strategy when looking at that specific example.

I think the Echo Park example leaves a lot to be desired. I think the example on the Venice Boardwalk, where the same approach was applied, had more productive results. Examples in a park in Mar Vista had better results. Examples in the Fairfax neighborhood had better results. 

When it comes to the idea that there should be a choice date, let's evaluate what we're talking about. What I mean is 1,600 people died on our streets last year. It is not safe to experience homelessness on our streets. And it also is the case that our public spaces need to be safe and accessible for everyone. We need to be leading with humanity and housing and services. 

But we do need to say that public spaces should be for the whole public if we have a place for people to go. And that's the fundamental predicate.  … [It’s] imperative that the mayor be leading in the effort to create places for people to go. But having said that, those places are lightyears safer for people than living on the street is. 

A lot of homeless people don’t like those places. They don’t feel shelters are safe or comfortable. They find them dangerous. Some people are fine, but most say that shelters are terrible. 

It depends on the location. I've interacted with people experiencing homelessness who told me the same thing that you just said. I was talking to a woman on my street in the Fairfax area who I was providing some assistance to who said, “If helped means sending me to a women's shelter downtown on Skid Row, I'm safer sleeping sitting up on your block.” And so I get that. That doesn't mean that we can't have an array of temporary housing and shelter for people that is safe, because we must.

But how do you prevent temporary shelters from becoming permanent? It takes so long and is so expensive, costing upwards of $600,000 to build one unit of permanent housing. How does a network of temporary shelters not become a favela or refugee settlement seen in other countries? 

It's a really incisive question and I'm glad you asked that, because that has been the problem so far. One reason that I advocated earlier in this conversation for a private equity model to expand the universe of permanent supportive housing is because it can be done much more cheaply than $600,000-800,000 a unit. 

There's one program I know of, for example, that builds permanent, supportive housing using a private equity approach for roughly a third of that expense. Still expensive, a couple of hundred thousand dollars is still a lot of money, but it beats the heck out of what the public has been paying for the permanent supporting housing under the HHH program for which voters voted a few years ago.

So I think we need to be expanding [and] using more imagination [sic] of what permanent supportive options are available and speeding it up. There are two key words in this whole discussion — faster and cheaper — when it comes to what it takes to create the temporary and permanent housing we need.

You want to expand LA's police force back to 10,000 officers. Why do you want to do that now? What do you say to people who believe that there has been a lot of police brutality in our nation, and fear that this will lead to the return of tough-on-crime policies that target minority communities?

I think there's been much too much division on a whole array of issues — on homelessness, between those who say we want to lead with humanity, and others who say we want order. We should be demanding both on public safety. The same artificial choices that should not divide us, but do, exist. There are advocates for reform. Others for expanding a police force. In my view, we need to be doing both at the same time. They are utterly consistent with each other. In fact, it's mandatory to do both. 

I want to expand the police force because everywhere I go in each sector of Los Angeles, I'm hearing people do not feel safe. They want more police. But there are different reactions beneath that. For example, I've heard from some, “I want more police, but I don't wanna be profiled.” And that's right. 

I stand for having more officers to have quicker response time. Everywhere I go throughout the community, I hear response times are too slow. I also know that we have crime hotspots that develop especially around gun violence, which has been a cause of mine for most of my career. Those hotspots — that escalation and gun violence especially in South Los Angeles — can be deterred to a degree by the presence of law enforcement. But we don't have enough officers to be able to deploy throughout the city when there are hotspots throughout the community. So I think we should be expanding the force. 

But I think reforms need to include something you mentioned, which is requiring training to de-escalate the use of force and violence. I'm a big believer in severing police officers’ responsibilities, [such as] interventions with people who have mental illness, but they're not acting violently on the street. 

I also think that we should be embedding officers for five-year stints in communities which have often been distrustful of law enforcement — to build the understanding that you're accurately describing is lacking in the faith and the trust in some communities in LA. We should have civilian ambassadors being the first point of contact in police stations. 

But I also think we should have a sustainable level of public safety in Los Angeles. We can't rely on the police alone, so I'm a major proponent of investing in violence prevention [and] interruption programs that intervene with kids who may be on the verge of entering gangs, and even steps like cleaning up a community. I've called for a million more hours of neighborhood cleanup. Beautification can make a big difference when it comes to safety. That's a part of my approach, as is investing in after-school programs and job training.

I want to turn now to a scandal involving your office and the LA Department of Water and Power. In 2019, the FBI raided your office and the LADWP offices in connection with a billing scandal. So far, one former high-level attorney in your office has agreed to plead guilty, and another is pleading guilty in a federal corruption probe. 

These are attorneys who reported to you, and you say you didn't know about it, and there's no indication in the FBI’s investigation and the DOJ filing that you did. But as mayor, you would oversee a much bigger apparatus. Why should voters trust you to take on a role that requires more power and oversight, and can they be assured that you would be aware of any such corruption in the future?

I want this campaign to be about ethics and integrity. Those have been the hallmarks of my career. But I also want to address these precise issues that you raised. Every leader of a large organization is going to confront a crisis they didn't expect. The question is: ‘Did they handle it by taking responsibility, and acting decisively and transparently?’ 

So here in the issue described, there's actually two lawyers. One is a private lawyer who contracted with us, [and the other] was a lawyer who was a former staff member of my office. We found evidence of the violations of the outside lawyer, and we provided that evidence to the public and to the press the next day. 

I hired an independent ethics expert to assess the conduct of all the lawyers involved. I said I’d publish a report as soon as it was available, no matter what it said. [I] did that. And then I issued a series of strong reforms to make sure these things didn't happen again. And yes, it's true that the other lawyer, whose resignation I had obtained three years ago, just recently said that when he was on my staff [then], that he had committed a crime. That's right. And I'm responsible now for assuring that our office doesn't miss a beat and being a force for good in our city. I'm responsible for being somebody who exemplifies the highest standards of ethics and integrity as I have throughout my career. That's what voters get with me. They get someone who takes responsibility, who acts decisively, and is utterly transparent when confronting a crisis. The city's gonna confront them.

That lawyer you mentioned has filed a complaint against you at the California Bar Association. He says that you aided an extortion scheme and then lied about it in a deposition.

No. The lawyer you're referring to is the lawyer who was an outside lawyer whose violations we uncovered, provided, and exposed. Yes, that lawyer [who] said that — it is an utterly absurd allegation. It has absolutely no basis, in fact, at all.

Did this scandal put a sizable roadblock in your campaign that you now need to address? Is this a significant impediment to you becoming mayor?

Not at all. Because there's a real hunger in our community for leaders who have the attributes I described: who take responsibility, who act assertively, and are a force for good in our city. I've been those things and I'll be those things as mayor.

Your term as city attorney is up. If you don’t win, what will you do? Would you go into private practice?

We don't ever go down that path. There's no plan B. I'm deeply devoted. My sense of purpose is tied to making my family and making the world better. That's all I care about. I'm focused on that. And so far, especially after the debate last week, which I've gotten some very good reviews for, I feel a lot of momentum right now. So no plan B. [I] don't need a plan B.

Are you so confident you’ll win that you'll bet your mustache on it? Meaning if you lose, you shave it off?

I've been married for 38 years. My wife has never seen me without the mustache. That's one of those conversations that I got to have at home first before I say anything public about it. But the mustache, as you know from the campaign video we have, has been a key sidekick of mine for a few decades now.

We are also a music station at KCRW, so what is your favorite guilty pleasure song? What are you singing at the top of your lungs when no one is around?

I'm an old Stevie Wonder fan, actually. You might hear me singing “Moon Blue” or “As” or “Pastime Paradise.”