Homelessness — and affordable housing — took center stage at the first forum of candidates running for the Los Angeles City Council District 6 seat left vacant after the resignation of Nury Martinez last October. Following a tsunami of public outrage, Martinez, the former council president, was pressured to resign after a racially offensive audio tape of a private conversation with Martinez and two other council members was leaked.
The focus of the forum wasn’t centered on the scandal or the estimated $7.65 million that it will take to hold a special election on April 4. This forum — organized by Hope the Mission, a North Hills-based nonprofit that serves the “unhoused” in the Valley and other parts of LA — addressed the growing numbers of people setting up tents living in underpass areas, on sidewalks, and those you don’t see — living in cars or couch-surfing.
“We’re in the middle of a housing crisis, [and] a homeless crisis that is killing our citizens,” said forum moderator Rowan Vansleve, Hope the Mission president and chief financial officer. “Each and every single night, between three and six people are dying on our streets. And I believe that it’s going to take all of us all in to make a difference and to bring everyone inside.”
Attending the Feb. 8 forum were six political hopefuls: Antoinette Scully, a community organizer; Douglas Sierra, a business owner; Imelda Padilla, community relations manager; Isaac Kim, a business owner; Marco Santana, a housing nonprofit director; and Marisa Alcaraz, an environmental policy director. Absent were Rose Grigoryan, a social activist and journalist, and Rev. Dr. James Thomas, reportedly a write-in candidate.
Homelessness is often associated with the Downtown LA neighborhood of Skid Row, but the issue affects most city neighborhoods. Since the pandemic, homelessness has become more evident across the city as many unhoused have slept on the streets, camping on sidewalks, parks and riverbanks. The Valley is no exception. The region accounts for about 14% of Los Angeles’ homeless population, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
Homelessness was also a central issue in last year’s mayoral race that resulted in the election of Karen Bass, who as a candidate promised to house 15,000 people that live on the streets. It’s estimated that there are nearly 42,000 unhoused individuals in the City of Angels, with almost 10,000 of them living in the Valley. According to housing authorities, about two-thirds of Valley homeless are unsheltered.
District 6 covers the central and eastern San Fernando Valley and includes the communities of North Hollywood, Sun Valley, Van Nuys, Lake Balboa, Panorama City, Pacoima and Arleta.
Council candidates had some ideas on how to put a roof over their constituents’ heads.
Santana proposed innovation and less red tape for affordable housing construction and the use of “adaptive use” to turn existing buildings into shelters. He praised how vacant hotels were repurposed temporarily to house the homeless during the pandemic.
Kim said that while high demand in housing keeps pushing prices higher, there is a need for more affordable units, suggesting higher-density construction that includes “building upward.”
For Scully, the city government’s role is to provide resources to residents. In the case of homelessness, the city can hire outreach workers, fund shelters and search for places for “permanent supportive housing,” she added.
Sierra stated that “a lot of zoning laws are antiquated” and recommended rezoning to “create more density” in new construction planning, especially in mass transit corridors. He added that lack of housing leads to homelessness.
A young member of the audience, Cindy Vansleve, Rowan’s daughter, asked what the candidates would do for homeless youth. Padilla replied she would support programs like the North Valley Caring Services that provide a safe place with tutoring and homework help for unhoused children to succeed in their education regardless of their housing conditions.
Alcaraz mentioned that the Los Angeles Unified School District has vacant land where transitional housing could be built for youth.
All candidates were asked what they would bring to the table, if elected, in their first year in office. Alcaraz said she’d propose affordable housing “by right.”
“We know where the homeless are in our district,” responded Padilla, adding she would bring workers together to make a plan and reach out to people in need to get them housed.
Highlighting a need for government transparency, Kim said he would schedule a regular virtual town hall meeting in which “people can feel they can be heard no matter what.”
Santana said he would propose taking City Council meetings to each district during hours that working people can attend.
Skully would raise the salaries of out-reach workers to get more unhoused people off the streets.
Arleta resident Sunny Arford was impressed by all the District 6 contenders. “I think all of the candidates are very worthy,” she said, adding that she favored Santana, Padilla and Kim. She added that she liked that Kim recognized safety and other concerns that homeowners have dealing with the homeless in their communities. “I am a homeowner and I see both sides,” she said. “I see homelessness and have a lot of compassion for the individual people who are affected by it. But yet, I’m a homeowner and I understand how my neighbors feel about it, too.”
Manuel Rivas of Panorama City found the forum “very interesting” and liked some candidates offering specific solutions, like better funding to address the problem. But he wished the topic of small business had received more attention. “In our district, I feel that small business owners are still hurting from the pandemic,” he said. “They still need continued support to maintain and keep their established businesses going in our communities.”
Ursula Medrano of Northridge said it was her first time attending a political candidate’s forum. “I’ve actually never been to anything like this, so it’s just good to see the questions that are asked,” she said. “I’m well aware of the homeless crisis that we have … I’m just happy to know that everybody’s trying to work toward fixing the problem.”
She hopes that if more forums are held before election day, more members of the public will have an opportunity to ask questions. For now, Medrano said, she will do more research on all the candidates to learn more about them.
The District 6 election will be held on April 4. If no candidate receives a simple majority, the top two will face each other in a June run-off.