Reality Check: LA’s Water Resources Are Shrinking

With everything else going on this year, you could be forgiven if you haven’t thought much about LA’s dwindling water supply. But it’s important for all of us to remember that all of the water resources LA depends on are declining. After a number of dry years, we had a couple of really wet ones, and many people thought our troubles were over. Unfortunately, a couple seasons of unusually high precipitation didn’t wipe out our water deficit. To get a sense of the scary reality we’re facing, take a look at this map which shows the areas of California that are currently experiencing unusually dry conditions.

Drought Map CA Nov 2020

As you can see, almost the entire State, with the exception of coastal Southern California, is dealing with dry, in some cases exceptionally dry conditions. This is, of course, one of the main reasons why Northern California was ravaged by a record number of fires this year. But to really understand the scope of the problem, take a look at this map of the whole US.

Drought Map US Nov 2020

As you can see, it’s not just California. Much of the Western United States is extremely dry. Climatologists are in pretty much universal agreement that climate change is a primary factor, but it isn’t the only factor. One of the major reasons we’re in this situation is that the Western US has been recklessly depleting its water resources for decades.

All you have to do is take a look at the Colorado River. Seven western states depend on the Colorado for water. Unfortunately, the combined annual allocations for these states amounts to more water than the total annual flow. This means there’s a structural water deficit. We’re using more water than the River actually contains. Over the past several years, the levels at Lake Mead have repeatedly fallen to precariously low levels. Here’s a photo from November 2018 that illustrates the problem.

IMG_3933

The white band around the perimeter shows the difference between how high the water used to rise and how low it’s fallen in recent years. Lake Mead is considered full when the water level reaches 1,229 feet. Right now it’s at 1,081 feet, which is 6 feet above 1,075, the point at which the first round of reductions in allocations kicks in. Because the level has fallen dangerously low a number of times in recent years, the western states that get water from the Colorado River have worked hard to develop a drought contingency plan. If the levels continue to decline, which is likely, the plan provides an orderly framework for allocation reductions. This is an important step, but it’s not a solution. Here’s a quote from Jeffrey Kightlinger, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District….

The drought contingency plan is, in many respects, just a tourniquet; we’re basically bleeding out on the Colorado River.

The interview this was taken from was published in the June, 2019 issue of The Planning Report. If you have a few minutes, it’s worth reading, because Kightlinger lays the problem out clearly.

MWD Achieves Consensus on Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan

But it’s not just the decline of the Colorado we need to worry about. To repeat. All of the water resources LA depends on are declining. A look at the maps above should make it clear that deliveries from the State Water Project will likely be reduced. We can’t depend on the LA Aqueduct the way we used to. And much of the groundwater LA has access to is contaminated. Remediation efforts will take many years, if not decades.

State and local leaders seem to think that if we build another tunnel or move more quickly on water recycling projects we’ll come out okay. They’re wrong. For the last century, Californians have clung to the myth that this is the Golden State and that we can keep growing forever. We can’t. There are very real limits that we have to accept, and fundamental facts we can’t ignore. We have a finite supply of water. That supply is shrinking. If we don’t accept that fact, we’re heading for disaster.

Juneteenth in Leimert Park

J19 01 Stage Juneteenth

Yesterday I went down to Leimert Park for the Juneteenth celebration. The place was packed. Lots of food trucks, lots of vendors, multiple stages with all kinds of music. This being Leimert Park, of course there were drummers on hand, and that’s where I spent most of my time. The vibe was very, very positive.

LA’s Future Is Homelessness

Homeless Encampment

Yesterday the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) released the results of the 2020 count of the homeless population in Los Angeles. Once again, he results are shocking. In 2020, a total of 66,433 people experienced homelessness in LA County, a 12.7% increase over last year. In the City of LA, the total was 41,290, a 14.2% increase. But it’s not just the overall numbers. Digging into the statistics is disturbing on so many levels….

  • Blacks make up about 8% of LA County’s population, but they make up 34% of the homeless population.
  • The number of homeless people over age 62 increased by 20%.
  • There was a 19% increase in homelessness among Transition Age Youth Households and Unaccompanied Minors, which includes both individuals 18-24 years of age and members of families headed by persons 18-24.

The press release highlights some of the positive work that LAHSA is doing, and I don’t doubt the agency is trying hard to address the problem. But it can’t. The real problem here is that housing is growing increasingly unaffordable, not just in LA but across the nation. Over the last several years real estate has become a huge draw for speculative investment. This isn’t just a local phenomenon, it’s a global one. The investors who have been buying up both single-family and multi-family housing in recent years have only one goal: To extract as much profit from their assets as quickly as possible. They have no interest in providing housing, and they don’t care how many people are homeless. (Unless, of course, those homeless people are camped out in front of their latest acquisition. Then they’re very concerned.) If you’re skeptical about these claims, I suggest you read Capital City by Samuel Stein. The author lays out the facts in horrifying detail.

But if you think the homeless numbers are bad now, brace yourself. It’s gonna get way worse. At the end of May, UCLA’s Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy released a report outlining the impacts the pandemic will have on housing. The report’s author, Gary Blasi, offers two estimates….

The most optimistic estimate is that 36,000 renter households, with 56,000 children based on U.S. Census figures for Los Angeles County, are likely to become homeless. If […] support networks have been severely degraded by the pandemic, those numbers could rise to 120,000 newly homeless households, with 184,000 children.

Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? The report offers some good recommendations for policymakers and lawmakers, such as providing legal counsel for renters facing eviction and expanding rapid rehousing programs, but these will only mitigate the damage.

The root of the problem here is that many of our elected officials are basically pawns working for real estate investors. The Department of Justice’s ongoing corruption investigation in the City of LA has so far produced four guilty pleas, including one former councilmember. It’s almost certain that at least one current councilmember will be indicted, and the evidence released clearly indicates a widespread conspiracy that has turned the project approval process into a high-stakes pay-to-play game.

According to the LA Department of City Planning’s (LADCP) annual reports to the State of California, about 90% of new residential units approved in the City of LA from 2013 to 2018 were for Above Moderate Income Households. This means that the combined number of Low, Very Low and Moderate Income units approved each year comprised about 10% of the total. The LADCP, the Mayor and members of the City Council have repeatedy claimed that the high-end high-rises they’ve been greenlighting in Downtown, Koreatown, the Valley and elsewhere were going to help solve the housing crisis. At the same time, they’ve pushed for policies that incentivize the destruction of existing rent-stabilized housing. This appalling combination of greed, stupidity and denial has led us to where we are now.

I know they’re tough to look at, but I strongly urge you to read both the press release on the homeless count and the report from the Luskin Institute. The only way we’re going to get out of this situation is to take a long, hard look at the brutal facts.

2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count Results

New Study Warns of Looming Eviction Crisis in Los Angeles County

Hollywood Uprising

Hlwd Protest Art Call

The last couple of weeks have been intense. Protests throughout the nation sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The National Guard being deployed in major cities. Viral videos exploding across social media. Politicians scrambling like mad to try and cover themselves. It’s been a wild time.

And it’s been pretty wild here in Hollywood. I have not personally been involved in any protests. I’ve been mostly hanging out in my apartment, scanning the news for the latest developments and listening to the sirens wailing outside. And even without having been in the thick of the crowds, it’s been an emotional rollercoaster. Horror over the death of George Floyd. Excitement about the growing protests. Anger over the looting. Depression at seeing the National Guard on LA’s streets. Again.

And then today, I actually feel kind of happy and kind of hopeful. Let me tell you how I got here….

Like I said, I haven’t been to any of the protests, but I was following the news reports of the massive gathering last Tuesday in Hollywood. The next morning I was out on Hollywood Blvd., and here’s some of what I saw.

Hlwd Blvd After Protest 200603 Boards

Boarded-up storefront on Hollywood Blvd..

Hlwd Blvd After Protest 200603 NG

National Guard troops inside a parked vehicle.

Hlwd Blvd After Protest 200603 H&V LAPD

LAPD action at Hollywood and Vine.

Hlwd Blvd After Protest 200603 H&V Photog 2

Photographer at Hollywood and Vine with her camera trained on the LAPD.

Hlwd Blvd After Protest 200603 Sign

Discarded sign lying on the sidewalk.

It was definitely depressing to see the boarded up windows and the National Guard vehicles parked on the boulevard. I have vivid memories of the unrest that rocked LA back in 1992. Walking down the street on Wednesday morning it was hard not to draw parallels.

On Saturday afternoon I needed some groceries and when I walked down to the market I caught the tail end of another gathering. A few hundred protesters were blocking the intersection at Hollywood and Vine. Lots of car horns honking. It was hard to tell whether the drivers were mad at the delay or glad to see people taking to the streets.

Hlwd Protest Floyd 01 SM

Protesters at Hollywood and Vine.

Hlwd Protest GF 05 Guy Car SM

Some protesters were sitting on top of cars parked in the street.

Hlwd Protest GF 20 Defund SM

Protesters are demanding that funding for the police be cut.

And at the same time that I’m trying to follow what’s happening locally, the national news media is feverishly trying to document the protests, chase down the politicians, and keep up with the seemingly neverending stream of daily controversies. Elected officials across the country are trying to demonstrate their empathy and understanding, with wildly varying degrees of success. A lot of promises have been made, but we’ll see what those promises mean six months or a year from now.

I wish I could say I was completely enthusiastic about this massive uprising, but actually I had a lot of doubts about where this is all heading. First, I don’t have much faith in politicians, and I’m pretty certain that for the most part the carefully thought-out statements they’ve been feeding the press over the last week or so will quickly be forgotten. Second, while I think the protests are a great way to start a movement, making real change happen means taking things a lot farther. It’s exciting to see so many young people take to the streets to demand justice, but the only way to ensure that justice is delivered is to stay on top of elected officials, show up at city council meetings and go to the polls on election day. In other words, it takes years of difficult, sustained work to guarantee progress. Sure, I’m glad to see thousands of people marching for justice, but I wonder if these same people will still be on board for the less exciting and more challenging job of re-writing our laws and re-thinking our budgets.

But today all my pessimism magically disappeared. Not to say all my doubts are gone forever, but this afternoon they were pushed way into the background, at least for a while. As I walked along Hollywood Blvd., I saw that artists had transformed all the boarded-up windows into canvasses bursting with color. These are the images that greeted me when I walked out of the Red Line station at Hollywood and Vine.

Hlwd Protest Art Be the Change

Be the Change You Want to See

Hlwd Protest Art Be the Change Artists

Artists at work transforming the streetscape.

Hlwd Protest Art Butterfly

Another artist covering drab boards with vibrant color.

Hlwd Protest Art Floyd

George Floyd

Hlwd Protest Art Psychedelic Eye

A splash of psychedelia.

Hlwd Protest Art Angelou

Maya Angelou

Like I said, it’s not as though I’ve buried all my doubts, but I forgot about them for a little while. Walking down Hollywood Blvd. today, looking at all this amazing art, I felt happy. I felt hopeful.

Hlwd Protest Art Heart

Where Are We Heading?

Dntn Protest Floyd Killing from LA Times Video 200529

Screenshot from video posted on LA Times web site.

Last night there were protests in Downtown over the killing of George Floyd, with violent clashes between police and protesters. The unrest continued today. The Mayor of LA has imposed a curfew. West Hollywood and Beverly Hills are doing the same. And I just read the National Guard is on its way.

The scary thing is, all of this seems familiar. I was on the phone earlier with a friend in New York. She’s from Los Angeles, and was one of the journalists who covered the 1992 unrest for the LA Times. We both agreed that all this feels very much like the days of chaos that followed the verdict in the Rodney King beating.

In a way I feel like we’re back in the same place. That nothing has changed. But actually, the more I think about it, the more I feel like things have actually gotten much worse. For the last several years Los Angeles has been sliding closer and closer to the edge. There are over 36,000 homeless people in the City of LA and 59,000 countywide. People are struggling to pay rent and bills in a gig economy that offers zero stability. We’ve spent many millions on new transit infrastructure, and now Metro is getting ready to spend millions more because contractors botched the job the first time around. And we’re learning more and more about the pay-to-play culture at LA City Hall, with four guilty pleas so far in the ongoing corruption investigation, and more on the way.

There are major problems across LA County, but the City of LA is the poster child for dysfunction. Most of our leaders are crooked, and the ones that aren’t don’t have the backbone to challenge the status quo. Our Mayor tells us that building luxury skyscrapers will help solve the housing crisis, and even the City Councilmembers who know better cast their votes to approve the latest high-end high-rise. Our Mayor tells us we’re getting people out of cars and onto trains, while traffic gets worse and transit ridership continues to plunge. Our Mayor tells us we’re creating a sustainable LA, while our urban forest is dying and the majority of our recyclables still get dumped in landfills.

But, of course, it’s not just LA. California is in trouble. The US is in trouble. George Floyd’s killing may have sparked the protests, but people have been frustrated and angry for a long time. I wish I could say I think things will get better, but I don’t. At least not any time soon.

I can still hear the sirens screaming by out in the streets. As of Saturday night, here’s what’s going on in LA.

L.A. Police Face More Mass Demonstrations After Friday’s Violence from LA Sentinel

National Guard deploying to L.A. as looting, vandalism, violence worsens from LA Times

“El momento más pesado”: alcalde de Los Ángeles extiende toque de queda a toda la ciudad from La Opinion

And here’s a view of the larger picture.

George Floyd: protests and unrest coast to coast as US cities impose curfews from The Guardian

Rent Strike

LATU Rent Strike Vine Selma 2005 SM

Things are heating up. The Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) has called for a rent strike. And they’re not alone. According to a graphic posted by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, there are tenants withholding rent in the Bay Area and San Diego. The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) seems to be on board, too. Here’s an excerpt from a statement they released….

Today on May 1st, millions of tenants and homeowners across the country will be unable to make their housing payments. Many of us are choosing food and groceries over rent – a choice no one should have to make

We are turning our economic reality into political action, by going on strike today to demand rent and mortgage forgiveness! Governor Newsom has the power to cancel rent and mortgage payments for those impacted by the COVID crisis – join us in urging him to do it!

The health and well-being of our children, our seniors – all of us – is at stake. Together we have the power to force the politicians to recognize our reality. Together we need to make them recognize that housing is a basic human right.

Rent Strike Graphic from ACCE 200501

Rent strike graphic from ACCE web site.

Other groups are taking a different approach. Here’s part of a press release from a group called Street Watch LA….

An unhoused Los Angeles resident, Davon Brown, has gained access to an empty hotel room at the Ritz Carlton in Downtown Los Angeles with the intent to stay to shelter in place during the COVID-19 crisis. He entered the room after asking to see one before booking, and with the support of community organizers from Street Watch LA (an initiative by the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America) he has refused to leave until Mayor Garcetti commandeers vacant hotel rooms for the unhoused during the pandemic.

Obviously the pandemic is pushing people to take extreme measures, but it would be a mistake to think this is just about the coronavirus. Housing prices have been soaring for years. Millions of people are rent burdened. There are tens of thousands of homeless people in LA County. We’ve been moving closer to a tipping point for years, and the virus may be pushing us over the edge.

I have mixed feelings about the rent strike. On the one hand, there are a number of landlords out there who work hard to provide decent housing at a fair price. I know some of them personally, and I worry that they could be impacted if their tenants stop paying rent. On the other hand, there are also a lot of predatory real estate investors who have been snapping up multi-family housing, kicking out tenants and then raising rents so they can flip the building. I’ve seen many of them in action, and honestly I think they should be in jail. They have no interest in providing housing. To them apartment buildings are just an asset, and all they care about is jacking up the value so they can make a quick profit.

To make things even worse, most of our elected officials either turn a blind eye or actively encourage this kind of real estate speculation. Over the past few years the City of LA has been granting permits to legally convert residential units into hotel rooms. Last year the City passed its Home Sharing Ordinance to prohibit landlords from offering apartments as short-term rentals, but the practice still seems fairly widespread. Mayor Eric Garcetti has tried to convince people that he’s concerned about the housing crisis, but in fact, first as a Councilmember and now as Mayor, he’s shown over and over again that he’s a fervent supporter of predatory real estate investment.

LATU Protest at Mayor Mansion 1 CROPPED

Image posted on LATU Facebook page from a protest outside the mansion in Hancock Park where Mayor Garcetti lives.

I don’t know how the rent strike will turn out, but it seems to me that this is only the beginning. Middle and low income households have been hurting for years. While wages have mostly remained stagnant, the cost of living has continued to climb. Young people who can’t find a decent job have been forced into the gig economy, which in most cases means they don’t get sick time, they don’t get vacation days, and their employer can cut them loose by sending them a text.

The pandemic isn’t the problem. It’s just the catalyst. Things have been messed up for a long time. It’s just now that people are getting desperate enough to take action.

LATU Rent Strike Sign in Boyle Heights from LATU FB Page 2005

Photo of rent strike banner over freeway in Boyle Heights, also from LATU Facebook page.

 

Burbank Blvd. Bridge Demolition

Brbk Bridge Demo from Live Feed 9 200426 CROPPED

An image from Sunday morning, when demolition was largely completed.

A few months back I wrote about the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project, a massive undertaking that’s been in process for years. One component of the project is the demolition and replacement of the Burbank Blvd. Bridge over the I-5. This weekend the freeway was shut down and the demolition took place. The photo above is from a live feed that was posted on-line, and shows what the scene looked like this morning. Here are a few more shots from the live feed that show the demo in progress.

Brbk Bridge Demo from Live Feed 0 BEFORE CROPPED

An image from the live feed before the freeway closure, when the bridge was still standing.

Brbk Bridge Demo from Live Feed 3 200425 CROPPED

An image from Saturday, when demolition had begun.

Brbk Bridge Demo from Live Feed 5 200425 CROPPED

Demolition continues on Saturday, as the sun goes down.

The project is way behind schedule and there’s no telling when it will actually be completed. For more info, you can read my previous post by clicking here.

 

Local News Is Dying

 

Newspapers SM

Obviously, the impacts of the pandemic we’re experiencing have gone far beyond just threats to human health. It’s devastated numerous industries, and in many cases we can’t even predict the long-term effects.

Local newspapers are getting hammered by the outbreak. As businesses have been shuttered, they’ve stopped spending on advertising, and this has been catastrophic for newspapers small and large. The loss of revenue has forced the LA Times to close down three local papers it published, the Burbank Leader, Glendale News-Press and La Canada Valley Sun. No doubt we’ll see more closures in the not-too-distant future.

Publications that report local news have been declining for years, and as that has happened, Americans are less and less aware of what’s going on in the cities they live in. Did you know that the City of LA was facing annual budget shortfalls of $200 million to $400 million before the pandemic even hit? Did you know transit ridership in LA County has been declining for years and is down about 20% since 2013, in spite of the fact that taxpayers have spent billions to build new rail lines? Did you know that the State requires cities to recycle 50% of their solid waste, but that the RecycLA program hasn’t even hit 35%? If you didn’t know these things, it may be because you’re relying on TV or social media to get your information, instead of experienced journalists who know how to report hard news.

Local news is crucial to keeping people informed. If you don’t know what your elected representatives are up to, there’s no way you can make an informed decision when you go to the polls.

The LA Times has done an excellent breakdown of this frightening situation. I urge you to read it. And then, if you don’t already subscribe to a local paper, get on-line and sign up.

Coronavirus Crisis Hastens the Collapse of Local Newspapers. Here’s Why It Matters

Life in LA Under Lockdown

C19 PlaBoy Sign

Many people have been documenting how life has changed in our cities since stay-at-home orders were issued. Sorry if this post seems redundant, but because this blog is about reporting on life in LA, I felt like I had to write something about this episode.

Life is definitely pretty strange these days. I’m fortunate in that my health is good and none of my family or friends have been infected with the virus, but it’s heartbreaking to read about those who are dealing with the worst impacts. In addition to those who have been infected, there are so many people who’ve been hammered by the shutdown. What’s going to happen to the folks who have lost their jobs? While some may return to work when the stay-at-home orders are lifted, it’s clear that the economy is getting pounded, and it seems like many jobs will just go away. In LA the City Council took action to stop evictions during the pandemic, but there’s still no certainty as to how affected households will make up rent over the long term. I’m concerned about the pandemic, but I’m actually much more worried about what comes next. The news from the US and abroad seems to point to a global downturn.

But right now I can only focus on what’s in front of me, and that’s getting through the day during the lockdown. I can’t say it’s been especially difficult for me personally, but, as I’m sure everyone has noticed, life in LA is pretty weird these days.

Last week I was out to get groceries, and on my way home I saw a young woman standing on a street corner waving a styrofoam head that was wearing a black mask. I had no idea what it was about. Then yesterday I went out again and realized that there are a number of street vendors selling masks, and many of them are waving styrofoam heads at passersby. It does look kind of surreal, but I guess that’s just a part of the landscape right now.

C19 Panorama Mask Vendor

Street vendor selling masks in Panorama City.

One of the strangest things about the pandemic is the contrast between the businesses that have shut down and the businesses that must remain open. Grocery stores are so busy they can’t keep the shelves stocked. But many other businesses are shuttered. Here are a couple of photos to illustrate how this looks in Hollywood.

C19 Hlwd Market Line

People waiting to enter Trader Joe’s at Vine and Selma.

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Businesses shuttered on Hollywood Boulevard.

The closure of the newsstand on Cahuenga is one of the things that worries me most. Obviously, print journalism has been getting hammered for years. This newsstand has been shrinking steadily for over a decade. Will it ever reopen? And even more troubling is the question of what will happen to newspapers. I heard that the LA Times has lost one third of its advertising revenue and could be laying off 40 people. I’m sure other papers are getting hit as hard or harder. Will more papers fold as a result of the pandemic? Probably. And if that happens, we’ll see even less local news than we do now. This is very scary. The internet has pushed local news reporting to the brink of extinction. (Aside from TV news shows that focus on murders, fires and sports scores.) Already the vast majority of LA’s citizens have no idea what’s going on at City Hall. As a result, the Mayor and the City Council have been letting the City go to hell for years. Corruption is rampant at City Hall, homelessness is out of control, and we’re facing huge budget deficits. If the LA TImes and/or other local papers go under, we’ll have even less local reporting and less oversight. This is very dangerous.

C19 Hlwd Cahuenga Newsstand Closed

Will this newsstand on Cahuenga ever reopen?

Of course, signs are popping up all over the place. Stores are posting their rules, restaurants want you to know they’re open for delivery, and public notices tell you what you can and can’t do.

C19 Orange Line Bus Sign

You have to use the rear door when you board a bus.

C19 NoHo Groundworks Sign

Groundworks is North Hollywood is only open for take-out.

C19 Hlwd Hlwd Wilcox Signal Sign

You’re not even supposed to push the button to get a walk signal.

One of the strangest changes for me is the disappearance of rush hour traffic. Ordinarily during rush hour in Hollywood, Cahuenga northbound is jammed, often to the point where traffic is backed up several blocks. For the past few weeks, Cahuenga has been wide open, even at peak commute times.

C19 Hlwd Cahuenga Rush Hour Empty

Rush hour traffic on Cahuenga is no longer a problem.

But cars haven’t disappeared completely. In fact, given the stay-at-home order, I’m kind of surprised at how many cars are on the road. Here’s a shot of Highland north of Hollywood.

C19 Hlwd Highland Traffic

Even during a pandemic, there are still plenty of cars on the road.

And speaking of Hollywood and Highland, that’s one spot that’s been completely transformed by the outbreak. Ordinarily the sidewalk on the northwest corner of that intersection is crowded with people. Even at two in the morning you’d find a collection of vendors, partiers, rappers, cops and costumed characters parading around. Here’s what it looked like yesterday in the middle of the day.

C19 Hlwd Hlwd Highland Deserted

The corner of Hollywood and Highland is nearly deserted.

When will we get back to normal? Impossible to say. And you have to ask what “normal” is going to look like. Even when the stay-at-home order is lifted, life is not going to snap back to the way it used to be. As I mentioned before, LA’s budget was a mess even before the pandemic. With the global economy tanking, you can bet that LA will get hit hard. I wish I could end on a positive note, but there’s not much reason for optimism in LA these days. The city was in bad straits before the virus hit. Our elected officials have shown a frightening inability to address LA’s problems even when the economy was supposedly going strong.

Right now this city’s future looks pretty bleak.

C19 Hlwd Homeless on Hlwd Blvd

Plagues

Dntn Skyline w Fwy 200314

The last couple of weeks have been pretty intense. The coronavirus is spreading in the US and a national emergency has now been declared. At the same time stock markets, in the US and around the world, have been plunging, with fears of another recession on the minds of many.

LA County declared a state of emergency earlier this month, and as concern has grown over the spread of the virus, local and State officials have been weighing their options, trying to figure out how to respond rationally without creating a panic. Last week the Los Angeles Unified School District decided to close all schools. LA City Hall and LA County Courts are either postponing hearings or trying to find alternatives that don’t involve bringing lots of people together in a single room.

And in addition to all that, on Monday it was announced that former LA City Councilmember Mitch Englander was being charged by the Justice Department with obstructing a corruption investigation. The Feds have accused Englander of witness tampering and making false statements. While Englander stepped down from the City Council a while ago, this case could well have implications for people currently serving at City Hall.

So it’s been a wild couple of weeks. I have to say I feel kind of overwhelmed and confused. Of course the immediate concern is the coronavirus. I’ve been checking the LA County Department of Health web site every day. On Sunday they had identified 53 cases within the County, and officials were telling us to avoid non-essential travel and to stay away from public gatherings. Today the number is 144, and theatres, bars and gyms have been ordered to close. Restaurants can stay open, but only for take-out orders. As the news gets worse, you can feel a general sense of anxiety in the air.

On Saturday I was out of the house for most of the afternoon, and I’m realizing now that’s the last time I’ll be roaming around the city for a while. At that point it sounded like going out was okay, as long as you didn’t hug anybody and kept washing your hands. And I have to say I was curious to see what was happening on the streets. Remembering the photos I’d seen in February of deserted boulevards and public squares in Wuhan and Beijing, I was wondering if we’d gotten to that point in LA.

Hlwd Blvd People

That wasn’t the case on Saturday. People were still out and about. I went to the market to pick up a couple of things. The place was packed, and a number of items seemed to be sold out, but most of the shelves still held plenty of goods.

Hlwd TJ Refrig

Next I went to a coffee house on Cahuenga. There were about half a dozen people inside, which seemed more or less normal, but when I asked the woman at the counter how business was, she said “Super dead.” Also, when I asked for a mug, she said they were only using disposable cups. I assume that was to avoid transmitting germs.

Hlwd Groundworks

Based on the latest updates, it does look like life in LA was be pretty different for at least the next couple of weeks, but I imagine we’ll pull through. Humanity has dealt with contagious diseases in the past, and I feel confident we’ll eventually put this one behind us. But there’s another kind of plague that’s been afflicting LA for a while, and unfortunately it looks like it will be with us for a long time to come.

I’m talking about corruption.

Corruption is a disease that’s been with us since the beginning of time. It’s always present in one form or another, but in some cases it turns both chronic and acute. For the last several years in LA we’ve been experiencing a major outbreak among our elected officials, and I doubt we’ll see a cure any time soon. Citizens have been saying for years that members of the City Council are infected, but for the most part the Council is in denial. Local media has published a number of stories that seem to confirm that the disease is running rampant at City Hall, but the few efforts that have been made to rein it in don’t appear to have taken hold.

The Englander story is just the latest episode in a long and tawdry saga. The former Councilmember is accused of having accepted tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from a businessperson in exchange for facilitating connections with a developer. You might think that since Englander no longer serves on the Council that the problem has already been taken care of. No such luck. Englander’s seat on the Council has been filled by a former aide, John Lee. Lee apparently accompanied Englander on the trip to Vegas where much of the money changed hands. He claims he wasn’t aware of anything illegal taking place, but the Feds’ indictment refers to a “City Staffer B” who sounds very much like Lee. Apparently both Englander and City Staffer B sent checks to the businessperson to reimburse them for part of the cost of the trip. Unfortunately, both checks were backdated to August 4 in an apparent attempt to make it look like they were sent before the FBI started asking questions. If this is true, then Lee is also guilty of falsifying documents.

Then there’s Arman Gabay, co-founder of the Charles Company, which filed an application years ago to build a large project in South LA. Initially the project received strong support from Councilmember Herb Wesson, who helped the developer win millions of dollars in federal loans. Coincidentally, Gabay, his family members and associates, had contributed thousands of dollars to campaign and officeholder accounts associated with Wesson. But last year the developer was charged by the Department of Justice with having bribed a County official. The trial is still pending, but the project is dead. At some point after Gabay was hit with the bribery charge, Wesson decided he could no longer lend his support. Interestingly, a recent filing by the US Attorney in the Gabay case says that wiretaps captured conversations between the developer and public officials about permitting problems and government financing for a proposed project. According to the filing, Gabay was told he could resolve the problems if he made a $10,000 campaign contribution. Sadly, the filing does not disclose the name of the official who received the contribution. We can only guess.

And let’s not forget Councilmember Jose Huizar. In 2018 the FBI raided Huizar’s home and office, and apparently among the things they were searching for were records related to the Councilmember’s fundraising efforts. Would Huizar take money from developers in exchange for project approvals? The FBI won’t discuss specifics, but the LA Times reported that a campaign committee with ties to the Councilmember received $50,000 from Onni Group just two months before a key vote on a property where the developer planned to build.  No charges have yet been filed against Huizar, but the Feds aren’t the only thing on his mind. He’s also being sued by two former staffers. Among other things, the suits allege that the Councilmember was guilty of sexual misconduct, that he retaliated against those who voiced criticisms, and that he required staff members to engage in fundraising efforts during office hours.

There’s plenty more dirt to dish on the City Council, but you get the point. And actually, I could forgive a lot of things if our elected officials were just doing a decent job of running the City. But LA is falling apart. We’re in serious trouble. It’s not just that the development process has been completely poisoned by a pay-to-play culture. The way City Hall does business is inherently opaque and dishonest. A classic example is last year’s budget process. When the budget was passed in mid-2019, elected officials were patting themselves on the back and claiming that the City would see a surplus of $30 million to $70 million annually over the next four years. What a shock when six months later we were told that the City was now facing annual deficits of $200 million to $400 million over the next four years. What happened? Apparently when the City Council passed the budget they neglected to mention that they were negotiating contracts with city employees that would blow a huge hole in the City’s finances. They decided not to inform citizens about the cost of the contracts until it was done deal. Everything was done behind closed doors. Once again the public was shut out.

Our elected officials talk about addressing homelessness, but the number of people on the streets continues to rise. Renters are getting thrown out of their apartments because they can’t pay high housing costs. Streets and sidewalks are crumbling, and even with record revenues City Hall can’t find the money to maintain them properly. The urban forest, crucial to replenishing groundwater and keeping the air clean, continues to decline due to years of neglect. The Mayor blathers on about getting people out of cars and onto transit, but DASH ridership has fallen from 25 million trips in 2014 to 19 million trips in 2019. (I won’t mention Metro’s depressing ridership stats. They’re a County operation.)

And with another recession just around the corner, it looks like things will only get worse. If the Mayor and the City Council couldn’t put this house in order when times were good, what’s going to happen when the bottom falls out of the economy? The culture of corruption that pervades City Hall has fostered a secretive and opaque decision-making process where deals are cut behind closed doors and the public is kept in the dark.

This is the real plague that’s taking LA down. We’ll survive the coronavirus. It’s City Hall that’s going to kill us.

Dntn Distant 2