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Curbed LA Interviews: Garcetti Speaks

Today is our fourth in a semi-regular series of Curbed LA interviews with the architects, planners and thinkers who are shaping the future of this great city. This is our first interview with a member of the City Hall elite: Eric Garcetti, City Council President. Mr. Garcetti has a few things on his plate at the moment including Prop H, the affordable housing bond; Prop R, the term-limit extension/ethics reform measure; and the general well-being of his constituents. He agreed to answer our questions and now we wished we'd asked him more probing, personal questions that would reduce him to tears a la Barbara Walters. You're next, Jack Weiss.

In your Slate diary from 2004, you wrote about a $1.5 million dollar hydrogen car you were driving around courtesy of Honda. Are you still driving it? Has the City made any push for incentives for citizens to own an alternative fuel vehicle (i.e. hydrogen or bio-fuel) similar to the incentives provided for hybrids?

It was fun to drive the hydrogen car—despite the heavy prototype price tag, the city only paid $500 a year to lease it. Also it had a funny perspiration problem. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have water as the exhaust. I would drive around dripping water from the exhaust pipe.

I’m back in my electric RAV 4 now. As for the city and alternative fuels, our biggest incentive has been allowing hybrid and ZEV drivers to park for free at meters. The program is still in effect, and not a week goes by that someone doesn’t say that learning about that program helped them decide to go hybrid. Keep in mind that you have to follow posted time limits.

The City of Los Angeles now has the largest fleet of alternative-fuel and hybrid vehicles of any urban government. Our policy is that we must buy alt-fuel or hybrid vehicles, unless there is some compelling reason that we cannot. Our overall fuel prices actually went down in the midst of this change, despite rising costs at the pump. Speaking of term limits… What do you feel you can accomplish in 12 years that you can’t accomplish in 8? Why not 16? Why not 20? That’s a great question. I think term limits are appropriate, but on the other hand, you wouldn’t fire your favorite doctor just because eight years were up. If the voters won the right to return me to office for a third term and then exercised it, I’d like to finally figure out how to permanently fund the affordable housing trust fund. We’ve done amazing things with the trust fund – getting it started under the last mayor and fully funded under this one – and the challenge in front of us it making it less of a scramble every year and more of a fiscal given. I could also see through business tax reform, and set in motion multi-decade projects like the Hollywood Freeway cap park (see below). I'd also give my constituents more “best years”--where my understanding of how to work the system for their benefit is at its highest. That takes everyone about four to five years to figure out. With only eight years to serve now, that doesn't give the community a lot of value for their vote. We’ve seen you speak several times in the last few months and each time you seem to take great glee in saying the word “Pobladores” (in reference to the founders of Los Angeles). How long did you practice saying that word and do you think the Mayor is impressed with you? Has he commented on your Spanish? I’ve met the descendants of the original Pobladores, the settlers who traveled from the San Gabriel Mission 225 years ago and stopped at the L.A. River, also known as El Rio de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula. They wouldn’t be happy if I got the name wrong.

As for my Spanish, I learned it from my grandfather, who came from Parral, Chihuahua, and my grandmother, whose family was from Guaymas, Sonora. The name Garcetti comes from an Italian immigrant to Mexico many generations ago; I’m half-Mexican, on my father’s side. (Mom’s Jewish, in case you were curious.) After the jump, we ask Eric about the Affordable Housing Bond, his choice of beach or hills, and the scandal that could end his political career.

There's a lot of debate about moratoriums on condo-conversion popping up all around the City. Some say, including us, that by restricting condo conversions, you essentially tighten the supply of for-sale housing, helping to increase their already lofty prices. Others say that a moratorium is necessary in order to protect affordable rental properties for the City's poorest citizens. Where do you stand, and how do you answer the opposition?

For one thing, it’s not just the city’s poorest residents who need more affordable rental options. My district is 83% tenants: that includes poor people, rich people, and the disappearing middle class (link to LA CityBeat) as well. We need more affordable rental options and more affordable ownership options. I’m open to limiting conversions, but I don’t want to implement anything with unintended consequences, like more demolitions. I’ve been working very closely with my colleagues and with my own staff to figure out how we can do this effectively and with precision. A localized pilot program may help us sort this out.

If you look at the big picture, this is one area where I think this council is pretty active. Wendy Greuel and I worked together to prevent landlords from dropping their plans for condominium conversion after they have evicted tenants. These additional protections were approved by the full City Council in August and will go into effect shortly. And since coming to council, I’ve worked nonstop to close loopholes in the Rent Stabilization Act and protect individual tenants from unfair displacement in my district.

I’m also looking at policies that would promote home ownership without displacing tenants. Washington, D.C., for example, allows tenants the first right of refusal when a landlord places a building up for sale. I’ve asked city staff to provide recommendations for making that a requirement in Los Angeles. In the simplest of terms, because we’re a simple people, can you explain why we should vote for Prop H, the $1 billion Affordable Housing Bond Measure. How will the average Angeleno benefit from the fruits of this housing bond? How much will we have to pay out of our own pockets? The bond will cost the average L.A. homeowner about $3.40 a month, what some people pay for their morning coffee. Technically, that’s an average of $14.60 per year for every $100,000 of taxable property.

And what do you get for your money? Prop H will help get homeless people off the streets and into permanent supportive housing. It will help first-time home buyers buy their own homes. It will help build the kind of affordable housing projects that help janitors and hotel housekeepers live in clean, safe apartments.

Many average Angelenos will be helped directly by the programs the bonds support. Others will be helped indirectly because the new construction will take some pressure off the rest of the market. We’ll fund green construction with the bond. We’ll reduce commute times by building housing near transit stops and near jobs. Is the need for the Affordable Housing Bond a sign that the City's is moving away from non-monetary incentives (i.e. density bonus) as a way to encourage new affordable housing? Is buying a hammer a sign that you’re moving away from a saw? The housing crisis is grave. We need to address it with multiple tools. The bond is a vital one. While we are campaigning for Proposition H, we are simultaneously implementing a number of tools that address housing and density: our local regulations for density bonuses, the use of small lot subdivisions (which allow multiple smaller for-sale homes to be built on a single lot), adaptive reuse, and mixed-use zoning. Lastly, we are using public land in public-private partnerships to build affordable housing in exchange for the use of the land.

Dream house: beach or hills? Hills. Echo Park , right where I’m at, not too high up, and pretty close to the “flats”. Great workouts and you get the beach for free—on a clear day, you can see the ocean.

I like to imagine, however, that once we’ve got our return to the Los Angeles River underway, homes in Elysian Valley and Atwater Village will advertise “waterfront property”. Most underappreciated neighborhood and why? For the 13th, it’s a tie. Historic Filipinotown is south of Silver Lake and west of Downtown – think Glendale to Hoover, between 3rd and the 101. We went through a community naming process, and the name reflects that the community is majority Latino but has some of the region’s most important Filipino institutions and history.

Elysian Valley is tucked between the 5 freeway and the river, north of Elysian Park and across from Taylor Yards. It has the neighborhood council representing the smallest population in the city, an industrial zone along the river, multi-generational families, and even a few artists’ lofts. Favorite building or landmark in LA? Why? This one’s easy: City Hall. And within City Hall, the John Ferraro Council Chambers. It combines the grandeur of a cathedral with the fact that, unlike any other level of government, any person can come in on any day and talk to his or her elected representatives. The architecture inspires me to think about my city. I think it has that effect on a lot of people. And the cool factor with my nephews has gone up since they learned I work in the same building as Superman.

Commercial, Residential or Public Works project you are most looking forward to seeing completed? and why? Will you be upset if I mention four? In order of progress: • Placing a freeway cap park over the 101 where it’s below-grade in Hollywood. We’ve just begun to envision this, but it would radically transform the Hollywood flats.

• Moving the street-lighting yard at Virgil and Santa Monica and turning that lot into a park for that community.

• The permanent supportive housing project planned for Hollywood and Gower where the Teen Canteen used to be. This is a great example of a project that could have been controversial, but once we got people talking to each other we found that there was far more agreement of vision about how the project could be good for homeless people, residents and businesses in Hollywood.

• Lastly, the mixed-use project at Hollywood and Vine. The project combines living-wage hospitality jobs in a neighborhood where median family incomes hover around $20,000; mixed-income apartments that comprise more than 80 affordable units in a development of 300; a top-notch hotel and retail development ? the list goes on.

It’s the year 2015, where will you be and what will your job title be? I'll either be a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy somewhere (I'm in the reserve component of the Navy), opening my first musical on Broadway, or "public servant", living in L.A. and serving this city and its residents. And why not go for all three? We see from reading your bio that you studied Urban Planning as a young lad. Maybe you can offer an alternate take on this question: Why can’t urban planners and architects get along? They could, if they would only let my spectacular planning director Alison Becker mediate their differences. What one scandalous thing, if revealed to the public, could result in the end of your political career? Since no one reads our blog, feel free to share. I have been known to sing funny, topical songs at political and charitable events. In my most recent one I hid a reference to 1998’s Prop 6. I will let your readers look that up to see if it’s the sort of thing an elected official should go around singing about.