On Wednesday night, LA mayoral candidates Rick Caruso and Karen Bass stood behind podiums on the stage at the Skirball Cultural Center for 55 minutes, exchanging mostly civilized talking points in the first debate of the general election.
Much of the lesson revolved around real estate.
With Caruso, the developer in a blue blazer, and Bass, the congressman in a white blazer, both candidates identified the city’s slow and expensive permitting process as a key culprit in the city’s housing crisis.
“I’m a builder. I know how to build,” Caruso once responded to a question about how to keep young people from leaving LA. “We’ve over-regulated city building to the point that it’s so expensive to build in the city, t buildings. That’s why affordability is so upside down.”
A few minutes later, Bass struck a similar tone, arguing that “the way we deal with affordability is to increase supply” — while also making the conversation more specific 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 I would do right away for anyone who wants to come and build housing – specifically for the homeless population or affordable housing – I would say is: First, you don’t have to go to the front of the line. We need a completely separate line for you. We need to centralize the process with all the different departments so you don’t have to walk around 10 and 15 places.”
The construction discussion then deepened even further when the presenter touched on possible environmental regulations, a question Caruso seemed to play straight into the wheelhouse.
“You can have laws,” he replied, before citing existing CEQA exemptions and urging an expanded fast lane for low-income and homeless shelter projects.
“When I first started building in this city years ago, there was a quick way 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 will cut all the red tape. We need to start housing people.”
Later, after an awkward exchange in which Bass attempted to quote her Republican supporters, another moderator brought up building codes again, effectively spreading what seemed to be an industry-specific debate more widely.
“The city of LA, as you know, has the most stringent environmental building regulations in the country,” she said. “Builders are said to say that they are driving up costs and prolonging construction, making it impossible to complete.”
So would the candidates prioritize these environmental regulations or prioritize construction?
In response to a seemingly unfair question, Bass cited her support from the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters before rambling and bringing up climate change. Some environmental rules are 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 say that openly. I think the rules need to be relaxed in many different areas because we are in crisis. The city will only be affordable if more housing is built.”
“I talk to developers who tell me they can go to Downey and build something in no time,” she added a minute later when the topic came up again. “But when it comes to building in Los Angeles, it’s extremely difficult.”
Caruso took a different, surprising path. The environmental regulations are actually not the problem, answered the mall king and boasted the golden LEED certification of his buildings.
“The cost drivers are overregulation. What drives the cost is that you can have 10 different committees [that] need to approve a project in the city of Los Angeles.”
Extension of the moratorium
The two candidates found themselves at odds more violently over an even more contentious industry issue — moratoriums on evictions.
When asked about other possible extensions, Bass stressed that the moratorium must remain in place to prevent more people from becoming homeless. “But at the same time, we also need to help the landlords, especially the Mama and Pop landlords,” she added.
However, it was Caruso who told the landlords more of what they wanted to hear.
“Well, to be perfectly honest, I don’t understand what that plan was,” he said, referring to the moratorium. “Someone can stay in an apartment and not pay rent without showing they have to stay there – we need to change the process. … So I would change the law on how to deal with the problem.”
The candidates also traded barbs for crime, including Bass’ recent home burglary, and alleged corruption, mostly related to USC, although Bass did at one point imply that Caruso’s development background was a liability because previous City Hall scandals had involved developers.
“For once in my life, I’ve been involved in any scandal in my career,” Caruso shot back.