Kevin de León: Solving LA homelessness isn’t just about building new units

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Kevin De Leon appears at KCRW headquarters, April 4, 2022. “This [homelessness] is not exclusive to just building. This is about acquiring commercial properties, taking advantage of vacancies that already exist today to move folks quickly off the streets, and to put a roof over their head,” he says. Photo by Brian Hardzinski/KCRW

Press Play continues its series of conversations with the five leading candidates to be the next mayor of Los Angeles.

LA City Councilman Kevin de León represents Eagle Rock, El Serreno, and Skid Row. 

He explains why new homeless shelters should be provided in every City Council district, and why the City of LA needs its own public health department that’s separate from the county. He also discusses how LAPD resources should be used, and how to make streets safer for pedstrians, cyclists, and public transit riders.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Homelessness is the biggest challenge that Los Angeles faces. On Friday, the city reached a settlement in a lawsuit that would require opening enough beds over the next five years for 60% of the city's unhoused population in each City Council district. That's around 16,000 beds, and this still needs to be approved by the City Council. You are a City Councilman, and you've said you'll vote for it. Does that mean building new shelters in every council district? And if so, what does that mean with homeowners who perhaps don't want more shelters in their districts? 

Kevin de León: It's a combination of a few things. One is, let's be very clear, this is a humanitarian crisis unlike anything we've ever experienced before. And for too long, Los Angeles has been on a litigation merry-go-round. So many lawsuits has not really moved the needle greatly. And now we have this lawsuit that I think it's a very good compromise between the city and the plaintiffs, that will be overseen by a U.S. federal judge or perhaps a special master to make sure that we actually execute. 

Now we have about 41,000 folks who are suffering from homelessness, 20,000 of them actually live on the streets of LA, the other 13,000 approximately have some type of homeless shelter, whether it be congregate, non-congregate, whether it be tiny homes, Roomkey, Homekey, which are hotel rooms right now. 

And our goal is to make sure that we either A) build, B) acquire, that's adaptive reuse, purchase older hotels or commercial properties right now that are empty and convert that into housing; build more tiny homes. So it's a combination of both long-term permanent and interim homes. That would be in every City Council district. 

How do you get around NIMBY concerns because it's been quite challenging to build shelters in areas that are not Skid Row. 

But listen, we have to exercise leadership because if you don't, then the issue gets bigger, it doesn't get better. And I have myself been the subject of two recalls — in my City Council district 14 specifically for building a tiny home village that we just opened up last week in the community neighborhood of Eagle Rock. 

But you have to exercise leadership. And that's why you need a mayor with a coherent vision and the leadership skills to make sure that we actually accomplish what we need to accomplish to put a roof over the head of so many Angelenos who … they're in the neighborhoods today but they're living in encampments, in tents, whether it is underpasses, whether it is near the LA River. In other words, they're there already. So why not organize ourselves and put a roof over their head? We have showers, we have bathrooms, or you have washers and dryers, we have security, or you have three meals a day. That's a lot better than the current status quo of today. 

But how does that then not become de facto permanent housing and de facto refugee camps?

I don't think I'd utilize the word “refugee camps.” … We have individuals who have been suffering from homelessness, who have been living on our streets in their cars, in our alleyways for years if not decades, maybe suffering from severe drug addictions whether it be crystal meth with fentanyl, or severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar illness, depression, or PTSD or a combination thereof. 

We need to move heaven and earth because I can tell you this, we move heaven and earth to build football stadiums and basketball arenas in Los Angeles. But somehow, some way, the machine of progress grinds to a screeching halt when it's about putting a roof over unhoused neighbors. We have no choice because that's the right thing to do. It's the moral thing to do. And now with this legal settlement, it is the legal thing to do. 

We have to do it because … let me underscore: The social situation doesn’t get better. It gets only worse, especially because of the COVID pandemic. That's why we have more folks living on the streets today. 

How do you then transition them into permanent supportive housing? In the last five years, fewer than 1,000 units have been built via funds from HHH, the measure that Angelenos approved to tax themselves to build homeless housing. You have said in the past that you want to build 25,000 by the year 2025. How are you going to clear away all of the legislative red tape? I understand it's a very complicated process involving so many different agencies, and an expensive one at around $600,000 a unit. How do you propose to do things differently and create more housing quicker?

I agree 100% because the doctrine from the housing department in the City of LA has been: How do we build as many units and take the longest time and spend the most money? And that's simply not sustainable with the sizeable unhoused population that we have living on our streets today. 

Now the current time it takes to build permanent housing, for it to go online, is an average of five years. And you can't have folks living in suffering and misery for five years, but we can't let the perfect get in the way of the good. That's why it's a combination of both interim as well as permanent. 

And it's just not exclusive to building. We know land costs are high, very expensive. We know soft costs, as well as hard costs, are out of proportion with regards to the budget that we currently have. 

But it's about adaptive reuse. It's about acquisition of current properties that already exist. It's about master leasing, which has taken advantage of the tens of thousands of vacancies that we currently have in the city, in the region of Los Angeles. So this is not exclusive to just building. This is about acquiring commercial properties, taking advantage of vacancies that already exist today to move folks quickly off the streets, and to put a roof over their head. 

And there is a percentage, no doubt about it, a cohort that are severely mentally ill that need access to mental health services, as well as drug addiction services. … We're expecting the LA County Mental Health Department to really step up and do what it needs to do, to engage our unhoused neighbors, to put them on the pathway to recovery, and hopefully to be productive citizens in the city, and the county, and state, and the country. 

Therein lies one of the problems because the settlement that we talked about at the beginning of our conversation would not cover people who are severely mentally ill or who have a severe substance abuse disorde. And the county would be tasked with taking care of them. So is a scenario possible where the most vulnerable people are left on the streets, while these other unhoused people are allowed to find a shelter bed?

I think legally through a strategic perspective, I think we tried to engage and collaborate with LA County to come to a settlement with the plaintiffs. For reasons unbeknownst to us, they made the decision that they shouldn't be privy to this litigation. 

I think that folks of LA County are living in a detached universe that's disconnected to what the reality is in our city streets. Because the city streets of Los Angeles are the de facto open air asylum for our LA County Mental Health Department. And it's my hope that the LA County Board of Supervisors, in unison, will rise to the occasion to make sure that our Angeleno neighbors, friends, loved ones, coworkers, next-door neighbors who are suffering severely from mental illnesses have a real opportunity to be on a pathway to recovery.

Is that one reason why you want to create a separate City Public Health Department separate from the LA County Department of Public Health?

I think it's twofold. One is that … we need our own public health department to prepare for the next global pandemic as well as the variant. Because let me underscore — there will be another global pandemic, there will be another variant, we have to be in a position to draw down directly from the federal government as well as the state government resources, the City of Long Beach, as well as Pasadena. They have their own public health department. We cannot allow layers of bureaucracy get in the way of saving lives. And I've seen a lot of very smart people make some very bad decisions that have cost people their lives because of the lack of access to the vaccination or PPE equipment. So we have to be in a better position. We are a global city. We're an international city. We should have our own public health department.

You think the LA County Public Health Department has not done an adequate job with this pandemic?

I think they could have done a lot better job. I have a lot of respect for Barbara Ferrer. I think she's in a very tough position. But having the greatest data points and deck is not good enough. It's about execution and making sure the epicenters, ground zero for infections and mortality rates, that those folks are actually the ones getting access to the front of the line to vaccinations. 

During COVID-19, we've seen the tale of two cities. In one city, the rich got richer and the poor actually got poorer. And the middle class got smaller. We witnessed frontline workers relegated to the back of the line for life-saving vaccinations and PPE equipment. We've seen and witnessed and experienced essential workers treated like expendable workers. At the height of the pandemic [in] the district that I represent … Boyle Heights was both ground zero for both infections as well as mortality rates. 

Why is that the LA County Public Health Department's problem? Why is it their fault?

It comes to the distribution of PPE equipment as well as life-saving vaccinations. It is their responsibility. And if we create our own public health department, then that means we're responsible.

But the county did have their own vaccination sites, or there were vaccination sites all over the city.

I would say it was a little too late. It was way too late in the ballgame. If you look at the timeframes, folks were not getting life-saving vaccinations, and the hotspots were communities such as South LA, Pacoima, MacArthur Park, Pico Union, East LA, Boyle Heights. … They got there eventually. But they got there really, really late.

You're saying if LA City had its own public health department, that would not have happened.

I think if you have a mayor with the shared values and shared experiences of those who have been devastated, it makes a huge difference.

Let's talk about crime and policing. Crime has gone up in Los Angeles, although it's nowhere near what it was in the 1990s. What would you do about it?

I grew up in a neighborhood that had its fair share of violence. So I know what fear feels like. I do believe that the most important job of a mayor of a city like Los Angeles is to make sure that every Angeleno just doesn't feel safe, but in fact is safe. But I think that anyone can talk about big bold ideas about hiring thousands of more police officers. 

But first and foremost … we need to make sure that we have our own house in order. And that means utilizing the current resources that we have in a much more effective and efficient manner. We're budgeted to hire 300 more police officers to 9706. We've lost 300 due to attrition or folks just transferring to other smaller departments. They want perhaps a smaller workload. But we can hire 300 more police officers in the LAPD. 

But we also have to hire mental health specialists because anytime … whether it's on Wilshire Boulevard, whether it's on Ventura Boulevard, Lankershim [Boulevard], if someone's having a psychotic breakdown, we have a whole squadron of LAPD officers there to deal with that issue. 

I want to take our LAPD officers off the mental health frontlines and put them back on the line of duty to protect and serve, to prevent and solve crimes. So we have to better utilize our resources in a much better fashion, so we can reduce our response times to crime incidences that are happening all over the city of Los Angeles.

Mayor Garcetti cut the LAPD budget by $150 million. Did you support that?

That was before my time. I wasn't there. I wasn't a part of the Council at the time.

As a citizen, did you support that?

Well, I think that we can revisualize, if you will, the way we utilize our resources, and we can invest in preventative crime as well, and make sure that we disrupt and destroy the school-to-prison pipeline all together. So our kids are not going to what was then CYA [California Youth Authority], County Jail, San Quentin, Folsom, Vacaville, or Pelican Bay. But give them a pathway to go to a Cal State LA or UCLA or good community college education. So investing in communities and having safe neighborhoods are not mutually exclusive of each other. They're, in fact, I think compatible with each other.

So is that a yes? Or a no?

I think that's a yes.

Okay. You did support cutting $150 million from the LAPD budget.

But I wasn't there to vote for it. 

Right. But if you had been there, you would have voted for it.

I've been there. I've voted for resources. I don't know necessarily about taking it from the LAPD’s budget.

But there has been this debate over defunding the police. I don't think you've ever said that you supported defunding the police.

No, I'm not a supporter of defunding the police. … My endorsement was to keep it as is — 9700 [officers]. We’re budgeted for 9706. We have approximately 9400, we can hire 300 more police officers, and we can better utilize our LAPD reserves right now. They get paid $50 a month, and they're post-certified, which means they can carry a weapon. I don't want them putting down orange cones. That's why I said we have to better utilize the current resources that we have today.

Do you think LA County District Attorney George Gascón should keep his job?

Well, I've said this very clearly that the recall process is something I've never supported. And what happens is that when politicians capitulate, when they get weak-kneed, all of a sudden, they don't want to do what they were intending to do. And then the problem gets worse, not better. So if folks want to recall George Gascón … they can do so during the regular electoral cycle.

But would you support that? Do you think he's doing a good job or not?

No, I don't support the recall. 

No, I'm not asking that. I'm just asking if you support him, do you think he's doing a good job?

I think there's some mixed results. I think that George truly wants to bring about the criminal justice reforms that we need for communities of color … to disrupt that school-to-prison pipeline that exists. At the same time. I don't think you can throw a wide net because we have individuals who are career criminals who have inflicted a tremendous amount of pain. I've said very clearly that the crime trends that we have in Los Angeles are not unique. They are national in scope. 

However, when you are a victim of a crime, or you know a family member who has been a victim of a crime, that's something that's deeply personal. And it's something that's very individualized. 

There's some things that I wouldn't have done if I were in the shoes of George Gascón. 

Listener Isaiah Berke asks: Mayor Garcetti promoted Vision Zero — the plan to eliminate traffic deaths by 2025 — but very little has been done. What would you do?

Well, I think there actually has been quite a few deaths — pedestrian deaths as well as cyclists’ deaths throughout the City of LA. This is an issue that is not going to go away. We have to have safer streets for pedestrians as well as bicyclists. 

… I actually just did a groundbreaking ceremony with regards to Seventh Street — Seventh and Figueroa all the way to Skid Row, San Pedro, where we're going to have dedicated bike lanes but protected bike lanes. We're having different types of bus stops to get folks off and on the buses easily. … And we're planting trees … they’re going to grow large, provide shade. We're gonna fix the sidewalks. 

… It makes the City of LA a much more walkable city that's much more friendly, not just concrete and asphalt. I want green grass to grow underneath … our feet. And I want safe streets for both pedestrians as well as bicyclists, and move people as well as goods throughout the city in a much more efficient manner. We’ll reduce our carbon footprint and we can breathe clean air into our lungs.

We are also a music station, and we're asking all the candidates the same music-related question as our final question. What is your favorite guilty pleasure song? What are you seeing at the top of your lungs when no one is around?

I love Arcade Fire. I love the Foo Fighters. … I love Los Tigres del Norte, which is a great California band. 

And my favorite band of all time is U2. I love the beginning phase of U2. “Two Hearts Beat as One,” “New Year's Day.”