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L.A. mayor should get ‘emergency powers’ to decide where homeless housing goes, plan says

Mayor Eric Garcetti walks in North Hollywood during a count of L.A.'s homeless population
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti walks along Webb Avenue in North Hollywood to help tally the city’s homeless population during the first day of the homeless count in January.
(Nick Agro / For The Times)

Facing a public outcry over homelessness, three members of the Los Angeles City Council said Friday they want to give Mayor Eric Garcetti “full authority” to pick locations for homeless housing, public restrooms and parking lots where people can sleep in their cars overnight.

In the proposal, Councilmen David Ryu, Joe Buscaino and Marqueece Harris-Dawson said the city is in a “state of emergency” and that it’s time to grant the mayor emergency powers to rezone property and suspend city rules that block or delay approving new sites for housing and other facilities for homeless people.

“Doing business as usual is not going to cut it for the situation we have,” said Harris-Dawson, who represents part of South Los Angeles.

The proposal, if passed, could require council members to relinquish some of their cherished power over approval of housing. Ryu, who represents neighborhoods stretching from Silver Lake to Sherman Oaks, said he is prepared to give up his authority to sign off on homeless housing projects — at least on a temporary basis — in order to get them built faster.

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“People are frustrated and so am I,” he said. “I’ve been working within our current structure and it is flawed, it is broken. This humanitarian crisis needs a FEMA-like response,” he added, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Whether Garcetti wants those powers is not clear. Asked about Ryu and his proposal, mayoral spokesman Alex Comisar said Garcetti “supports proposals that will help us get housing built faster, and bring our homeless neighbors indoors.”

“He looks forward to following the council’s deliberations on the motion,” he said.

The push to cut red tape comes amid simmering frustration over homelessness in Los Angeles and the pace of government action to address the crisis. In a new poll conducted for the Los Angeles Times, two-thirds of respondents said the money that voters had approved for the city and county to combat homelessness had been spent “ineffectively.”

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Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2-billion bond measure to fund supportive housing for homeless people, but none of those projects have opened their doors so far, according to housing officials. The city has also set up more than 500 beds in nine new shelters, but tens of thousands of people remain on the streets.

Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., said the proposal could have some benefits, speeding up construction of housing projects in “appropriate” locations. But he also warned it could give City Hall the ability to bypass the public on more controversial sites.

“There has to be power given to the public to weigh in on which areas are appropriate,” said Close, whose group represents 1,900 households. “There are many areas that are appropriate. There are other areas that are not. Single-family neighborhoods are not.”

Pete White, executive director of the skid row advocacy group Los Angeles Community Action Network, said empowering the mayor could allow council members who face angry opposition to homeless projects to avoid responsibility by saying, “It wasn’t me, it was the mayor.”

White said the proposal could backfire, however, by making L.A.'s mayor the lone target for such opposition across the city. That kind of pressure could cause a mayor to cave on the need for more housing, he said.

Under the proposal, the mayor’s emergency powers would need to be renewed on an annual basis. Ryu and his colleagues said they also want the city attorney to determine whether giving Garcetti such powers would require voter approval or state legislation.

Earlier this year, city and county elected officials pressed Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency on homelessness in California, a move that has been billed as a way of freeing up state and federal funds. Newsom has already signed a package of legislation that, among other things, exempts from environmental review homeless housing and shelter projects in the city of L.A. that receive funding from certain public sources.

The push to give Garcetti more power is not the only new attempt at City Hall at addressing the crisis.

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In another proposal introduced Friday, Councilman Paul Koretz called for the city to explore setting up designated sites for “well-managed” homeless encampments that could include bathrooms, trash pickup, outreach and security.

Koretz touted a similar effort in Modesto, which has established an outdoor emergency shelter where people live in tents. Doing so, he said, would provide a safer place for people to sleep while shelters and housing are still being built.

Ideas that once might have seemed unthinkable “may be what we need to get at least a temporary handle on this crisis,” Koretz said.

UCLA professor of law emeritus Gary Blasi said he was glad to see L.A. leaders coming to grips with the idea that “we are going to have a large number of residents who do not have access to regular housing for some years.” In light of that, Blasi said, it makes sense to help people “survive in dignity in whatever arrangements can be provided.”

Some homeless advocates said they worry that Koretz’s proposal could lead to a crackdown on other sidewalk encampments. Jane Nguyen, a member of the homeless outreach group Ktown for All, said she fears it would be used to “criminalize people who don’t want to go into that type of sanctioned encampment.”

LaToya Young, who had set up her tent a few blocks away from City Hall on Friday, said she is eager to get into housing but is uneasy about the idea of going to a central campground where she might encounter “strange men.”

“I’ve been harassed on the streets,” Young said. “I don’t want to be around people like that. Around this area, I feel safe.”

City-sanctioned homeless encampments could also face opposition from neighborhood groups. Travis Binen, a member of the group Venice United, said such campgrounds would “make whatever area they put it in more dangerous.”

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“Why not give them beds and showers and toilets outside the city, where it makes economic sense?” the Venice resident argued.


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