Will the LA Mayor Get Emergency Powers to Build Homeless Housing?

Bill Boyarsky
Columnist for LA Observed and former reporter, editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times

In a proposal likely to touch off a heated debate, Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu has proposed giving Mayor Eric Garcetti emergency power to build housing for the homeless.

It would be a huge grant of authority to Garcetti, now limited by a City Charter that divides power between the 15- member city council and the mayor. There would be opposition from neighborhood activists, who fear homeless housing near single-family homes, and council members, unwilling to give up anything to the mayor.

Ryu made his proposal last week to a luncheon of the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, coordinated by public affairs consultant Emma Schafer at the Palm downtown.

“What I propose is to give the executive branch, or the mayor’s office, temporary powers to be able to unilaterally unify the vision for homelessness to solve, to tackle this problem head-on,” Ryu said.  The mayoral authority would include finding site locations, building projects, all “to streamline the process.”

At present council members have veto power over projects in their own district, valued authority that gives them the right to approve or kill proposals ranging from apartment houses to office buildings and malls.   Ryu said the city is going in “15 different directions”…and “what we need is a unified vision, one direction, to build, to do things…the mayor’s office, the executive branch, should be able to do this.”

The city council, he said, must approve his proposal–an amendment to the city charter–by June in order to place it on the November ballot.  He asked the audience, composed of influential lawyers, lobbyists and consultants, to help him.

Having written about the council for years, I’d say Ryu faces an awesome task.  The power to approve or kill building projects of any kind is one of council members’ most jealously guarded privileges.   I can’t see them surrendering it to Garcetti, even on a temporary basis. In addition, neighborhood groups, which tend to be NIMBY dominated, exert their clout through individual council members, who fear grassroots organization’s influence in elections.

But Ryu, whose 4th District includes parts of Central Los Angeles, the Hollywood Hills and the San Fernando Valley, has not ducked controversy in the past.  When first elected in 2015, Ryu proposed an ordinance banning developers from contributing to council political campaigns. Some of his colleagues scoffed. Others just ignored him.  But their minds changed when FBI agents raided the offices of a council member in an investigation of contributor influence. Last year, his measure passed– in weakened form and with loopholes.  But as he told the Current Affairs Forum, it was a start.

Ryu commented on another controversial subject, the 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which placed restrictions on commitments to mental hospitals.  Previously, many mentally ill people were confined in them for years, even decades, sometimes dumped there by relatives, so-called friends or law enforcement. Backers of the law felt they should be treated at clinics near home.    Unfortunately, a penurious state government closed the mental hospitals and never provided funding for the neighborhood clinics that were supposed to replace them. This is a major reason why so many mentally ill are on the streets.

I asked Ryu , “Would you favor making it easier for police to take homeless people who seem mentally ill and put them in hospitals even though they say they are perfectly fine?”

He said he did not want to return to pre Lanterman-Petris-Short days but “we’ve got to come up with a better system…there needs to be more flexibility.”  And, he said, even those who want help have trouble finding it because of the shortage of care facilities and personnel.

Ryu said he would work with legislators and local officials to modify the law.  Another awesome task.

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