Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia looks onto his audience during his speech in the Terrace Theater on Jan. 9, 2018. Photos by Johnny Romero.
LONG BEACH, Calif. — Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia gave his fourth State of the City celebrating the progress in economic development, investment in infrastructure and public safety since becoming mayor Tuesday night at the local Terrace Theater.
About 2,000 attended the mayor’s speech, which covered housing, climate change, public safety and more. Below, residents and community leaders give their two cents on the mayor’s speech and key issues in the city.
The city’s proposal to increase units and apartment heights prompted major outbursts from elderly homeowners at public meetings last year. That plan, the Land Use Element (LUE), hardly garnered mention in the mayor’s speech, saying that “our population is expected to grow — so we must continue building quality housing, especially here in our Downtown, Central Long Beach, and along the Metro Blue Line.”
The city is currently preparing for a finalized plan, a state-required agenda, which so far has praise from some for including environmental protections near homes, while others contend increasing density could mean a loss in their property value and, therefore, a less secure retirement.
“Everything that the Land Use Element talks about is market rate housing,” said Robert Fox, leader of Council of Neighborhood Organizations (CONO), adding, “there is not one mention whatsoever about low-income housing in the Land Use Element.”
Fox, who posited CONO as the spearhead of the plan’s vocal opposition, argued that the city should instead fund housing projects by cutting their staff’s “high” salaries.
But 60 percent of the city are renters and do not own homes, a reality shaped by the city’s history of segregation and redlining, critics say. Organizers with the Environmental Health Workgroup argued that the LUE can help “reverse historic racial and economic inequities” if inclusive housing policies were enacted.
Community leaders like Housing Long Beach’s Maria Lopez, director of community organizing, said that many low-income residents and people of color don’t even have the privilege to own property due a high cost of living.
“We have multi-generational family houses now because our rent is too high,” she said. “No one can afford it.”
Her organization has set its eyes on having rent control on the November ballot to protect tenants from being pushed out with rising rents.
“I believe housing is a human right and is essential in everything we do in life, and should treat it that way, not as a commodity,” Lopez said.
Rent control would be a “sinking storm” for property owners, Fox argued, referencing Santa Monica’s 2 percent annual rent control increase allowance.
What perhaps went unnoticed was the mayor’s repledging of a year-round homeless shelter. The mayor first introduced the idea in his address last year, but the city has yet to execute that — on Tuesday saying that the city needs to find a “permanent location.”
“A winter shelter is not enough; we need to give people who are sleeping on our streets the opportunity of a roof over their heads,” he said.
Violence & Safety
Mayor Garcia credited the city’s accomplishment of driving down murders to its lowest in nearly 50 years, also giving thanks to youth programs like Centro C.H.A. in facilitating crime prevention and intervention.
As the final crime figures are yet to be released, the Long Beach Police Department reported a 20 percent violent crime increase over a five-year average, but a 3 percent decrease in both property and violent crime altogether.
James Suazo, with Building Healthy Communities-Long Beach, hoped the mayor would’ve placed the number of officer-involved killings of civilians just as important, citing an officer-involved altercation that led to the death of 23-year-old Cesar Rodriguez six months into a Metro Blue Line-LBPD contract initiated that year. The altercation sprung, reportedly, from Rodriguez’ fare evasion.
“To throw more resources that way without real accountability and oversight … is a misstep,” Suazo said. “Thinking just in general that more police will ultimately make us safer is also a misstep, as well.”
Under the 2017-2018 budget, the city gave more than 40 percent of its General Fund Expenditures, the city’s discretionary portion, toward public safety, totaling $222.2 million for the Long Beach Police Department, according to city figures.
Enhanced public safety must involve funding for homeless, mental health and affordable housing programs for communities to feel secure, Suazo added.
Earlier last year, Mayor Garcia rebuked President Donald Trump by signing on to the Paris Climate Agreement and, with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, signed a pact to have zero-emissions at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports by 2035 to address air pollution.
However, while planting trees, changing street lights to LED and creating electric transit busses are all great green moves by the mayor, Long Beach environmentalists frankly don’t think that’s enough.
Moreover, Jan Victor Andasan, a community organizer for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said that what the mayor said in his address “contrasts” with his actions for the environment.
“If he did care about the community, he would actually have more precedent on things like the 710 expansion or be more critical of the Port of L.A. in the Clean Air Action Plan,” Andasan said.
He also called out how the mayor continues to OK fracking, use of natural gas and how, he said, the mayor didn’t put enough pressure to prevent the expansion of a nearby oil refinery in Wilmington, likely to impact Long Beach’s westside which is already prone to higher airborne cancer-causing particles and asthma rates.
While the mayor mentioned immigrants once, he didn’t address the recent scares of mass deportations under the Trump Administration or the next step for the city’s technically overdue sanctuary policy.
Last year, Mayor Garcia said he would leave it up to the state’s immigrant-friendly California Values Act, Senate Bill 54. Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition community organizer Jonathan Solorzano said the biggest takeaway from the bill was that state resources won’t be used to facilitate collaborations with federal immigration agents.
Now that the bill is in effect, Solorzano said they expect the local policy to fill remaining holes by limiting the sharing of “sensitive information” between police, city government and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example (click here for details).
He said they want to ensure that communities feel safe and live fear-free of family separation. “It’s a very basic human right that everyone is entitled to,” Solorzano added.
The local sanctuary policy, dubbed the Long Beach Values Act, is being considered by the Human Relations Commission for a vote Thursday after deliberations with local immigrant groups. A vote on the final version is likely to occur sometime this spring.
During his address, Mayor Garcia highlighted gender equality in the workforce. But some community members thought he missed the mark on standing firm against sexual assault and harassment.
While there’s a booming social media trend illuminating sexual assault with the #MeToo movement, leading to firings of high-profile public figures, the Long Beach City Council failed to pass hotel worker protections against sexual incidents last year. If passed, the proposed law would have limited workloads, have hotels maintain a list of alleged harassers and equip female hotel workers with panic buttons as protection against sexual assault.
“Because MeToo has made such a profound impact on the amount of stories that it has brought out, I think that it is the time to start continuing and cultivating that culture to… break barriers,” Maria Lopez said, who has also been involved in the fight for women’s rights. “The mayor should respect those stories … female bodies are on the line.”