Are Voters Angry Enough About Homelessness To Start Voting Out Incumbents?

A house in Los Feliz with a Nithya Raman yard sign. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

Will voters in Los Angeles ever be angry enough about homelessness to start voting out incumbent politicians? A clue to the answer might be found in the results of Tuesday's primary competition in Los Angeles' 4th City Council District.

Homelessness and sky-high housing costs figured prominently in the race to represent a wealthy slice of Los Angeles that stretches from Sherman Oaks to Silver Lake to the Miracle Mile. The district saw a 53% jump in homelessness last year, more than any other in Los Angeles.

RYU AND RAMAN APPEAR HEADED FOR RUNOFF

Though results have not yet been certified, the returns so far indicate incumbent David Ryu is likely headed for a November runoff election with an upstart progressive challenger, Nithya Raman. As of Wednesday morning, Ryu held about 47% of the vote, and Raman held about 38%. A third competitor, Sarah Kate Levy, held about 15%.

The campaigns of Raman and Ryu represent a crossroads for the future of local L.A. politics.

Raman is a former city employee who recently directed Times Up Entertainment, a not-for-profit organization formed in the wake of the #MeToo movement to fight gender discrimination in the workplace. She holds a degree in urban planning from MIT and is a co-founder of the SELAH neighborhood homeless coalition.

Ryu is nearing the end of his first term in public office. Before he was elected in 2015, he worked for the Kedren Acute Psychiatric Hospital in South Los Angeles. He also served as a policy deputy for former Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.

Though Ryu first ran in 2015 as a political outsider against the chief-of-staff for former Councilmember Tom LaBonge, today it is he who is the well-funded incumbent. He outraised Raman roughly four to one for a total of more than $1 million in contributions. His election night party at a restaurant on the Sunset Strip was attended by regional board members, volunteers, union brass and political veterans.

"If you remember, four and a half years ago, when I ran, I was the underdog of all underdogs," Ryu said.

By contrast, Raman raised about $270,000. Her campaign relied on a coalition of volunteer organizers and canvassers who, she said, knocked on almost 80,000 doors in the district.

She also benefited from several high-profile celebrity endorsements including Jane Fonda, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling and Natalie Portman. Her party at a Silver Lake gastropub was crammed with her campaign's mostly twenty- and thirty-something volunteers.

"I think what you're seeing in [the gastropub] is a group of people who have never been engaged in city politics before and who now will be engaged with it forever," Raman said. "This kind of energy about city politics is unprecedented in Los Angeles, and I think it's exactly what we need to set L.A. on the right path."

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DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO HOMELESSNESS

In their campaigns, both candidates touted their record on homelessness. Ryu argues he's already started the difficult work of finding places to put needed shelter and housing for homeless people. His office recently celebrated the groundbreaking for a shelter in Los Feliz, one of four planned or under construction in the district.

Ryu has also proposed declaring a local "emergency" on homelessness and giving the mayor special power to site shelter and housing. He says this would eliminate bureaucratic red tape that slows the city's response to the homelessness crisis.

"Even though the situation looks so bleak. I am optimistic that we are going to solve this problem," Ryu said. "The difference [now] is that we have community involvement and community engagement."

Incidentally, Raman is one of those most responsible for increased community involvement on homelessness in the district. The SELAH neighborhood homeless coalition, which she helped found, began as a group of neighbors who wanted to relieve the suffering of their homeless neighbors.

Today SELAH is a full-fledged non-profit organization serving homeless people and connecting them to housing, all while providing an accessible entrypoint for residents who want to get involved.

"In the last three weeks, we've had 10 people get housed through the work of SELAH. I mean, it's remarkable. It works, and I don't understand why everyone is not doing it," Raman said.

She proposes expanding the model across Los Angeles and giving residents substantial opportunity to get involved in their own neighborhood. Her platform also strongly advocates for stronger tenant protections and against the criminalization of homelessness.

"I mean, already, just the presence of our campaign in this race has changed what people are talking about, has changed policymaking at City Hall," Raman said.

WILL RACE AFFECT CITY POLICIES?

Her claim is backed up by the fact that two lightning-rod laws affecting homeless people are currently pending in a city council committee that Ryu is on. Those rules affect where homeless people can legally sit or sleep on the sidewalk, and would outlaw sleeping overnight in a car or RV in most parts of Los Angeles.

Neither rule is currently enforced by the city. A decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals renders Los Angeles' current law that bans sleeping on the sidewalk unconstitutional. The city's anti-vehicular habitation ordinance expired on Jan. 1 of this year.

For either rule to be enforced, they have to be re-approved by the full city council. For either rule to get to the full council, they would first have to pass out of the council's Homelessness and Poverty committee, which Ryu sits on.

Asked how he would vote on L.A.'s expired ordinance that outlaws sleeping overnight in vehicles, he said: "Well, I would make sure that it doesn't even come up, because I think it's too premature."

"If it did come up, I would try to reframe the question, and try to get my colleagues to understand [that] it's not about whether we pass it or not. It's not going to be effective," Ryu said. "I would try to re-divert our energy and our attention to maybe changing other existing laws, or creating funds, or anything else to actually help folks that are in their cars."

Any runoff competition between Ryu and Raman would be held in November during the general election.