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SoCal Storylines: Revitalizing our cities

Tuesday, September 20, 2016, 7:30pm - 9:00pm
Milken Institute 1250 Fourth Street Santa Monica, CA 90401 Map and directions

The Great Recession forced Southern California governments to cut budgets and make tough choices. Nearly a decade later, policy makers are able to focus on reviving core social services and revitalizing the region’s infrastructure, workforce, and quality of life. On Tuesday, September 20, KPCC senior reporter for the SoCal economy Ben Bergman moderated a discussion with Compton Mayor Aja Brown, Los Angeles City CAO Miguel Santana and Jobs to Move America executive director Madeline Janis at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica. The conversation, which represented the second installment of our series “SoCal Storylines: Conversations with movers and shakers,” focused on past challenges and current initiatives to improve the quality of life for Southern Californians in the 21st century.

 “What kind of Los Angeles do we want to be?” asked Los Angeles City Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, referencing the city’s changing population, economy and housing landscape. “I grew up watching the first skyscraper go up in downtown… Now it’s a very different downtown; now I live in downtown.” The Los Angeles of today is starkly different from that of the 1970s, when the dream was to have a suburban house with a pool and a garage, said Santana. The city’s continued affordability crisis and population density have changed that.

Much of the evening’s discussion revolved around this theme of redefining the idea of the good life in Southern California. Nine years after the national housing bubble burst, the region is at a turning point between the constraints and crises of the past and the changing demands of the future. At this second installment of our SoCal Storylines series in collaboration with the Milken Institute, the panel discussed the policy challenges of the recession years and the work that lies ahead: supporting and developing our workforce, increasing the availability of affordable housing and improving our aging infrastructure.

The years after the financial crisis of the late 2000s left little room for addressing these essential issues. In Compton and Los Angeles, the crisis left city governments with revenues no longer in line with budget needs. Having just adopted a $6–$7 billion budget, the Los Angeles was faced with a $250 million budget gap that grew to $500 million as the recession worsened. Santana stepped into office in the midst of this crisis. The deficit forced Santana to reevaluate the fundamental purpose of government in his city. “Ultimately, what is the job of the city?” he asked himself. Then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s administration answered: public safety. Los Angeles stopped trimming trees and hired 10,000 new officers.

In Compton, Mayor Aja Brown – facing a deficit of $43 million – continued what she called core services like tree trimming and street lighting but also reevaluated systematic structural issues in government spending. “They had parties and events and all these things that are just ridiculous,” Brown said of the administration that preceded hers. She reprioritized and cut spending, but the city still lost its credit ranking, reduced its workforce and was faced with dissolution of the redevelopment planned for the 127-year-old city’s aging infrastructure, Brown said.

With those huge deficits now behind them, Brown and Santana said they are focusing on rebuilding and revitalizing their cities. Compton has passed a sales-tax measure that, she said, will allow it to pave every street, add additional lighting and improve city parks. Moreover, the plan, which Brown described as Compton’s own economic stimulus package, uses infrastructure improvements as a means to creating better jobs for its residents. The measure includes a local hire policy, which requires vendors to hire a certain percentage of workers from the Compton community, and job training and apprenticeship programs to prepare the local workforce for this upcoming demand. The plan is in line with Brown’s strategy of leveraging public-private partnerships for economic growth, she said. Enticed by a ready and able workforce, surrounding light and heavy rail and 30 percent tax abatements designed to offset startup costs, UPS opened up a package delivery center in Compton where a third of all workers are local. “It’s very beneficial to lay out what you would like to do, because there are people that are likeminded and that have resources and that want to partner around those things,” Brown said. “Everything that we’ve done has been a result of partnership. Everything.”

Madeline Janis, executive director of Jobs to Move America and cofounder of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, also said that policies like local hire, which channel government money back into the community, are an important part of revitalizing infrastructure and building a strong local economy. “That is a recipe for real jobs and opportunity,” Janis said, adding that transparency is an important part of the equation.

Janis also said that a better living wage, like the $15 minimum passed by the L.A. City Council this past spring, is an important win for SoCal workers – one that represents decades of organizing and advocacy. “[The] $15 minimum wage…is still not really enough to live on,” Janis said, “but at least it gets people to a place where…they can live with some dignity.”

Janis said that better jobs and affordable housing are as important a part of the comprehensive plan to lift up a city’s workforce as is a higher minimum wage. Santana spoke at length about his efforts to increase the amount of affordable housing in Los Angeles, which Bergman called “the most unaffordable city in the nation.”

“I have four millennial daughters, and I worry about them,” Santana said, adding he is unsure about their ability to buy a home in Los Angeles one day. Santana has made fighting homelessness and unaffordability a priority. He said that the city is trying to fight these crises through initiatives that decrease an individual’s likelihood of becoming homeless – like better jobs and a higher minimum wage – and through streamlining the process for developing affordable and supportive housing. The city has offered 64 strategies to combat homelessness, Santana said. It has also identified 12 underutilized parcels of land that are city-owned and offered these parcels to the private sector for the development of permanent affordable housing, he said. So far, Santana said, they have received 50 responses.

Los Angeles has also placed on November’s ballot a measure that would allocate $1.2 billion toward the development of permanent supportive housing. This sum would be leveraged with other private investment and philanthropy to build 10,000 new supportive housing units, said Santana, who told Bergman that he thinks Los Angeles can ultimately build its way out of its affordability crisis.

The panel’s predictions for the biggest future challenges to Compton, Los Angeles and

Southern California as a whole were largely in line. Brown said she saw aging infrastructure as the greatest challenge, while Janis pointed to poverty and climate change. Santana said he thinks the challenge is creating an economy that helps everyone, noting Los Angeles’s juxtaposition of extreme wealth and poverty. “That really is the foundation of everything else,” he said.

Featured Guests

Aja Brown, Mayor of Compton

Madeline Janis, Executive Director of Jobs to Move America and co-founder of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE)

Miguel Santana, Chief Administrative Officer of the City of Los Angeles


This event is part of our series "SoCal Storylines: Conversations with movers and shakers." Through these forward-looking public forums, the Milken Institute’s California Center and KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, will dive deep into Southern California’s regional issues, including transportation, workforce, housing and innovation. We’ll talk to people on the front lines of those issues – and welcome you to join the conversation about how to solve some of our most vexing problems.