Real estate takes center stage at LA mayoral debate

Candidates Rick Caruso and Karen Bass spar over development permits, affordable housing and eviction rules

Candidates Rick Caruso and Karen Bass (Getty)
Candidates Rick Caruso and Karen Bass (Getty)

For 55 minutes on Wednesday evening, L.A. mayoral candidates Rick Caruso and Karen Bass stood behind podiums on stage at the Skirball Cultural Center, trading mostly civil talking points in the general election’s first debate.

Much of the hour revolved around real estate.

With Caruso the developer in a blue blazer and Bass the congresswoman in a white blazer, the candidates both identified the city’s slow and expensive permitting process as a major culprit in the city’s housing affordability crisis.

“I’m a builder. I know how to build,” Caruso said at one point, responding to a question about how to keep young people from leaving L.A. “We have overregulated building in the city to the point that it’s so expensive to build in the city, people aren’t building. That’s why affordability is so upside down.”

A couple minutes later Bass struck a similar tone, arguing that “the way we deal with affordability is to increase the supply” — while also pivoting the conversation more specifically to affordable housing.

“Yes, I think there are regulations that need to change, but I also think the process needs to change,” she said. “So one of the things that I would do immediately for anybody that wants to come build housing — specifically for the homeless population or affordable housing — I would say, One, you don’t need to go to the front of the line. We need to have a completely separate line for you. We need to centralize the process with all the various departments so that you don’t have to run around to 10 and 15 places.”

Environmental red tape

The construction discussion then went even deeper when the moderator brought up potential environmental regulations, a question that seemed to play right into Caruso’s wheelhouse.

“You can have laws,” he responded, before going on to cite existing CEQA exemptions and pushing for an expanded fast-track for low income and homeless housing projects.

“Years ago, when I started building in this city, there was a fast-track method to get permits,” he continued. “We don’t have that anymore. … But listen, I want a separate team of people in my office who understand how to build, that’s going to cut through all the red tape. We’ve got to start housing people.”

Later, after an awkward exchange where Bass attempted to cite her Republican supporters, a different moderator brought up building regulations yet again, effectively ensuring that a seemingly industry-specific debate was thrust more widely into the public square.

“The City of L.A., as you know, has the most stringent environmental rules for building in the country,” she said. “Allegedly, builders say that they drive up the cost and drag down construction, making it impossible to deal with.”

So would the candidates prioritize those environmental rules or prioritize construction?

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In response to what seemed to be an unfair question, Bass cited her endorsements from the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters before waffling and bringing up climate change. Some environmental rules were so complicated that they don’t protect the environment anyway, she argued.

“It just depends,” she said after the moderator pressed her again. “I don’t think I can blatantly say. I do think that rules need to be relaxed in a lot of different areas, because we have a crisis. The only way the city is going to be affordable is if more housing is built.”

“I talk to developers who tell me that they can go to Downey and get something built in no time,” she added a minute later, when the topic swung back around. “But when it comes to building in Los Angeles, it’s extremely onerous.”

Caruso took a different, surprising, tack. The environmental regulations were not actually the problem, the mall king answered, while boasting about his buildings’ gold LEED certifications.

“What’s driving the cost is overregulation. What’s driving the cost is you can have 10 different committees [that] have to approve a project in the City of Los Angeles.”

Moratorium extension

The two candidates sparred more fiercely over an even more controversial industry issue — eviction moratoria.

In response to a question about further possible extensions, Bass emphasized that the moratorium needed to stay in place to prevent more people becoming homeless. “But at the same time, we also need to help the landlords, especially the mom and pop landlords,” she added.

It was Caruso, though, who told landlords more of what they wanted to hear.

“Well to be very honest, I don’t understand what that plan was,” he said, referring to the moratorium. “Somebody can stay in an apartment and not pay rent without showing proof that they need to stay there — we need to change the process. … So I would change the law in dealing with the problem.”

The candidates also traded barbs over crime, including Bass’s recent home burglary, and alleged corruption, mostly related to USC, although at one point Bass insinuated that Caruso’s development background was a liability because previous City Hall scandals had involved developers.

“Name one time that I have been named in any scandal at all in my career in my life,” Caruso shot back.

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