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Housing, homelessness, cops dominate Hollywood council race

Last year, Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles was thrust into the national spotlight as police arrested dozens of demonstrators as they protested the removal of homeless encampments from the park.

Now the politician who lobbied for the cleanup of those encampments is on the ballot. And of the five Los Angeles City Council members seeking re-election on Tuesday, he is by far the most likely to face a deadly second contest this fall.

Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, 61, faces a quartet of challengers who span the ideological spectrum – three of them campaigning to his left and a fourth somewhat to his right. All four made the race a referendum on O’Farrell’s record, denouncing his handling of homelessness not just in Echo Park, but in Hollywood and other parts of the neighborhood.

To O’Farrell’s right is Steve Johnson, a sergeant in the Sheriff’s Department who wants to add 1,500 officers to the Los Angeles Police Department. Johnson criticized O’Farrell for cuts to police personnel and the increased cost of projects built using the HHH proposal, the $1.2 billion homeless housing bond.

To O’Farrell’s left are community activist Albert Corado, political aide Kate Pynoos and Hugo Soto-Martinez, a labor organizer with the Hospitality Workers Union. All three assaulted O’Farrell over the Echo Park Lake Glade.

O’Farrell described Operation Echo Park as a success, which led to a restored park and public access to it. He said the encampments, which were mostly left alone during the COVID-19 pandemic, were plagued with violence, drug abuse and unsafe conditions.

“We’ve returned the crown jewel of the parks system to the community for everyone, housed or unhoused, to enjoy,” O’Farrell said at an April event. “That’s what parks are for.”

Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell will face four opponents in Tuesday’s election, more than any other incumbent seeking re-election to City Hall this year.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Soto-Martinez offered a radically different assessment, calling the operation “a failure in every way.” He denounced the massive response of the police, who arrested journalists and fired projectiles at demonstrators. He also pointed to a UCLA report that found that only a small fraction of the park’s homeless residents received permanent housing.

“I’m surprised the council member continues to defend his tainted legacy,” said Soto-Martinez, an organizer with Unite Here Local 11, which has spent nearly $300,000 on his behalf.

Soto-Martinez, Pynoos and Corado have promised to repeal the city’s anti-camping law, which allows council members to designate specific libraries, schools and sidewalks around parks as off-camping.

All three argued for fewer police officers, with at least one candidate calling for the LAPD to be eliminated outright. All three spoke out last week when O’Farrell backed a new measure to ban campsites within 500 feet of every school and daycare.

Pynoos, who spent two years advising Councilman Mike Bonin on homelessness, called the clearing at Echo Park Lake one of “darkest hours.” Banning tents outside schools, she said, will push homeless youth further into the margins without offering new resources.

“If Mitch really wanted to help the most vulnerable young people in Los Angeles, he would focus on making it easier, not harder, to restore personal stability,” Pynoos, a Hollywood resident, said in an e-mail to supporters.

Housing, homelessness, cops dominate Hollywood council race

City Council candidate Kate Pynoos has denounced Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s recent vote to ban homeless encampments outside public schools.

(Kate Pynoos)

O’Farrell, running for his third and final term, said his office is working to provide a range of housing options for those living on the streets. The district now has two “tiny house” villages – one in Westlake, another in Echo Park – and a third is in the works.

This year, O’Farrell signed a plan to acquire two four-story apartment buildings in his neighborhood to serve homeless Angelenos. A similar development is planned just north of the lake, he said.

When Echo Park Lake was emptied, dozens of people were moved to hotel rooms and other locations. Of the 183 people originally identified as being housed, 77 remained in some form of temporary housing as of last month, an official with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said Friday.

Another 12 are in permanent accommodation, the official said.

Housing, homelessness, cops dominate Hollywood council race

The walkways at Echo Park Lake were lined with tents in March 2021.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

O’Farrell, who lives in Glassell Park, said outreach workers will continue to provide housing as new facilities open. “Our mission is to put everyone under one roof,” he said.

Yet O’Farrell’s critique was not limited to homelessness.

Soto-Martinez, who is running with major support from the LA chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said the incumbent has done too little to maintain affordable housing for working families in the district. The East Hollywood resident addressed this theme in a video that criticized O’Farrell’s approval of a 26-story apartment tower on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard.

The 200-unit project has faced legal challenges from critics who said it would replace a cultural and historic asset – the shuttered Amoeba Music store – and provide too few affordable housing units.

“I’m out of what used to be Amoeba Records, which, thanks to my adversary, is about to be toppled and turned into uglier luxury real estate,” Soto-Martinez says in the video.

Soto-Martinez, 39, criticized O’Farrell for designating just 10 of 200 units for low-income renters. He also pointed to the fact that employees of the project developer donated $15,000 to O’Farrell over seven years.

O’Farrell called the Sunset Tower a good project, which would entail no displacement, as there was no housing on the site. He said his office worked with the owners of Amoeba to find a new location nearby. And he argued that the tower’s rejection could have prompted a legal challenge under the state’s housing law.

The developer also provided $2.5 million to pay for additional affordable housing in Hollywood, O’Farrell said.

In recent weeks, Soto-Martinez has won the endorsement of Councilwoman Nithya Raman and school board member Jackie Goldberg, who once represented the district. He and Pynoos are both backed by Bonin.

Housing, homelessness, cops dominate Hollywood council race

Union organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez won the support of councilor Nithya Raman and school board member Jackie Goldberg.

(Eric Kelly)

Pynoos, 34, boasts support from the California Women’s List, the National Women’s Political Caucus and former US Representative Katie Hill. And she describes herself as a “practical progressive”, someone who has helped more than 80 homeless people in Venice find permanent accommodation.

O’Farrell highlighted his own housing record, announcing last week that 15,000 homes have been approved, funded or completed in his district since he took office in 2013. Of that total, about 4,000 – or 29% – will have restrictions on the amount of rent that can be charged, he said.

Real Estate Interests – The California Apartment Assn. and construction unions — have lined up behind O’Farrell, spending more than $1.1 million on independent campaigns promoting him and attacking Soto-Martinez.

These ads target Soto-Martinez’s description of himself in a Democratic Socialists of America questionnaire as a police abolitionist and a video in which he demands that police officers who patrol the bus and train in the region are replaced by unarmed “transit ambassadors”.

“Abolish the agents who ensure the security of our public transport at night? No, Hugo,” says an attack ad.

Soto Martinez has retaliated by shining the spotlight on O’Farrell’s allies, warning his supporters that “big real estate” is trying to scare voters away. “Let’s show them they can’t buy this election,” he said.

At the same time, Soto-Martinez tried to reassure voters, saying being an abolitionist doesn’t necessarily mean wanting to get rid of the entire police department.

Those kinds of remarks upset Corado, whose sister Melyda Corado was shot and killed by police in a shootout with a suspect at a Silver Lake supermarket in 2018.

Corado, 33, said abolition – which he supports – is about ending law enforcement and replacing it with programs that tackle poverty, lack of affordable housing and the food insecurity, among others.

“The very definition of abolition in this context is getting rid of the police department,” he said. “You can’t redefine a word just because you want it to fit your political message.”

Housing, homelessness, cops dominate Hollywood council race

Council candidate Hugo Soto-Martinez criticized Mitch O’Farrell for his approval of a 26-story residential tower on the site of the former Amoeba Music building. Amoeba moved a few blocks away.

(Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

Corado, who lives in Historic Filipinotown, was endorsed by Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles. He is heavily involved with the People’s City Council, an activist group that demonstrated outside the homes of O’Farrell and other elected officials.

Corado said the group formed after the council voted against a blanket ban on evictions in April 2020.

“We were a bunch of random activists who were so angry that he was voting that way that we started protesting outside his house,” he said. “He’s the reason the People’s City Council even exists.”

O’Farrell voted for a moratorium on evictions where a tenant’s inability to pay was caused by COVID-19, which will not expire until July 2023 at the earliest. But he said he balked at the broader ban after receiving warnings from city attorneys, who said it violated state law. Those attorneys said more drastic action could put the city at risk of $1 billion in damages.

“We have protected those whose incomes have been affected by the pandemic, and we have done so in the right way,” he said.

Los Angeles Times

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