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LA mayor on homelessness, infrastructure and deciding not to run in 2020
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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has been running the nation’s second largest city for the past six years. In that time, LA has moved forward, but two major issues loom: homelessness and a need for investment in infrastructure.
“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal joined Garcetti at the Getty House, the mayor’s official residence, to discuss the problems facing the city, the proposed short- and long-term solutions, and the mayor’s brief flirtation with a run for the presidency. The following is an edited version of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: It’s been six years now for you, in this job. What’s the biggest thing that’s changed?
Eric Garcetti: I think the biggest thing that’s changed in Los Angeles has been that we’re a victim of our own success. We wouldn’t have imagined, coming out of the recession, how strong the economy would be. But with that comes more jobs than infrastructure. So whether it’s traffic or housing –– I think the two things that still hold us back –– so many people still want to be here that now I think our greatest challenge is to figure out how we can build that out. And not just build it out to accommodate today, but for, like, the next 25 years.
Ryssdal: So let’s talk about those two things you mentioned — infrastructure and housing. We’ll go to housing first, because homelessness, of course, is — this is going to sound worse than I mean it to — it’s the signature problem of this city, right?
Garcetti: No question.
Ryssdal: Is it a policy failure or is it a housing market failure?
Garcetti: Well, homelessness is trauma meets high rent, and I try to simplify it. Everybody who’s homeless has some sort of trauma — economic, psychological, personal — that used to live indoors. But when the housing market is so expensive, it goes outside or into cars or shelters. It is decades of failure. To give you one stat, if we just had the level of funding from the state and the feds for affordable housing, we would have built 20,000 more units of affordable housing. We’ve got about 30,000 people on the street. So everybody could have been in that. That’s just the level that was before cuts. For me, as a mayor, I always remind people the city has very little statutory authority. That doesn’t keep me from being a very loud voice, but to understand it, we have to see not just how it affects folks who are homeless and unhoused, but all of us in this housing market. You don’t have to be homeless to feel that failure to build for two and a half decades.
Ryssdal: You’re the guy though — for as as little statutory influence as you have, you can be the loudest voice — you’re the guy who’s on the hook. You’ve had some success with ballot measures and funding. Clearly not enough. You say by 2028, when the Olympics come, you want this to be a solved problem, street homelessness. Can you get there, for real?
Garcetti: We can. We can. But we have to decide and our national and state leaders have to decide whether or not they want to do this. Every country that solved homelessness has a right to housing. There is in Japan — where the president visited and said how clean the streets were — 20 years ago, a huge homeless population. And their federal government said everybody who is unhoused will be housed on our dime. That kind of pisses off conservatives. When that’s there, then people can say nobody can sleep on the street, that might piss off some liberals. And we have to dig very deep into recognizing that right now, if you and I are starving or need food, or our kids need to eat, 100% of us that qualify get food stamps — the value of America. If you and I don’t have health care and we’re poor, we get Medicaid. We call it “Medi-Cal” here. But if you and I qualify for the federal housing programs that we’ve passed for decades of war on poverty, in this nation, there’s a one in four chance, in the city, there’s a one in eight chance you will receive that help — usually in the form of a housing voucher. So seven out of eight people are in cars, on the street, in shelters. And right now, we also have the larger housing problem. Certainly the city of Los Angeles can’t solve on its own. But LA is building 25% of all the housing in the state of California. And we’re 10% of the population. It can’t just be put on one city to solve this housing crisis. But can we solve it? Absolutely.
Ryssdal: I think it’s on you, right? Because it’s so visual here. I mean, you drive around the streets of LA and you see it. You’ve mentioned the state and the federal resources that need to be brought to bear. Obviously, you can get Gov. Newsom on the phone. I imagine you can get President Trump on the phone — although whether he’d take it would be another question because he’s had some comments about the way things are running here. Where do you go for resources if the federal government is fundamentally not available to you?
Garcetti: So the feds aren’t absent, they’ve just cut year, over year, over year. They still do provide the bulk of funding for affordable housing in this country. We haven’t built any public housing in decades, we haven’t invested in our public housing in decades. You look at countries like Singapore, places like Hong Kong that have had housing crises. They’ve made it a middle-class problem, which it really is in Los Angeles. The manifestation is homelessness on the streets. But we have a lower homeownership rate in Los Angeles than New York City, now. But with your question to the feds, when President Trump raised this issue, in a tweet, I know as a Democrat I was supposed to just kind of punch him back and say, it’s all your fault. I didn’t. I said, ‘Welcome to this fight. It’s on your watch, and mine. These are American lives. Here’s five things you can do.’ And we’ve stayed engaged with the White House. Now, I’ll believe it when I see it. But my responsibility, and this issue, is much bigger than my partisanship. So whether it’s getting their help at the VA, or we’re building the units, even though it’s their land and they should be paying for our veterans, or whether it’s looking at surplus federal property or more section eight vouchers, they have a huge role they can play.
Ryssdal: Second thing you mentioned in terms of the growth of the city in the last six years, as you’ve been on watch, as it were — infrastructure, public transit, roads. It takes people hours to get to work, and it’s lost time and resources.
Garcetti: That’s exactly how I describe it, because [saying] infrastructure, people’s eyes glaze over. You say, [it’s] time with your daughter to tuck her into bed. Or the line you draw around a map for your dating pool, if you’re single, because of how long it takes to get to a date. Literally, you’re not going to date somebody in Arcadia if you live in Santa Monica. You’re just not going to. It might be the love of your life, but it’s too far away.
Ryssdal: I say that to people who don’t live in LA and they’re like, ‘Oh, really?’ And I’m like ‘Yeah, that’s the way it is.’
Garcetti: When I came in as mayor, I said, ‘What were we thinking for the last 30, 40 years?’ No public transportation to LAX. No build-out of lines. A hope that we’d get more freeways, you can’t double deck anything more. There’s no space to put a new freeway. And so I kind of took the 25- to 50-year look. I put all my political capital on the line to pass what’s now the largest infrastructure measure on transportation in U.S. history, Measure M, and built a coalition. I meet with all the other 87 mayors of LA County. Usually the LA city mayor, they love to hate — maybe we get 100% of the headlines, were 40% of the population. They’re like ‘What about us in Pasadena and Carson and Santa Clarita.’ So I’ve built a real culture of cooperation and got most of them to support it, and we passed it with a record vote. That’s 15 rapid transit lines in a single city. That’s part of the solution is to build that rapid transit and public transit system. Second is we have to have better planning. And that’s something that I’ve also led, which is why do we put the housing way over here, the jobs way over there? The west side of LA, which is among the worst traffic in America, there’s four jobs for every one unit of housing. So building housing on the west side —which was fought for 20 years and understandably, because people stuck in traffic are like, ‘Why should I have even more people live here?’ What they didn’t get is that three out of those four jobs — that barista, the secretary the middle office manage worker — was coming in and out of your neighborhood just to get to where they live and to get to their job. Until you have more of a one-to-one jobs and housing balance, we’re all going to be stuck in traffic.
Ryssdal: So let me get to the politician question, because you are one. You’re an ambitious guy. You flirted with running for president and decided not to. First of all, this is going to run on Monday, but I’ll ask you the question now: Did you go to the debate last night?
Garcetti: I did go to the debate. I spoke at it, I welcomed everybody to our city.
Ryssdal: Are you thankful you’re not up there?
Garcetti: Absolutely. It’s the best decision I ever made. I mean, I think you cannot run a big city and run for president. We get dehumanized a lot, all of us in public life. Some dehumanize us in a positive way — ‘Oh, my God, you’re the best thing. You’re like a God, thank you for everything.’ And other people — ‘Screw you, F you. You’re the worst person I’ve ever met.’ And I have to always remember, neither of those folks necessarily know me well, and you just got to stay on track. And for me, people think that all we do as politicians is try to jump to the next highest thing. That’s not who I am.
Ryssdal: Well, with respect, that’s what you’ve done.
Garcetti: No, I’ve run for two things in my entire life.
Ryssdal: I mean, you’re a young guy.
Garcetti: Well, my point is I think everybody who looks at an elected dog catcher, and they think all they want to do is be president, or all they want to do is get as far as they can. In other words, they’re more focused on the next step than the current work. And I’m the opposite. I’m very, very focused on this and what we’re doing. It’s one of the best jobs you can ever have, and one of the toughest, but as Bill Clinton said, president of the United States and mayor of a big city are probably the two best jobs in American politics. I’ve got one of those. And my love of this city, where I know I will retire, where I will continue to raise my family. I want to look back and say, thank God, I did the best that I could. And I knew this was the right decision for me.
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