By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
Kevin de León was sworn in on Thursday as councilmember for the 14th Council District, which includes Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights.
Mariachi serenaded the newest addition to the L.A. City Council at Mariachi Plaza, but de León and Superior Court Judge Lucy Armendariz wore masks and were inside the Council Chambers for the oath, which was broadcast online.
De León secured enough votes in the March special election to avoid a runoff. He fills the vacancy left since Jose Huizar was suspended from the council in June. Huizar, 51, is accused of accepting $1.5 million in bribes from developers in exchange for his support of downtown building projects. He has pleaded not guilty to charges in a 34-count racketeering indictment and faces trial next June.
During his remarks, de León said his first motion would be to kick-start the construction of roughly 200 beds for unhoused Angelenos, and another motion will direct city departments to begin work on hundreds of transitional housing units across CD 14.
“We know the homelessness crisis is fueled by the lack of affordable housing in our communities,” de León said. “The reason we’re struggling to build enough of it is because we’re stuck using mid-century rules to build 21st-century affordable housing. It’s time to revamp our entire planning process to prioritize, accelerate and expand affordable housing throughout Los Angeles.”
De León previously served in the State Senate, rising to senate president pro tempore in 2014, the first Latino elected to that position in more than 130 years. In 2018, he ran an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Speaking to The Rafu Shimpo, de Leon assessed the impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities and said it was time for bold thinking and action.
“These are extraordinary times,” he said. “This is an inflection point in our history where we all need to collectively step up. This isn’t business as usual. [There’s] economic anxiety, there’s panic among the city’s residents because they don’t know whether they’ll be able to make the rent, whether they’ll be living on the streets sometime soon because of their inability to work.”
Recently, the sidewalks of Little Tokyo have opened up for outdoor eating. De Leon said that more needs to be done to help mom-and-pop businesses survive the pandemic, including infusion of more capital to help businesses pay their bills and keep workers employed.
“How do we maybe perhaps shut down First Street altogether?” he said. “Part of it is shut down already because of Metro work across the street from the [Japanese American National] Museum. How do we shut down First Street and bring in the outdoor dining in a much more robust manner, not just on the sidewalks, but on the streets? I’ve been to downtown San Diego and seen how they’ve done it… Why can’t we do the same thing?”
De León said he was looking forward to the eventual grand opening of the Terasaki Budokan.
“I’m looking forward to the day we have a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the day we can control this virus, the day we can have state and international tournaments and make it a centerpiece in Little Tokyo,” he said.
Erich Nakano, executive director of Little Tokyo Service Center, was among those who offered congratulatory messages during the virtual swearing-in ceremony. Others included Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council President Nury Martinez, Rep. Jimmy Gomez, and Assemblymembers Wendy Carrillo and Miguel Santiago.
The councilmember also announced that former Assemblymember Warren Furutani has joined his staff as a senior advisor.
De León expressed appreciation for the Japanese American National Museum, noting that it is located not in Washington, D.C., but where the majority of Japanese Americans reside. With the Metro Regional Connector scheduled to open in 2022, he said that people are attracted to Little Tokyo as a destination and place to live.
“For those who admire, love and work in Little Tokyo, it is unique because of those reasons. The last thing I want to see is whitewashing, gentrification and displacement of businesses as well as residents,” de Leon said.
“Folks who want to come to Little Tokyo are more than welcome but let’s preserve the uniqueness of Little Tokyo. That’s what makes it great.”
The councilmember said Council District 14 is a microcosm of the city of Los Angeles and “ground zero” of the homelessness crisis. He said the problem will only be exacerbated after Jan. 31 when the state moratorium on evictions expires.
“We can’t handle 60,000 unhoused individuals in L.A. County alone. How are we going to help hundreds of thousands of working families who currently have a roof over their head and can’t afford to pay all of that back rent and now are living on the streets?
“That’s why we need some bold, strong decision-making to provide transformative change to reimagine the city that we all love and live in. We can be bigger and better than we are today.”