L.A. City Councilmember Traci Park on Fixing the Broken System

Traci Park

Though all of Los Angeles was impacted by COVID, Council District 11, which includes Venice, Brentwood, LAX and much of the Westside coast, felt the loss of retail and tourism revenue particularly strongly. As the district recovers and deals with post-covid and economic pains, among those increased homelessness and greater housing density, constituents are demanding a return to normal. VX News spoke with the district’s new council member, Traci Park, on what’s being done to address these challenges to livability. In the conversation, Park talks about LA’s Sensitive Location Resolution 41.18, the usurpation by the State of local planning, and the need for civic engagement and political transparency.

VX News: You ran for the City Council to fix a broken system. Now that you’re in office, talk us through which aspects of that system need the most attention and what fixes you are advocating & implementing?

Traci Park: Unfortunately, there are several broken systems here in the city of Los Angeles. As you may recall, my campaign was heavily focused on the broken system of homelessness in the immediate city extending to the entire county of Los Angeles. I was aware that the system was broken before I ran but going on a year of being employed here, it has become clear to me that it is even more broken than I originally thought.

We’ve been trying to rectify some key areas through various legislative approaches. Some examples include; motions related to integrating performance indicators in our contracts with nonprofit service providers, calling for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) to present its budget to the city council, and a key motion seeking equitable distribution of Measure H funding upon the possibility of renewal. I’ve tried to focus on transparency and accountability because from my perspective, as well as the majority of Angelenos, we have invested billions of dollars in this problem with no return.

Year after year we have seen it worsen. My hope is to bring accountability to responsible parties in order to better understand the returns on our investment. We need to see people actually getting housed along with the help they may need. This was a campaign priority and continues to be in my current role as a Councilwoman, but it is a tremendous amount of work. It is not easy and it is a human problem that needs human solutions. Oftentimes, such issues are the most challenging to confront as leaders.

Before drilling down on housing and homelessness, address what L.A. County’s responsibilities are as the lead welfare agency for Los Angeles. Are you pleased with the current level of collaboration between the County and City?

In my opinion, with the county's responsibility to treat some of our highest acuity individuals who are currently living on the streets and being a primary resource for addiction, recovery, and mental health services, I have long been of the view that the county wasn't doing enough. 

I am encouraged by Mayor Bass’ leadership in leveraging relationships at all levels of government. When she talks about locking arms, it’s not just a slogan– she is out there doing that work. I’m also working with county partners to leverage the resources that are needed to address issues within my own district. I've had a very close and collaborative working relationship with Supervisor Horvath whom I’ve shared jurisdiction and constituents. I think that fresh partnerships with a genuine sense of agreement that this is an all-levels of government crisis are starting to turn the tide of our regional responses in Los Angeles.

You were, among others, a frequent critic of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) during your campaign and throughout this past year. With LAHSA being a city-county collaborative effort, address whether LAHSA has righted the ship, addressed your concerns, and made you more comfortable despite their limited authority.

I'm not there yet, but in assessment LAHSA has, in fact, righted the ship. I continue to have deep-seated concerns but I’m encouraged by the new leadership. I think that Va Lecia Adams Kellum will bring her years of experience and wisdom to the helm. I’m also excited that today, Mayor Bass appointed herself and was unanimously approved by counsel to the LAHSA commission. When she and Supervisor Horvath do things like that, it demonstrates that people are willing to step up and say that the buck stops with them. This new leadership’s focus on transparency and accountability makes me hopeful yet cautiously optimistic. I will continue to monitor LAHSA and its progress, but I expect to see positive changes.

Mayor Bass recently appointed Lourdes Castro Ramirez LA’s new Chief Housing and Homelessness Officer. Does this appointment make you more hopeful?

I’m hopeful that the urgency, practical realities, and missing resources of current circumstances will ultimately empower the city and our departments to advocate for the things that we need to address. Overall, I'm hopeful for her role and work in that position.

Affordable housing advocates and social service agencies have observed that funding and services to address homelessness and housing typically are siloed by Council District. They complain of the City having no comprehensive programs and initiatives. Have you been successful in collaborating with your colleagues on programs and funding?

We have 15 council members with 15 different sets of opinions, ideas, and strategies. However, these are the same 15 individuals who know their neighborhoods and needs best. The ability of the council member to influence district-specific strategies is really important and I certainly have conversations with my colleagues about policy and legislative issues. I know where my constituents find themselves on these issues but it raises the broader question: How can we create a unified comprehensive citywide strategy and approach?

With the mayor's leadership and 15 council members working together, I’m sure at the end of the day we all want the same outcome– clean and safe neighborhoods with economic, educational, and equitable opportunities. We all want our failing infrastructure fixed and modernized. At the end of the day, the disputes are how we get to that outcome and I know that the Mayor’s office is working on a comprehensive citywide approach. 

It’s going in the right direction but I also think that there needs to be some room for nuance and district-specific differences. Skid Row is not the same as other residential communities. Venice is not the same as the Pacific Palisades– just to give you an example in my own district. Each one of us council members has on-the-ground relationships and a keen level of understanding of specific needs that need to be baked into that comprehensive approach. 

At your inauguration, there were pickets protesting Sensitive Location Resolution (41.18),  which prohibits sitting, lying, sleeping, etc in the public right-of-way. Elaborate on the importance for your constituents of this resolution and the political pushback you may have experienced in defending it? 

I am a big believer that we need reasonable restrictions and guardrails around our response to homelessness. I’ve never been of the view that people should just be left sick and suffering to die on the side of the road, but I also don’t think that someone has the right to occupy any public space for any length of time or circumstance of their choosing. Somewhere between these sides, there needs to be a reasonable and balanced approach to regulating the length of time and occupied space. In my view, Resolution 41.18 is a tool that provides a relatively small and safe perimeter around essential public spaces such as schools, parks, daycares, and libraries. 

We may also consider having a perimeter around homeless shelters and service facilities. If the city wants communities and neighborhoods to buy in and support solutions, such as interim and permanent housing solutions, we have to ensure they are safe, well-managed, and accountable to their local neighborhoods. Unfortunately, my predecessor did not do that on the Westside which created governmental mistrust and an unwillingness to participate in proposed solutions. I think the community faced a disservice in the past and it needs to be righted. 

I remain steadfast in my commitment to utilizing 41.18 as a tool to regulate our most sensitive and essential community spaces. No one has ever claimed it as the solution to homelessness– it isn't. It’s also not about criminalizing poverty. I hear that narrative and I take grave issue with it because we are trying to provide children, families, seniors, and community members the ability to safely access our shared public spaces.

Neighboring Councilwoman Yaroslavsky's efforts to place a shelter program in her district is facing continuing neighborhood protests – essentially resulting from a lack of trust that promises made by the City will be honored. How is community trust regained?

Deliver results. Get folks off the streets and these encampments out of our neighborhoods. We need long-term solutions where they get the help they need. That's what it's going to take and if we don't do it soon and efficiently, we're never going to rebuild that trust. This has been my priority from day one since I took office. My team and I are on the ground in the community. We understand all of the issues that happened with Venice Bridge Home and why that became the poster child for why local communities are having a knee-jerk reaction to this.

I would say to those constituents that Councilwoman Yaroslavsky cannot clear the encampments without beds for the displaced. It’s a long-term investment she is trying to make for her community. I encourage Councilwoman Yaroslavsky to unapologetically utilize resolution 41.18 because it's the bare minimum that she owes her constituents while understanding how important it is to have that balance. I believe that if she moves forward to insist this facility be managed appropriately, she can start rebuilding that trust. It’s going to take time and making a promise and then keeping it; we don't have a track record of doing that as elected officials or as a city. 

I want to pivot to discussing affordable housing and housing issues– you preside over several upscale communities within District 11. Talk about the challenges of incentivizing and providing a range of housing options for your constituents, present and in the future.

I have some upscale neighborhoods but I also want to point out that I have some of the most socially and economically diverse communities in all of the city and I'm incredibly proud of that. From the couple of years that I spent on the campaign trail plus the approximate year that I have been in office, overwhelmingly, people on the Westside, or at least in CD11, support the production of good, affordable housing. We want housing for teachers, firefighters, nurses, restaurant and retail workers– for the folks who are embedded in our communities. What folks don’t want are irresponsible developments where community concerns are ignored and developers try to pass that off as community engagement. 

I also believe that the housing legislation coming out of Sacramento is taking local control away from communities and has fed into a sense that neighborhood concerns aren't prioritized. I tend to share similar views with many of my constituents– I want good affordable housing but it needs to be responsible development that considers AMI levels. In a district like mine, if you know that the affordability level is set at 80% AMI, we're talking about people who make six figures. We really need to lower that for low and extremely low-income units. As we add densification to address affordability, we have to continue to be respectful of the fabric of our existing neighborhoods. It troubles me to see city-wide plans for densification rolling out without accompanying plans to repair or upgrade our failing infrastructure. I don't really have an answer except to be the one sounding the alarm. If we're going to do one we have to do both and I have yet to see us as a city doing both. 

How do you engage with the planning department as it exists now? As a department within the fabric of the city's politics, how is your current relationship with the planning department?

My relationship with the planning department is fine. I will say it seems as if the planning department is understaffed and there are unacceptable delays. The planning department could do more meaningful community engagement but I understand that the city's purpose of the department is to execute a city-wide vision while making sense of dozens of competing state laws, local regulations, and zoning overlays. There are so many layers of complexity the planning department has to navigate through and I respect that work very much. Since I wish the community had a little bit more insight, I’d support the planning department letting the world peer in on what they do and why they do it.

The imposition you mentioned of state usurpation of local planning control raises the issue of who ought to be the steward of the built environment in a city or a neighborhood. In your opinion, who should be the governmental steward of the built environment?

There is certainly an argument to be made that taking away local land-use oversight and decision-making from elected officials will reduce corruption and improper influence. On the other hand, as a council member who knows my neighborhood constituents best, I am in the best position to help guide and influence decisions that are going to impact my neighborhoods and my constituents for many decades to come. I think that reasonable people can disagree on what the right approach may be or who should make the ultimate decision. While I see arguments on both sides, I know that my constituents have elected me to represent them. They are counting on me to ensure that their voices are being heard and advocated for.

We drafted a Community Plan with updates coming out in the southern end of the district. There's a widespread sense amongst community members that their input wasn't heard or taken seriously. Historically speaking, planning has been sort of a top-to-bottom approach, and as a council member, I embrace the more grassroots and bottom-to-top effort. We've already done at least 15 of our own listening sessions to supplement the work. I look forward to continuing this community-based work and going back to the planning department with proposed revisions and suggestions on where and how we allocate the density on the Westside. It's a tremendous amount of work with a lot of different views but at the end of the day, my responsibility and obligation is to be the voice of advocacy for my constituents.

How many of your constituents really know their state representatives, given the state's usurpation of local power? I find very few civic-minded people even know their state representatives, do you find the same?

Yes and as a city council member, the layer of government closest to constituents, we end up being blamed for everything. I’ve had very difficult conversations with my own constituents reminding them that I’m not a legislative author and in many cases, I didn't vote for the person who offered that bill. There’s a huge educational component around that. I have been very clear to my constituents that they need to know who their representatives are in order to hold them accountable. They need to stop electing people that aren't responsive to their constituents and I don't know what the fix for that is but it’s a problem.

Let me pivot to your other responsibilities beyond housing, homelessness, and affordability. 

Your district includes the airport and the coast. It’s a huge district, 1/15 of 502 square miles. Talk about the airport and your attitudes on the issues that have arisen from that area throughout the decades. Do you have any opinions on who should be the steward of the airport?

The airport is of interest to me for a couple of different reasons. As the council member for the 11th district where the airport resides, I’m the elected representative of the surrounding neighborhoods and communities. In addition, I’m the Chair of Trade Travel and Tourism, so the airport falls within my jurisdiction of issues here in the city. 

My own view is that this airport serves as a significant economic engine for the city and it’s the entry point for tens of millions of visitors every year. The business of the airport itself, as well as surrounding businesses, are extremely important for our local economy. I am pleased that I have a close working relationship with LAWA and with our local business organizations that are directly impacted by the airport. I’m really proud of a lot of the things going on at the airport. Its efforts to lead on sustainability are baked into its capital improvement projects. I see the largest capital improvement project in the country unfolding right in front of our eyes at LAX. That being said, I also understand the impacts it has on our local neighborhoods, traffic, noise, and congestion. Those are challenges that need to be included in planning and land use policies. 

My job as a council member and Chair of TTT is to balance all of the needs and interests that the constituencies around the airport have. I find it to be fascinating work and as a consumer of travel, I’ve seen it from the tourist perspective, too. Over the last few years, I have become more familiar with its operations and logistics while being on the ground to see how it actually works. It has been an educational eye-opener in and of itself. It's work that I am really proud to lead our community through.

Focusing on economic development and growth, where would you like to see new growth happen in your district?

In general, one of the areas I’m hopeful about is tourism, a huge segment of the economy on the Westside. We saw it come to its knees during the pandemic and we are starting to see it tick back up to pre-pandemic levels. So, I am really hopeful that we will continue to grow and foster that pillar of our economy which provides significant revenue for our city. 

I also want to acknowledge the arts and entertainment sector as about one in five people in District 11 work in the arts, entertainment, or sports businesses. Thousands of working families in my district have been directly impacted by the labor strikes over the last few months. I’m relieved to see the progress that is being made for our writers and producers, and the overlap between tourism and these businesses is important to note. There’s a lot of travel and tourism to Los Angeles around that culture so I see the fate of both industries, in many ways, tied together. As Angelenos, the movie and television business in and of itself is such a significant part of our culture and our history as a city that it pains me greatly to see us losing business to other states. There are a lot of reasons for that, but that's one of the things that I am focused on in terms of economic development. 

Then the final piece for the coastal district, I would like to see more investment and cultivation of clean and green tech companies. I think there’s a huge opportunity in my district to bring entrepreneurs who are cleaning and protecting our environment, and it just makes a lot of sense. I think there’s a synergy for that and we would welcome them with open arms.

The Olympic Arts Festival in 1984 which was such a success and questions as to whether there were plans for a similar massive international event to accompany the 2028 games have arisen. Are you aware of that? Since it hasn’t been very transparent, could you share about the planning of those events?

Culture and arts are a huge part of the plans for the Olympics in 2028. As you know, I was recently signed to be the Chair of our ad hoc committee for the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games. This is work that I’m personally interested in because I see significant opportunities for so many different parts of our city, especially in the culture and arts components. This is work that I will be raising and leaning in on over the coming months to the next year or so. We’re really starting to drill down and do the necessary work for this incredible opportunity to showcase our city globally. 

People who've attempted to participate in council meetings, remotely or by physical presence, have been dismayed by the conduct and the interface between the public and the council, often leaving discouraged at a process perceived as defamatory and ugly. A solution has not yet been offered to bring civility back to these council meetings. Do you have any thoughts?

We need some stricter civility guidelines in council chambers. As someone who sits there three days a week and listens to the screaming, maligning, and name-calling– it’s just counterproductive.

I've always been of the view that I am here to do serious work with serious people. I’m willing to meet with anyone on any side of a given issue, but the behavior and offensive language that goes on in that room shouldn’t be tolerated and it’s uncomfortable. I don't blame people for not wanting to come and participate in that. 

I've had elementary schools ask if they can bring their kids to City Hall. It would be an absolute honor for me to have those kids here and get to take them down to the council chambers and show them how their local government works. Yet, frankly, I'm embarrassed to do that right now. However, it's more than just what goes on in council chambers. It's what happens on social media, as well. There are mobs of bullies online who harass and intimidate people. Instead of respectfully disagreeing or finding ways to meet in the middle, the divisive rhetoric is pervasive everywhere. 

Since you've had experience as a city attorney, is there a way for the city’s legal department to make this a more civilized process?

I think there’s an opportunity for our new city attorney to take a look at what we are currently doing, and to identify what more should and could be done to keep that room civilized. In order to have any kind of meaningful experience, we need to make it a welcoming and accommodating space for participation.

“I am a big believer that we need reasonable restrictions and guardrails around our response to homelessness. I’ve never been of the view that people should just be left sick and suffering to die on the side of the road, but I also don’t think that someone has the right to occupy any public space for any length of time or circumstance of their choosing.” - Council Member Traci Park