Los Angeles housing department chief Rushmore Cervantes, who has worked with the department for more than a decade, is stepping down at the end of March.
Cervantes said in a statement Wednesday that he had decided to leave his current post after years of service and called it “a privilege to work with a pool of talented public servants during challenging times.”In a message to employees this week, Cervantes said he was leaving with “mixed emotions.”
Cervantes told employees that they had “collectively accomplished many things,” including tripling the amount of homeless housing under development, undertaking programs to stabilize neighborhoods and resell foreclosed properties, expanding shelters for people who had suffered domestic violence or human trafficking, and getting a new “linkage fee” approved to fund affordable housing.
“Notwithstanding these efforts, there is much more on the horizon and it is time for new leadership to enable the city to successfully address the homeless and housing crisis as well as the creation of one of the largest accessibility programs in the country,” Cervantes wrote in his message to employees.
Alex Comisar, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said that Assistant City Administrative Officer Yolanda Chavez would serve as the acting general manager of the department while a national search was conducted.
When asked why Cervantes was leaving, Comisar said simply, “He’s stepping down.” Comisar said that after Cervantes leaves the department, he will “be advising our office on several key housing and homelessness initiatives.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who heads a council committee focused on homelessness, said Cervantes “has been instrumental in keeping Los Angeles on a pathway to building desperately needed low income and permanent supportive housing” and done so “with efficiency and a sense of urgency.”
“Whomever is appointed to replace him must continue moving aggressively on the city’s implementation of our housing goals as seamlessly as possible,” O’Farrell said.
The Housing and Community Investment Department facilitates the funding of housing projects with federal, state and local money, inspects and enforces city codes meant to prevent shoddy conditions in apartment complexes, and oversees programs to assist poor Angelenos, among other responsibilities.
It has faced criticism over the high cost of building supportive housing for homeless people under the $1.2-billion bond measure, Proposition HHH, which drew scrutiny from City Controller Ron Galperin in a recent audit. The housing department said reassessing projects that had gotten preliminary approval, as Galperin had suggested, would delay construction, create “a chilling effect on the development industry and damage the city’s reputation.”
The department also had a dispute with the federal government over allegations that the city failed to provide affordable housing that was properly accessible to tenants who are in wheelchairs or have other disabilities, as required by law.
In August, L.A. officials reached an agreement with the Trump administration to build or retrofit more than 4,000 apartments for disabled residents. Nearly three years earlier, the city agreed to spend $200 million to settle a lawsuit over complaints about accessibility problems in hundreds of projects approved over nearly three decades.
Tenant activists have also complained that the department has been slow to move on new policies to protect tenants, including a proposed law to better defend tenants from harassment by landlords. L.A. Tenants Union organizer Trinidad Ruiz said it hadn’t been “a consistently reliable institution — and in this housing crisis we can’t afford that.”
“The department has gotten better at being responsive to the needs of tenants,” but that was due to persistence of renters and their advocates, said René Moya, director of Housing Is A Human Right, an advocacy division of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. “We hope the new person takes a more proactive stance — and is willing to have the hard conversations with City Council to make sure they have the funding they need to protect tenants the way they should.”
Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, executive director of the nonprofit affordable housing developer LA Family Housing, called Cervantes “a strong leader during a time of extraordinary growth for our city.”
The challenge for Cervantes — or any leader of the housing department — is that the department has limited control as it tries to tackle daunting problems such as homelessness, Klasky-Gamer said. For instance, she said the price of supportive housing for homeless people is tied to a host of external factors, including policies set by council members.
The housing department “administers the resources they’re given,” Klasky-Gamer said. “There’s a public perception that it might have more control over a larger societal problem like homelessness than it actually does.”
Before Cervantes joined the housing department, he worked for other Los Angeles departments including the city controller, the El Pueblo Historical Monument, the Department of Aging and the city administrative officer, according to a resume included in city files. He has worked for city agencies since 1993.