‘You Fight for What You Think You Can Win. And You Fight Really Hard.’

As many as three new insurgent candidates could join Los Angeles City Council this December. If they all win, would be following the electoral path of Fourth District Councilmember Nithya Raman, who in 2020, during a summer of protests, rose to become the first challenger in 17 years to unseat a sitting city councilmember. Raman’s grassroots campaign aimed its fire at the city’s intractable housing and homelessness crisis. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed her, and Vogue covered her candidacy.

A year and a half into her term, Raman is settling into the less glamorous business of legislating and delivering constituent services. She touts the decrease in unsheltered homeless people in her district, a shift that she acknowledges is only a beginning. She says she is sticking to her promise to question the “culture of unanimity” on the 15-person council. Recently, Raman, Councilmember Mike Bonin and Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson were the only three to vote against a proposal to make sidewalks around public schools off limits to homeless encampments. 

Raman lights up when speaking of the cadre of progressive newcomers who may join her on the council in December. They will include Eunisses Hernandez, who unseated Gil Cedillo in the June First Council District primary. Civil rights attorney Erin Darling in District 11 and labor organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez in District 13 finished first in their primaries and are on the ballot in November. “I’m really looking forward to being able to have a shared experience of being new to this big — and even a year and a half in — strange City Hall system,” Raman said.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Capital & Main: You ran for office to address the crisis of the unhoused in the city. You’re more than a year and a half into the job. What have you been able to get done so far?

Nythia Raman: We just got our most recent homeless count numbers out, and for the first time after years of steady and sometimes alarming increases in street homelessness, the homeless count showed a decrease of 7% in unsheltered homelessness in the district. That means 7% fewer people living on the streets, which is fantastic, and a rise of 163% in sheltered homelessness in the district because of our efforts.

We did that by really focusing on increasing the resources that we have available to shelter people. We opened a Project Roomkey site and through that site significantly expanded the number of shelter beds. [Project Roomkey is a COVID-era program to provide shelter to homeless people in hotels and motels that is coming to an end.]

We raised additional funds through grants from the governor’s office and through discretionary fund allocations, and by claiming unclaimed money in the city budget. Also, we expanded resources for things like renting motel rooms. That expanded the number of beds that we had available to people experiencing homelessness in the district. And through those efforts, managed to get hundreds of people housed and off the streets.

“For decades, we did not invest in the kind of services in housing that we needed to address homelessness.”

I know that there’s recently been some questions raised about the accuracy of the homeless count. Do you feel confident in the numbers?

For us, it felt true, but I also read the recent reporting on the fact that there was a zip code in Venice that reflected zero individuals experiencing homelessness, even though it’s very unlikely that that number is true. And that did strike me as a problem. I’m hoping that they can clarify how they arrived at these numbers.

When do you expect to see significant progress on this issue? Are voters and unhoused people running out of patience? The count found that the number of homeless in the city of Los Angeles had increased by 1.7% between 2020, the last time the count was done, and 2022.

One of the most important things to remember in a discussion around patience is how long we were doing very little to address homelessness and how recently it is that we began doing and investing more in addressing homelessness directly.

For decades, we did not invest in the kind of services in housing that we needed to address homelessness.

I think it’s only since our investments in Measure HHH and in Measure H that we’ve started investing more in a different approach to homelessness. [In 2016, city voters approved Measure HHH, a 10-year, $1.2 billion bond measure to pay for homeless housing. One year later, county voters passed Measure H, a one-quarter-cent sales tax to fund homeless services.]

For the first time this year, our homeless count showed a flattening. That’s not progress enough, but it is different from what was happening before. And I think it’s the first sign that our spending has had an impact. And my hope is that if we continue to move in this direction, that we can see even more promising results.

“A lot of what I think stops housing projects here in Los Angeles is how long it takes for those projects to move through the maze of City Hall agencies and regulatory authorities.”

L.A. may be winding down COVID protections against evictions early next year. What will be in place to prevent an increase in homelessness moving forward?

One of the reasons we may have seen flattening of that sharp rise from the last few years is because of the stronger COVID-related renter protections.

We know from our experience from pre-COVID that we had a system of tenant protections in place that was simply not doing enough to keep people in their housing. We didn’t have adequate legal assistance for people to help them stay in their homes, to help them fight back against evictions or tenant harassment.

During COVID, we had more protections and we had more of that legal support through programs like, say, Stay Housed LA [an eviction protection program supported by the city and the county]. And we saw the positive impacts that that had for tenants. We can’t let go of those lessons as we move forward into a post-pandemic future such as it is.

I’ve been advocating for an expansion of Just Cause protections for tenants [that limit a landlord’s ability to terminate a lease], an expansion of our efforts to inform tenants about their rights and an expansion of the Housing Department’s capacity to actually monitor and enforce these protections and really to making sure that these protections are in place before we lift the COVID related renter protections.

You also ran to address the housing crisis. The city needs 23,000 new affordable units per year but is only producing 1,650. How does the city pivot to producing affordable units at scale?

One of the things that we’ve tried to do since I’ve been here is to fix some of the barriers to building affordable housing more quickly and effectively. We have proposed and pushed through an Affordable Housing Overlay Zone, which should incentivize the creation of more affordable units, particularly in high resource areas, which can really generate more construction.

We have also tried to find the barriers to permitting and planning regulations that have slowed down the construction of affordable units. A lot of what I think stops housing projects here in Los Angeles is how long it takes for those projects to move through the maze of City Hall agencies and regulatory authorities. And we’ve asked the Planning Department, the Department of Building and Safety, the Fire Department and the Department of Water and Power to come back and tell us what it would take for us to be able to expedite permitting for exactly the kinds of units that we need. And we’re still working through that.

But part of it is certainly a resource issue, and we are fighting for more resources for these departments so that they can expedite the construction of these units.

“Addressing the broader issues related to corruption and City Hall will require us to also address issues related to land use control and the discretionary power of local elected officials.”

In your campaign you advocated for reallocating money from the Police Department towards housing, but you voted for a budget that increased police spending. Can you talk about how you came to that decision?

One of the things that was interesting to me during the budget discussion was that we have funded fewer police officers than we have before. But because of mandated preexisting labor agreements that had salary increases baked into it, the amount in the budget was higher.

And for me, the discussion on the budget, it’s not an up and down vote just on the police budget. It’s an omnibus budget. And I think when you’re one person out of 15, you fight for what you think you can win and you fight really hard.

We did fight for a number of things that felt like wins, including some of these new positions for the Planning Department, for affordable housing, expediting affordable housing, increased funding for homelessness.

After the recent indictments of three City Council members, do you have any ideas for curbing the influence of developers and big money in city politics?

We can’t limit corporate donations because of the Supreme Court [which allowed unlimited spending in elections by corporations and other outside groups in a 2010 ruling]. But I do think we can change the culture of what’s expected among voters in Los Angeles and really ask for elected officials to stand up and say, “I won’t do this anymore.” And I think that the fact that I didn’t take money from developers, that I didn’t take money from corporations, that was very meaningful for voters in the last election.

Land use is one of the biggest powers that council offices currently have. And I think addressing the broader issues related to corruption and City Hall will require us to also address issues related to land use control and the discretionary power of local elected officials.

And not just for corruption, by the way. It’s also for where do you build affordable housing? Where do you build homeless housing? Where do you build bike lanes? Where do you build bus rapid transit? All of these are stymied right now by discretionary control by council offices.

I think there is a broader push to be made in order for the city to be able to make the investments that it needs in housing, in resources for people experiencing homelessness, in active transportation investments, as well as to reduce opportunities for corruption, that we should be moving away from the level of local control that local council members exercise. That’s definitely a conversation worth having.

Copyright 2022 Capital & Main

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