Los Angeles voters are not happy with business as usual. In the June primary, they ousted one incumbent councilmember and put another in jeopardy. In the controller’s race, a progressive activist CPA led a longtime City Council incumbent by 20 points, outpolling him in his own district. The two successful mayoral candidates both emphasized their independence from City Hall.
Congresswoman Karen Bass is the front-runner. Backed by the Democratic Party, she’s blasting her opponent as a conservative billionaire developer trying to buy the election. Rick Caruso has plenty more to spend. Bass has left him an opening by insisting she’ll bring “leadership, accountability and action” while staying vague on what she’ll actually do differently to confront L.A.’s daunting challenges.
On the defining issue of homelessness, however, both candidates have spelled out detailed plans. The homeless count in the city and county, conducted in February, still hasn’t been released. Word is that it will show yet another increase. The good news is more were temporarily housed, but that was due to the state-funded Project Roomkey, which is winding down.
The centerpiece of each candidate’s platforms is getting homeless people off the street. Bass pledges to “house 15,000 people by the end of year one.” Caruso promises to “build 30,000 Shelter Beds in 300 Days.” Neither is realistic. Bass underestimates the mind-numbing bureaucracy and limited capacity that makes housing people so difficult. Caruso is counting on bullying the state and feds into funding his big plans and bulldozing local opposition to siting shelter locations. Much of the public frustration and cynicism flows from this recurring pattern of politicians overpromising.
More than a decade ago, Los Angeles opted for a “housing first” model that promised to “end homelessness.” But housing the homeless turned out to be both expensive and unwelcome in neighborhoods, so little actually got built. Instead, an enormous amount of money was poured into “outreach” to offer services to the unhoused and sporadic enforcement to clear encampments. Neither approach accomplishes much beyond the short-term illusion that “something” is being done.
Both candidates stress mental health and substance abuse treatment, which is overdue. Yet that’s actually the county’s job. The city has no source to fund it. Caruso’s plan insists, “Rick won’t wait for the County or the failing bureaucratic process to deliver the services those suffering on the street need. Rick will create a City-run Department focused on mental health and addiction services, the primary mandate of which will be speed.” Good luck quickly finding enough competent professionals to staff a whole new department from scratch. Speed? Anyone who’s ever had a family member suffer from mental illness or addiction knows recovery is often one step forward, two steps back.
Both candidates have endorsed 41.18, the controversial ordinance that was recently expanded to ban camping across a quarter of the city. Clearing the camps sounds appealing, but then what? A UCLA study revealed that of 183 people placed in interim housing after Echo Park was cleared in 2020, just 13 were in permanent housing a year later.
Do Bass and Caruso really think they can produce instant results? Or are they just counting on voters to accept excuses when they fall short? It took decades to create the mess we’re in. L.A.’s mayor has limited powers. L.A.’s homeless crisis can (and must) be solved. But Bass and Caruso aren’t doing themselves (or the public) any favors by pretending that electing them is the solution. The best choice is not someone offering an easy fix — it’s someone honest about offering the blood, toil, sweat and tears needed for long-term success.
Rick Cole is a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com