LONG BEACH, Calif. — While President Barack Obama said his goodbyes as president in Chicago, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia delivered his third State of the City reporting on progress made and the challenges ahead last night at the local Terrace Theater.
More than 2,000 attended the mayor’s speech which covered jobs, housing, climate change, public safety and more.
Many of the accomplishments Garcia highlighted brought attendees to their feet in applause, though others said they left the event with mixed feelings and skeptical of the claimed progress. Below, residents and community leaders chime in on the mayor’s speech and key issues.
The Housing Crisis
During his speech, Garcia addressed the challenges of housing affordability. As he welcomed new entrepreneurs and high-income residents to the city, he added, “We need to ensure the cooks who are making our meals at our favorite Long Beach restaurants and the workers who are caring for our seniors and cleaning our hotel rooms continue to have the opportunity to live in the city.”
But the latter group of vulnerable residents is exactly the one Darren Taylor, member of Long Beach Residents Empowered (LiBRE), worries about.
While investors pour in money for new housing projects driving up rent prices, financially vulnerable residents are being forced to relocate, Taylor said.
“These gains are being made at the cost of the working class laborers,” who are mostly people of color, Taylor said. “[The mayor] needs to stop giving the privilege and priority to high-end development.”
“We want to make sure the city’s community remains diverse,” said Mayor Garcia, adding that building more market rate housing and more affordable housing will keep it that way.
Having a number of affordable housing units developed is mandated by the state, he mentioned.
Long Beach’s rent prices increased by over 14 percent within the past year, having been ranked the 17th most expensive rental market in the nation in December, according to a recent report by Zumper, a startup that compiles housing data.
Property owners like Joani Weir, who serves as president of Better Housing Long Beach, said that she is wary of those leading affordable housing plans who may not have property-owning experience.
“I think housing providers were left out of the conversation,” Weir said. She worries owners will lose profits should rent control ever come to Long Beach.
In February, city leaders will hear proposals on how to develop more housing units to meet the city’s needs, the mayor stated, in light of community meetings held last year.
A major announcement last night was Mayor Garcia’s proposal to provide a year-round shelter for homeless persons, to be located likely in West Long Beach near the Multi-Service Center.
For Steve Be Cotte, President of the Long Beach Area Coalition for the Homeless, the only way to end homelessness is to “make them your neighbor.”
Be Cotte applauds Garcia’s leadership on the homelessness issue. “It’s on everybody’s radar right now,” he said.
“I think that for [Mayor Garcia] to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do something to put a full-time shelter,’ I think is great,” he said. “What’s really needed, and he really has taken steps [toward it], is to look at long term [solutions].”
Be Cotte said that seeking affordable housing solutions for homeless people can be used as a “triage” to permanent housing.
“Once people are off the streets, they’re no longer homeless,” he said. “They’re your neighbor.”
Jobs and Wages
Garcia reported that the city’s unemployment rate decreased by nearly 9 percent since 2009, ending 2016 with an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent.
He also reported that the city added 9,000 jobs to its economy last year and issued 900 new business permits.
But some say the economic recovery is not coming quick enough.
James Suazo, Communications Manager at Building Healthy Communities – Long Beach, said he was disappointed when Long Beach held back its proposed minimum wage increase by one year, following the state minimum wage plan instead that would increase it to $15 per hour by 2022.
Fighting Climate Change
Hoping to become a “zero waste” city, the mayor also laid out specific plans to address climate change in Long Beach including planting 6,000 trees, converting streetlights to LED, and increasing solar power infrastructure. Long Beach Transit will be among the first urban agencies using battery-electric buses to ultimately have an entirely clean fleet by 2020, he said.
Suazo said he left the event impressed by the mayor’s stance to make the city less dependent on oil.
“You have to recognize that Long Beach, historically, is an oil town,” he said.
The city was founded and shaped by the oil booms throughout the 1900’s. As the population grew, revenue, funding city services and other projects became tied to oil production.
“I’m excited to see what actions get tied to that in the upcoming year and beyond,” Suazo said about the mayor’s plans to have a more sustainable economy. “Actions speak louder than words.”
While praising the city’s immigrant background and recounting his own, Mayor Garcia forwent addressing any specifics in immigration policy.
Community leaders like Andrea Donado, an immigration rights activist with Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization, thought that it was odd for the mayor to not explicitly address immigration policy given last year’s high-profile deportation of Long Beach resident Jose Alvarez and President-elect Donald Trump’s hardline immigration stance.
Donado believes that given the President-elect’s rhetoric against immigrant-friendly cities, the mayor may be afraid to lose federal funding if the city formally declares itself a sanctuary city.
“We are not a sanctuary city… there are still immigrants that are deported from our city,” Donado said.
However, Mayor Garcia told VoiceWaves that while Long Beach is not formally a sanctuary city, it operates like ones such as Los Angeles and San Francisco through the California Trust Act, a state law that doesn’t require police to hand immigrants off to federal authorities for deportation.
“Our officers focus on crime,” Garcia said. “They’re not looking at immigration issues.”
Instead of declaring Long Beach a sanctuary city on its own, Garcia said that the city is looking to see state legislators possibly declaring California as a sanctuary state.