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Caruso’s Plan To Tackle LA's Homelessness Crisis Rests On Authority He Will Not Have

A man in a dark suit and striped tie stands at a lectern with a sign that reads Rick Caruso. Behind him are the California and L.A, flags
Rick Caruso, photographed on the night of the June 7 primary.
(Apu Gomes
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Mayoral candidate Rick Caruso’s plan to “end street homelessness” in Los Angeles relies on him exercising powers that he will not have if he is elected, according to a review of city laws and interviews with experts.

Caruso’s plan also depends on the City Council’s willingness to cede its final authority over land uses, which it has declined to do in the past.

Published on his campaign website in February, his plan promises to declare a state of emergency “on day one” until street encampments end, to give himself the power to decide where, how, and when shelters are built for unhoused people.

But an expert on homelessness litigation and civic leaders, including one who directed the city’s last charter revision commission, say that’s not possible.

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What The City Charter Says

The city’s Charter, akin to a Constitution, states that it’s the City Council that has final authority over how any property in the city is used — not the mayor. And the city’s administrative code also says the City Council has to agree to cede this power to the mayor within seven days of the mayor declaring a state of emergency, and periodically thereafter.

“It’s disingenuous to promise things you have no authority to do,” said UCLA law professor Gary Blasi after reviewing the plan. Blasi has been representing unhoused people in courts for 40 years.

Caruso’s plan describes the Council as “15 politicians tailoring our city’s homelessness response to the loudest special interests.”

But his solution does not take into account that he would need the City Council’s permission to declare a state of emergency to have final authority over land use.

Caruso’s campaign issued a statement that did not dispute assertions that, if elected, he will lack the power to do what his plan says. But the statement nevertheless called his plan “big, bold and aggressive,” and touted the billionaire shopping mall developer and civic leader’s “track record of building consensus and getting projects through the regulatory process.”

Miguel Santana, the city’s former chief administrative officer, is one of those who says the city’s current approach to easing the crisis is not working well. “Having 15 different strategies in 15 different [council] districts is not effective,” he said. “There needs to be one strategy — one approach.”

A Long Struggle

The city of Los Angeles has long struggled with managing homelessness, and policies to address it.

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The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development published data in 2019, which compiles local “homelessness counts” nationwide, and depicts Los Angeles as the national epicenter for people living on the streets. The count for that year in Los Angeles showed about 13% of people who live on the streets nationwide were in the city and 21% were in the wider County of Los Angeles. That year, according to the local count, there were 44,000 people living on the streets in the county, of whom 26,600 were within the city.

This year’s count in Los Angeles, organized by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and conducted over three nights in February, increased. It found more than 48,000 people living on the streets in the county, more than 28,000 of whom were in the city.

Caruso's Plan And Some Big Hurdles

Caruso’s plan says he will create 30,000 beds for those living on the streets within his first 300 days in office.

Back in 2019, former Council member David Ryu proposed a motion similar to Caruso’s plan in that it would have transferred land use power to the mayor. The proposal was to change city law to allow the Council to initiate a transfer of its power to the mayor during a state of emergency, rather than waiting for the mayor to initiate the process. Ryu’s motion was referred to a Council committee, where it was not heard, and finally expired this year.

“It went there to die,” Ryu said. But, he added, times may have changed.

Asked if he thought the City Council might go along with Caruso’s plan, Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist who has spent his career studying government in Los Angeles, said, “The obvious answer is no. They [the council] are not going to voluntarily hand over their land use authority on day one in a city where the mayor has never had that authority.”

Though Sonenshein did not rule out that a new mayor might eventually get that authority.

Sonenshein directs the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State LA, an entity that promotes civic engagement, and has served as executive director of a Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission that was appointed by the council. He said the issue of consolidating land use authority for housing the unsheltered could develop into a longer-term political battle with an uncertain outcome.

Santana agreed.

“It’s not impossible,” Santana said, that the council would go along with a centralized approach, “if the next mayor is clear as to the why and [is persuasive] that the interests of [each] council member’s constituents are going to be considered.”

He added that it would take time. He also questioned whether a state of emergency was needed to streamline the city’s approach, saying, “You don’t need a state of emergency to do that. You just need clarity of what the goal is.”

City Council President Nury Martinez did not respond to a request for comment.

Caruso’s opponent in the mayor’s race, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass says she too recognizes that the city faces an emergency to house the unhoused. But her plan is more vague, and does not mention an emergency declaration as part of her strategy.

Instead, Bass’ plan says she would “bring leadership, accountability and action to dramatically reduce homelessness and end street encampments.” She says she would focus on consensus-building. Bass promises to house 15,000 people by the end of her first year.

Stay Tuned

We will have additional coverage of proposals by the candidates to be L.A.'s next mayor as we draw closer to the Nov. 8 election.

Editor's note:
  • Santana is CEO of the Weingart Foundation which is a financial supporter of KPCC/LAist’s voter education efforts.

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Updated September 21, 2022 at 8:43 AM PDT
This story was updated with a statement from Caruso's office.