In the June 7 primary for Los Angeles City Council District 5, two unelected community leaders ascended as the “top two” vote getters qualifying for a November 8 runoff: Katy Young Yaroslavsky and Sam Yebri. The 5th includes parts of West L.A. that surround Beverly Hills to the west, east, and south. It includes Bel Air, the Fairfax District, and Westwood.
I spoke at length which each candidate to get a sense of their qualifications for city council and their views on the issues dominating our Westside discourse.
Katy Young Yaroslavsky was born in Council District 5 and raised in West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley. Per her campaign Website (Link at the bottom of the article), she fondly remembers hikes in the Santa Monica mountains with her family in those years and conversations with her mother about solving constituent problems when her mother served as District Office Director of then Assemblymember and State Senator Sheila Kuehl. Yaroslavsky then says, “After attending local public K-12 schools, UC Berkeley, and UCLA Law School, my first job out of law school involved working to make neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly, vibrant, and equitable — while preserving what made them special in the first place — through inclusive and thorough community engagement.”
After working at a law firm for several years, she, “Became the General Counsel and Director of Government Affairs at the Climate Action Reserve, an L.A.-based climate change nonprofit that works with the State of California’s Air Resources Board, environmental organizations, businesses, and governmental agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
But it was the period of 2015-2018, part of her more than six years working for Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, in which Yaroslavsky tackled the legacy accomplishment for which she may best be known. She developed, edited, and eventually won the Board of Supervisor’s approval to place on the county ballot Measure W, “which provides a yearly $300 million ongoing revenue stream for clean, local water supplies, more parks, thousands of good-paying local jobs, and healthier communities for generations to come.” The measure passed with almost 70 percent of the vote, and according to Yaroslavsky’s team, now serves as a national model for building equitable green infrastructure.
She adds that her county service is an advantage, in part, because, “So many challenges that we’re facing as a City of Los Angeles are actually regional problems that are going to require regional solutions.” She says she’s running to take on the crisis we face with housing and homelessness, confront the climate crisis, battle systemic racism, and get the city’s budget back in balance. She also wants to contribute to a city government that is equitable, transparent, and responsive to residents.
“I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to improve Los Angeles for everyone,” says her runoff opponent, Sam Yebri. A Persian immigrant, Yebri has lived in Council District 5 his entire life. He has built a successful law practice where he says, via his campaign website (Link at the bottom of the article), “I fight daily for exploited workers as a workers’ rights attorney. I have taken on major corporations, advocated for the rights of workers, tenants, and refugees, and advised startups and small businesses.”
Yebri also co-founded a local nonprofit organization called 30 Years After, which works to engage immigrants and first-generation Americans on ways to participate in civic life. In addition, Yebri has served on the board of directors of an amazing 10 different nonprofit organizations including the prestigious Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Anti-Defamation League, and Jewish Community Foundation, where he chaired its COVID relief grants committee in distributing more than $8 Million to 54 L.A. area nonprofits.
He adds, “And I have led civically, serving our City as a Commissioner on the Los Angeles Civil Service Commission, on our City Attorney’s Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, and on Los Angeles County Assessor Jeff Prang’s Transition Team.”
Yebri says he’s running because he sees the opportunities and dreams L.A. once offered to families like his fading away, and a Council District 5 lacking in leadership. He cites several of the same issues Yaroslavsky did above as motivation. More so than she, however, he cites concern with “our unsafe streets.” He says he’ll be different from the last several council members representing the district because unlike many of them, he doesn’t come from what he deems as the establishment.
HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS
Yebri agrees when I ask him if the State should front more of the cost of making local jurisdictions meet its dramatically increased requirements to develop housing units over the next eight years, saying, “I think with a $90 Billion budget surplus, and with our housing crisis being one of our state’s biggest crisis, I absolutely do think the state can and must be an important partner in solving our homelessness and housing crisis.”
But Yebri adds, “First, the state must do more to help tenants stay in their homes; provide more money for vouchers; for more rent subsidies. And also I think we need to create, if not a city our county-wide [program], a statewide right to counsel program.” He explains, “Because if you’re a low-income tenant, that small piece of paper that’s an unlawful detainer or a summons on your door – a 3-day notice – can mean the difference between having an apartment or being homeless.” A right to counsel program would mean every tenant – many of whom go to court alone – would be provided legal counsel.
With regard to affordable housing projects, Yebri is adamant that the state must do more to consolidate funding to ensure they get off the ground. Currently, as he points out, affordable housing developers have to work through a morass of multiple layers of funding. “It makes the process so costly, cumbersome, and difficult to build,” he argues. One of the additional reasons Yebri feels it is so important to advance the construction timeline is the arrival of the Metro Purple line underneath the 5th Council District, whose transit corridor he hopes will be filled with adjacent housing units.
Yebri favors L.A. Ordinance 41.18, the controversial anti-camping measure that prevents unhoused Angelenos from setting up tent communities in public thoroughfares or within 500 feet of a school or childcare center. His support, he says, is born of, “Conversations with leaders who run shelters in the 5th District like the Westwood Transitional Village, who say that tools like 41.18 and anti-camping ordinances will save lives.” He adds, “I don’t believe 41.18 criminalizes homelessness. Its goal is not to arrest people that are homeless. That is not productive.” He says there is a two-fold goal of first, making sensitive areas like daycare centers, schools, parks, and libraries clean, safe, and accessible to all. And second, that it creates a sense of urgency for these unhoused folks to get the help they need. Yebri does acknowledge that safe camping zones where the unhoused can go in the interim should be part of the solution.
Yaroslavsky speaks of 41.18 only slightly differently. She agrees it “Can be a tool in the toolkit.” She doesn’t agree with just, “Moving [the unhoused] 500 feet away, where they become a different neighborhoods problem, or a different councilmembers problem.” She says if it can be used to move people into housing, even interim housing, “It gives us a little time to get them into something more permanent,” but acknowledges, “It’s not the big solution that my opponent thinks it is.”
With regard to housing construction, she says, “There’s no question that we need more housing at all levels of affordability, but particularly on the Westside in Council District 5, where we have so many of the job centers – we have Century City, Cedars, UCLA, and most of the people who work there can’t afford to live there. And so I think we have a real opportunity and obligation to focus. As a councilmember, my time is going to be focused on how we build out more affordable workforce housing near those job centers.” She says her experience as a land use attorney will give her an advantage in being able to secure resources from the county, state, and Federal Governments by bringing them all to the table to prioritize that kind of housing. She claims the market will be able to take care of more expensive, market-rate offerings being made available on its own.
When I ask her about the state’s responsibility in providing more funding to ensure municipalities can meet the new, stringent requirements that significant numbers of affordable housing be built, she agrees but adds the feds. “I think our housing crisis is not only something that the state should be focused on and more committed to helping us solve, but the Federal Government as well. [We’re] the second largest city in the United States, affordability is at crisis levels, and it’s really incumbent upon local leadership to be focused ‘up’ [to those other levels of government].”
She also sees the priority in making sure more mental health beds and addiction beds, with wrap-around services, need to be constructed and staffed. She says we need to be thinking strategically about how we “bang on the doors” with the state and Federal Government to bring all of these resources to fruition.
Says Yaroslavsky, “LAPD needs to be focused on crime prevention, solving crimes, doing community policing, building relationships in neighborhoods. Right now, a lot of their time and energy is focused on homelessness response, nonemergency mental health calls, and they’re not the right people to be doing that work. And I think there’s a general recognition – not just among advocates, but I think LAPD – that they’re not the right people to do that work.” She thinks we need to begin to shift that work over to social service professionals.
When responding to my question about how big the LAPD should be, Yaroslavsky says there’s a time to answer that question. She says, “After we have the right people responding to the right calls, then we can see what that budget should look like. I think that’s a great time to do an audit and get a better sense of the right number of police officers given we’ve shifted that work away from them.”
Sam Yebri’s philosophy around public safety is, “How do we get to a better police force? How do we get to a place where communities all throughout the 5th District feel safe? These are not mutually exclusive goals.” He further explains, “We can have a well-trained, fully funded police force that’s larger, that’s out patrolling, and we can make sure that they do their jobs in a responsible way, and we narrow their responsibilities. Police officers are not mental health professionals. They should not be dealing with people that have addiction issues.”
“Gun violence prevention is important to me, and something that is rearing its head again all throughout the 5th District.” Yebri tells me there have been 28 homicides in Council District 5 since he announced his candidacy two years ago.
Yebri also feels cleanliness and safety will be key to business districts like Westwood Village recovering from the COVID economy. It’s a neighborhood close to his heart and he’s lived much of his life in Westwood and still takes his kids there for ice cream. One of his other keys is transit. As well as the Purple Line he spoke of earlier bringing people to Westwood, so too does he think bike infrastructure will also ease traffic congestion in and out of Westwood Village and bring new life and consumers back into the fold.
Ms. Yaroslavsky thinks with Westwood and other business districts, it’s about leadership, stating all interested parties need to convene. “Bringing property owners together, bringing together UCLA, the neighborhoods that surround UCLA, and doing the visioning work – an update to the community plan it warrants.” She added, “We need to think about what uses are needed there. We need more housing in Westwood.” She is quick to point out that the student loans she still owes for law school at UCLA are on the housing side of the equation, not the tuition side. She, like Yebri, thinks the Metro Purple line will also be key to revitalization.
Yebri calls the climate crisis an existential threat and invites readers to review his very detailed plan on his campaign Website. He thinks a councilmember can be “Immensely impactful.” He says we need to reduce vehicular traffic, fossil fuel dependence, and carbon emissions, which he says we do by incentivizing people to use public transportation. But for folks to utilize public transit, he says, “We have to make sure transportation is safe and reliable, and widely accessible. And that’s coming with the Purple Line, the Crenshaw Extension, the Sepulveda Transit Corridor, all of which I think will be game changers for the better.”
Yebri also says we need to incentivize folks to bike to work and embrace telecommuting, saying things have changed post-pandemic. He also wants to support a permanent transition to electrification. “We need a lot of charging stations; we need to also make it easier for businesses and homes to go solar all throughout the 5th District.”
He points to other, big issues like water conservation and availability, addressing extreme heat, and a need to increase the number of parks and green spaces as being vital to making our climate more livable. “L.A.’s tree canopy is in massive disrepair,” he adds, “We need more trees. That’s a great use of our tax dollars.”
Finally, Yebri wants to end urban oil drilling and thinks the current plan to do so over 20 years without any inspection and monitoring of the wells is woefully insufficient. He points out a large number of uncapped wells is a “massive liability for the city if something goes wrong. It’s a matter of when, not if.”
Yaroslavsky prides herself on her climate expertise as a former land use attorney and through her work on water and green economy issues. She tells me one of the most pressing needs for us “As a city, as a planet, is to make meaningful progress on climate action.” She specifies by saying, “Making L.A. more climate resilient, so as it gets warmer we’re prepared for it.” She listed a litany of things the city should do, such as incorporate smarter land use planning, putting housing near job centers and transportation. “We have the Metro coming through the 5th District for the first time. We can make huge strides on reducing our greenhouse gas impacts through getting people out of their cars. So building out that bike infrastructure; a connected, protected network of bike lanes that get people where they need to go safely.” Much like Yebri, she also wants to build out an urban forest and tree canopy.
But Yaroslavsky makes the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP) part of her conversation. “We oversee LADWP, the largest municipal utility in the United States. And as it gets hotter, we need to make sure with climate change that we have enough water. That’s going to require us to build out our local water supplies; transition to 100 percent renewable power.” She points to her particular expertise with this, saying, “I helped create the Clean Power Alliance at the county; it’s the largest community choice energy program in the country with more renewable power customers than any other utility in the United States.”
THE CAMPAIGN MATCH UP
Yaroslavsky is adept at pointing out that she brings an immediate difference to this council seat. “The last time a woman held this council seat was 1965,” she says. “Women bring different perspectives to the table, different priorities. We govern differently. I’m a very collaborative person – I don’t care who gets the credit. I’m going to be focused on things like universal preschool, making sure we’re creating pipelines into good-paying careers for women. Because so many of our poorest households are headed by women.”
Given she came so close to 50 percent plus 1 voter to win the primary outright, I asked her how she’ll avoid complacency and take the general election over the finish line. She points first to the fact that the third and fourth place finishers, Jimmy Biblarz and Scott Epstein, who garnered 11 percent and 10.4 percent, respectively, have both endorsed her for the general election. She says they have committed to connecting their voters to her.
She thinks the higher turnout in November will therefore also favor her. She posits the reason she did so well in the primary is, “My priorities and message, experience, and temperament resonated with voters. Voters are looking for people of substance who have track records of problem solving.” She says her experience with the county and in the private sector aligns with the direct experience required of a council member. But she also comments, “I can’t take anything for granted.”
Her endorsements include the L.A. County Democratic Party, the L.A. County Labor Federation, Los Angeles Times, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, and State Senator Sydney Kamlager among many others. “These are trusted people and organizations” that she says voters of all attention levels can look to and feel good about their vote for her. I noted in my conversation with her what a statement it was the Congressmember Karen Bass – a current frontrunner for Mayor of Los Angeles – came out to also endorse her given the runoff is between two Democrats. Yaroslavsky pointed out Bass was in fact one of her earliest supporters.
She points out that she and Sam Yebri have been a part of more than 30 candidate forums over the last year and a half. She is complimentary of him, saying, “Sam is smart, and he’s got a lot of energy,” but leaves it at that.
For Yebri’s part, he’s proud of the support he’s received from “progressive champions” like former Congressmember Henry Waxman, Congressmember Nanette Barragan, and Supervisor Holly Mitchell. In addition, city leaders including former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Controller Ron Galperin back him. He also says he’s secured the endorsement of a broad and diverse set of unions as well as business groups representing realtors, the restaurant association, and the West L.A. Chamber of Commerce. But Yebri is particularly proud of his support from our first responders in the police and fire department unions who have endorsed him.
When pressed on how he can overcome Yaroslavsky – who came within inches of winning during the June Primary when she received 49 percent of the vote – Yebri is undaunted (he received 29.7 percent). “We’re going to win by increasing the turnout,” he says with confidence. He adds, “Low voter turnout means establishment candidates win… but when we’re speaking to voters – we’re knocking on doors, I’ve been doing it since the primary almost every day – when people hear my message, my background, my ideas, and really my urgency to bring change? We win their support.”
When I asked him how he characterizes Yaroslavsky, he is complimentary in saying, “I respect her knowledge about water issues. She has distinguished herself on that issue.” However, he feels she’s the “establishment candidate” despite his extensive nonprofit experience and public appointments seemingly meeting her own. He knocks the fact that she’s been based with the county for years, that the county has been failing to work with the city, and isn’t meeting the moment on issues like mental health.
Both candidates think a larger turnout favors them. We’ll certainly find out starting on November 8. Be sure to vote. Absentee ballots will be arriving soon.
Campaign Website for Katy Young Yaroslavsky: https://katyforla.com/
Campaign Website for Sam Yebri: https://samforla.com/
Council District 5 Map Image — Credit to the samforla.com campaign site.