Long Beach’s Most Optimistic Mayor Admits Two Huge Problems: A Lack of Affordable Housing and Homelessness
Photos by Brian Addison. Above: an underpass along the LA River houses one of the largest camp sites for those experiencing homelessness.
One time, too tired to bike home, former Long Beach Airport Director Mario Rodriguez gave me a ride home after Bob Foster held his last budget conference as Mayor of Long Beach.
Amidst the mayoral election at that time, Robert Garcia was facing off with arguably the oddest candidate to ever run for mayor in Long Beach, OC-er and “don’t eat the government cheese” torchbearer Damon Dunn. Mario was unfazed at the prospect of Garcia winning—and he said something that has always stuck with me:
“Bob had to be the bulldog in Long Beach—he had to make hard choices fiscally, politically… Because of the climate, y’know? But Robert? He is the perfect optimist. We need a cheerleader.”
Mario was completely right about Garcia: he is Long Beach’s most optimistic mayor. He has been The Cheerleader of Long Beach. And rightfully so: Garcia invited a handful of journalists and this writer to talk about what’s happened over the past three years.
Garcia’s admission should not be downsized. When any mayor admits, despite all the “great accomplishments,” that we are failing as a city, as a county, and as a state on the most fundamental of levels—providing accessibility to homes—we have hit crisis mode.
8,000 pairs of glasses have been given to students who need ’em for free. (By the way, we’re the largest city to offer that to their students.) Residential development is on a boom. Measure A is the largest infrastructural investment the city’s seen in a generation. Unemployment is at the lowest its ever been since the city started recording it—dropping from over 14% to under 5%.
These are all, as Garcia happily noted, good things; great things even. But he saved, after all the clean infographics and positive numbers, a particular subject for last—and that is, in his eyes, the biggest challenges this city will face over the next several years.
Homelessness and affordable housing.
“I saved talking about homelessness and housing for the end because it is genuinely two of our largest challenges,” Garcia said. “Beyond these huge accomplishments [I’ve discussed], I believe over the next few years that the city is going to some pretty big challenges—and homeless and housing are number one.”
This is, in not only Garcia’s eyes but the view of many affordable housing advocates like myself, the Californian challenge of the decade. I’ve written extensively about the housing issue (which is intimately attached to the homelessness issue).
This admission by Garcia is much bigger than anyone else in the room noted.
Reporters asked about the Queen Mary redevelopment, the renaming of the El Dorado Library, equity in terms of where the municipal band plays, and Councilmember Jeannine Pearce’s current scandal—which, of note, people should know that the Mayor was clear: “I hope for an investigation that moves forward as it should but let me be clear: I don’t think myself or any mayor should interfere with an investigation, despite who is involved”—amongst other things… But I was the only reporter who questioned Garcia about his biggest admission yet: that despite all the “great accomplishments,” we are failing as a city, as a county, and as a state on the most fundamental of levels: providing accessibility to homes.
Surely, I am not dismissing the concerns brought up; investment and attention in the things addressed by others in the room are important but inappropriate for this specific meeting. After all, we have our mayor admitting that, despite an overall drop in the city’s homelessness, this issue cannot be addressed in a silo and will become worse if we collectively do not look at the “simple math equation” he noted.
We are not building enough housing.
Period. End of subject.
“We have to do a better job building more affordable housing and creating initiatives around affordable housing… I’ve said time and time before: we make it incredibly burdensome for developers who want to build affordable housing by way of CEQA. It must be changed.” —Mayor Robert Garcia
We are failing on one of the most fundamental levels of our society—and that is that the entirety our society is living under a roof.
“In Long Beach, we have a somewhat different situation,” Garcia said. “As you know, homelessness is down… While we’re dealing with homeless decreasing as a whole, which is a positive, what we’re seeing is an increase in homelessness within certain neighborhoods. That is the challenge: we’re decreasing homelessness citywide but because we’re having this huge development and construction boom, prompting changes to so many neighborhoods that were historically low-income or poor, individuals experiencing homelessness have spread into other parts of the community.”
The admission that All Development Is Not Equal is intimately attached to Garcia’s next statement: “We have to do a better job building more affordable housing and creating initiatives around affordable housing.”
Of course, Garcia faces an uphill battle with this acknowledgement—mainly against money. Gov. Jerry Brown, pushing aside criticisms, refuses to fund affordable housing construction until it meets a fiscal balance that makes sense. Affordable housing is, bluntly put, alarmingly expensive—to the extent that funding it seems to help developers far more than those who need housing.
I specifically addressed this with the Mayor: Brown’s dissolving of Redevelopment—a central source of affordable housing funds—and his refusal to fund affordable housing development until it becomes, well, affordable, is not a slight to our need but a challenge to our creativity. So I asked Garcia: How do we, as municipalities, take on the challenge from Governor Brown that we make affordable housing development work for the people who need it most?
His answer? Cutting down California’s excessive red taping by way of CEQA legalities while providing incentives—not punishments—for those that do build housing.
“I’ve said time and time before: we make it incredibly burdensome for developers who want to build affordable housing by way of CEQA,” Garcia said. “It must be changed.”
Surely, Garcia didn’t propose direct policy per se—and that is important to note. But what he does acknowledge is that we are in a situation that is the “perfect recipe for a crisis,” and we must find innovative solutions to figure this crisis out—including examining our current Housing Action Plan.
This could have been a call for help, a cry for action amongst innovators, or this could have been his indirect way of saying he has figured something out. (When I asked him if he would propose something similar to LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s tax on developers who don’t provide affordable units in their development, Garcia didn’t outright shoot the idea down but sidestepped by saying that “isn’t what we’re focusing on.”)
Either way, it is a very clear message: we aren’t where we’re supposed to be—and it’s not just Long Beach, but our entire state.