By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Five candidates for Los Angeles City Council District 14 spoke at a forum sponsored by the Little Tokyo Community Council on Feb. 6 at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum.
The district, which includes Little Tokyo, is currently represented by Jose Huizar, who has served for nearly 15 years but is termed out. The election will be held on March 3.
Opening remarks were made by JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs and LTCC Vice Chair Chris Komai. The moderator was Rafu Shimpo Senior Editor Gwen Muranaka. Translation in Korean, Japanese and Spanish was provided.
Komai, whose family established The Rafu Shimpo, explained that Little Tokyo has faced many challenges over the past century, including wartime exclusion and postwar redevelopment. In response to recent issues such as Metro’s Regional Connector, he said, LTCC was formed to provide a detailed vision for Little Tokyo’s future rather than reacting to each problem as it comes up.
The candidates are:
Kevin De Leon, educator, activist, former assemblyman, former state senator and Senate president pro tempore, and professor at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Monica Garcia, a Boyle Heights native who has served on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education since since 2006, working on school reform, raising graduation rates and admissions to college.
Cyndi Otteson, a Los Angeles native, child of Korean immigrants, businesswoman, board chair of the refugee-focused nonprofit Miry’s List, and former vice president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council.
John Jimenez, who was born and raised in CD 14, has been an administrator with a nonprofit working on crime prevention and intervention, is one of the founders of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, and has served on the city’s Community Action Board.
Raquel Zamora, a native of Boyle Heights who has been a public school teacher and business owner, is currently a social worker and school counselor, and serves on the city’s Community and Family Services Commission and the board of the Weingart East L.A. YMCA.
Following are some of their responses to questions from the audience, edited for space and clarity.
Q: Would you be able to commit to supporting and actualizing Sustainable Little Tokyo’s vision for the equitable community-based development of three city-owned parcels in Little Tokyo?
Garcia: The answer is absolutely … If we are going to work together to advance housing, to advance transportation, to advance sustainability, I would absolutely want to be a councilperson that is working hand-in-hand with this community so that we might let the rest of Los Angeles know what happens when people are engaged, when people consider themselves owners, when people are willing to work.
Otteson: I would absolutely work within Little Tokyo’s plan. It’s extremely comprehensive and I know that you are exercising your self-determination here. You’re trying to really shape your future and you deserve that … The city of Los Angeles owes that to you, and you’ve already done the hard work to get your vision plan, to have the reinvestment plan, and it’s impressive. But we also have to acknowledge and recognize that there are powers that be, there’s a big political machine here that we are fighting against. So for me it is really about making sure whoever is elected is going to partner with you …
For First Street North, we know that Huizar has already renewed this 50-year lease, and for that land to go for housing, to go for an education center. I know that Sustainable Little Tokyo wants affordable housing, wants more than just it to be an office and commercial space, but to actually be an expanding cultural center for the community, like we see at JACCC. We know that we want to expand Go For Broke in terms of making sure there’s permanent supportive housing for our veterans there. It is my commitment to you that I will partner with you to make sure that that vision gets completed.
De Leon: Los Angeles has had a very storied history when it comes to displacing communities, in particular communities of color. We don’t have to look any further than what Dodger Stadium is today. It was originally the community of [Chavez Ravine, where we saw] the displacement of so many Latino families. What is Union Station today, that was our original Chinatown. The folks were forcibly relocated and moved. Right here in Little Tokyo we have also experienced this.
You need an experienced leader, the right leader with the right leadership to have come to fruition the Sustainable Little Tokyo plan, which is the guiding document for all things as it relates to the development and the growth of Little Tokyo. I was proud to secure the $5 million for the Budokan. We will cut that ribbon in about four months, in June, hopefully this summer, so we can have recreational facilities for all of our youth. It’s going to be an incredible Budokan because it’s going to be not just a recreational center but a national center, right here in Little Tokyo …
Affordable housing, workforce housing for our veterans, to actually expand … our Go For Broke national museum right behind us, so we can give honor and dignity to the veterans who sacrificed for us, when their family members were being forcibly interned because of Executive Order 9066 … Many generations should have access to that history. Across the street, over at Mangrove, build a beautiful park for our community.
Zamora: My family has over 60 years of being in Boyle Heights. I was raised to appreciate the Japanese culture. My grandmother has worked at Olvera Street for 60 years. Our family business has been around for 50 years. The preservation of the families that have built communities such as Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo need to remain in their communities, they need to be protected. Our seniors and our families who have invested the time and effort to preserve our cultural identities and traditions need to stay in our communities.
As your councilmember, I would definitely support the vision that you have for your blocks, each and every one of the blocks, with affordable housing, especially for our seniors. Over in Ladera Heights, there is a 102-year-old woman who has been living in her apartment for 30 years, and she is being displaced. Displacement is a very big issue, it is very real for our communities …
I would also advocate for supportive housing and affordable housing for our veterans with the Go For Broke vision, and of course have a park and support our small businesses. As a small business owner, I know it’s important that our small businesses have policies that protect them and to ensure that they’ll stay in business because they’re the engine of our economy.
Jimenez: I met with Ronald Reagan when he first became governor of California. I told him we have no Hispanic representation in the State of California and the Department of Rehab. No administrators … only whites, the majority, and a few African Americans, but no Hispanics and no Asians. So we had a little dialogue, and I was the first person that spoke out for two cultures … Hector Contreras was the first one assigned by the governor to be the first administrator … at East L.A. The second one was Ken Iwasaki at the Montebello Department of Rehab …
My former wife educated me. She was a Sansei born in a concentration camp … I will stand up for people that are of other races, I have no differences. All I know is that my heart likes to work for people of all colors, especially minorities … because I faced discrimination too … I’m here for you, no matter what the cost, what the risk.
Q: How do you plan to ensure that the Little Tokyo community has the determining voice in the development of the Mangrove lot?
Otteson: Currently the EIR, environmental impact report, includes 200,000 square feet of retail space, 500,000 square feet of office space and 450,000 square feet of residential space. But it will likely be more dense because it’s currently being leased by Metro until 2022. So we know that once that Metro Connector takes place, it may become more dense.
Who do you want to make sure that you have in your corner? Somebody that is taking money from developers or somebody that doesn’t? I am running a hundred percent clean money campaign, because I believe that is how you get to better governance, that is how you disrupt the status quo. No more back-room deals. Every negotiation needs to be up front, out in the open, it needs to be with members of the community, including leading with the Sustainable Little Tokyo plan that has already been a guidebook. Now that is how you make sure you hire and elect a city councilmember who will fight for you, who doesn’t have corporate interests at heart, who isn’t going to have any conflicts of interest when looking at families and neighborhoods of this district.
De Leon: The Sustainable Little Tokyo guiding plan is going to be very very important in making sure we have input of all or our stakeholders in Little Tokyo. [That] will be the deciding factor with that Mangrove potential development, which is five acres. Because of the housing crisis that we’re facing today in the city of Los Angeles but in particular in CD 14, we have an incredible opportunity to make sure the housing we develop across the street on Mangrove … is workforce housing.
We have such an oversupply of luxury market housing right now. A lot of it is incredibly vacant. We have so many families that can no longer afford to live in the city that they were born in, commuting from Pomona … from San Bernardino … from Palmdale as well as Lancaster … Making sure that we have all the stakeholders and making sure we speak truth to power, and it doesn’t make a difference who that developer is at the end of the day, as long as that developer fulfills the vision that we have collectively.
That’s why you need experience and you need the leadership … That leadership has worked with many of you for the last 12 years to make sure we have a Little Tokyo that works for everybody. This is an opportunity to preserve the legacy that is Little Tokyo … the vision and values of who we are as the residents or those who don’t live in Little Tokyo but who grew up in Little Tokyo and still come to Little Tokyo every single day.
Zamora: Because I’m a grassroots candidate, I’m not beholden to special interests. My interest is the community and the stakeholders, and I would like to work with the vision that you have and not have any roadblocks and just ensure that your vision gets executed. And the type of housing is housing for … our veterans and our seniors and the people who make up the identity of Little Tokyo. Every single block matters. The constituents and the stakeholders of Little Tokyo matter.
Jimenez: I chose to run nonpartisan, I don’t want to be controlled by either political party … I’m always for the people. I even stopped eminent domain for 30-35 homes that were being taken away by Los Angeles Unified School District and even a market in the borderline of East L.A. and Boyle Heights … It tells you something about me. I don’t look for flashy things or expensive things, I always want to serve the people. I’m a good steward for people …
For 15 years I volunteered straight with no pay to help people out. … If you want someone that’s more politically inclined and flashing money and having big developers supporting them, that’s not me. I’m grassroots all the way through, so if I get voted … believe me, I’m going to make history, even for Little Tokyo and Chinatown.
Garcia: We have built 131 new schools at L.A. Unified. There’s been over $1.9 billion of investment, which means opportunity, jobs, sustainability. What I learned [is]to say. “Is it on time, is it on budget, are there any outstanding issues?” And the way I would make sure that you are part of the leadership on this project is by having you at the table so that we can monitor what is happening. I absolutely believe community-driven projects are the best projects …
You’ve already done the work … and the opportunity here is to use this development to model to other communities how integrity, how win-wins, how achieving that goal is really not driven by Downtown or City Hall, but it is driven by the people who live and care for this community. So that is my commitment to you.
Q: In 2016, voters approved Proposition HHH to build 10,000 units of permanent housing over 10 years for the homeless, but progress has been slow. How will you address issue of homelessness and affordable housing?
De Leon: I wrote Proposition 2 … It is $2 billion, Los Angeles is going to get $800 million approximately. It is specifically for permanent housing solutions. I didn’t raise your property tax, I didn’t raise any personal income tax or extend any sales tax. What I did was repurpose dollars that were surplus dollars, that were unspent, that all 58 counties in California have, that should have been used for our homeless population. Number one, we’re going to use those dollars to build permanent housing solutions for our unhoused community.
Number two … I’m going to direct all our city managers to find all city property assets, real estate assets, so we can build immediately. Three, we’re going to build prefabricated modular housing, we’re going to cap, we’re not going to do what we did with HHH, which expects $600,000 per average unit. We’re going to do $100,000 to $150,000 max …
We also have to work with our federal partners and make sure we can increase the value of Section 8 vouchers. That’s why we have so many single mothers especially who are living in cars with their children right now, because that value of the voucher is not commensurate with what they’re paying right now. We also have to deal with the real debate on rent cap stabilization.
Zamora: I’ve been working with LAUSD for 14 years, 11 years as a teacher, three years as a pupil services and attendance counselor. I currently work with over 200 students in South L.A. that are homeless. I ensure that our showers at our high school are opened so our students can shower before they go to class … My idea is to put names to faces and identify the root causes of why somebody is homeless. It’s a housing crisis, that would be a Level 1. Level 2, mental health issues. Level 3, substance abuse issues.
Although there needs to be more housing, that’s going to take time … I was born at General Hospital, and I see that that can be an immediate place where we can have supportive housing for our homeless. We can start cleaning up our streets, ensuring safety and have interventions that also can be specific to people’s needs and have measurable outcomes and transparency for our communities because it’s very much needed.
Jimenez: Homelessness has been a problem all the way back to [Mayor] Tom Bradley … All those people that 11 years ago were living in cardboard boxes are no longer living on the outside, they’re living now in voucher units, which is good, and a lot of them have gotten better and moved to better areas. The only thing wrong with the Skid Row problem is that there’s gangs … moving this way toward Boyle Heights and also here in Little Tokyo. [The homeless are] getting out of Skid Row because the gangs are taking their checks … No one’s addressed those situations … I also work with the police officers and they know the facts too as well. City Hall doesn’t pay attention.
Garcia: First we have to start with we want to be the city where everyone belongs. We want to be the city where there is shelter for all. And we want to be the city where we do not have our neighbors outside because today there is no shelter. We start by saying there’s a shared responsibility. Two, I would expand the rental assistance and be sure that we are doing everything we can to keep families from becoming homeless.
Three, I would absolutely work with a coalition to bring a bond or investment into housing because right now we’re building the luxury or we’re building the permanent supportive, but we need building of affordable housing, transitional housing, workforce housing, and that’s the bigger role for the public sector. In my district we’ve already taken a parking lot next to a school and created the Norwood Village, 29 units for people who make under $56,000 and 66 percent work for the district.
Lastly, I would absolutely interrupt the county hospital, the county jail, and the neighborhood known as Skid Row. This is a government-created rotation that must be interrupted.
Otteson: We all know that the city of L.A. has gone all in on a housing-first approach. We know that that works, we’ve seen success stories. But we can’t just sit and wait for housing to be built. We need to get our homeless neighbors off the street right now and into safe and clean surroundings. What we need to do is explore new ideas. Right now we have half a million units of affordable housing that are lacking in this city. But we also need to recognize the fact that people experiencing homelessness are a new constituency.
We’ve seen a 16 percent increase. We have 40,000 on our streets, yet we’re the richest city in the world. It doesn’t have to be this way. What we need to do is stop criminalizing poverty and homelessness. We actually need to start investing and providing services directly where people are. For far too long, Downtown has been a place where the majority of people experiencing homelessness have congregated. We need to decentralize services and we need to bring mobile toilets, showers, mental health services. We need services, not sweeps. And only until then can we actually think that people can start to get stability.
Right now the costs are showing up in our criminal justice system, they’re showing up in our municipal service budgets and our health care system. We need to explore new ideas, like low-barrier shelters. When I was on the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, we were able to fund a winter shelter in Highland Park.
To be continued