[CD13 ELECTION] Candidates Weigh In On Ways to Help Small Businesses
Five candidates qualified in December for the upcoming March election, running against incumbent Mitch O’Farrell for the Los Angeles City Council District 13 seat.
Doug Haines, Jessica Salans, David De la Torre, Bill Zide and Sylvie Shain each met the city’s threshold for verified signatures by December 7th and will now be on the March 7th ballot, according to the Los Angeles City Clerk.
Each month between now and an expected May 2017 run-off, we will talk with the candidates about different issues of the district. This month: small businesses.
O’Farrell has recently authored a series of motions, which he calls his “Open for Business Initiative,” to help small businesses in a variety of ways, including an online application for small business loans and creating a “Planning Case Manager”—a sort of concierge to help small business owners navigate what O’ Farrell calls the city’s “byzantine” zoning code and the often contradictory city, county and state hoops they must jump through in order to open.
“What I want to do,” O’Farrell said in an interview, “is reduce the amount of red tape to help small businesses just to get open.”
O’Farrell previously served as a deputy to Eric Garcetti, who represented the district before becoming mayor, and was elected as CD13 representative in 2013. During his time serving the district, he said, the bureaucracy for small business owners has just gotten worse.
“Year after year, there are more and more requirements that have been put on the books and taking them in total, it just adds up to a lot of frustrations and challenges,” he said.
O’Farrell said the process just needs some attunement.
“Right now,” O’Farrell said, “there is no coordination,” among agencies. “It can take over a year for a small business to just get open. Who is to say we can’t reduce that? Time is money.”
Another of O’Farrell’s proposals is to standardize the process for renewing conditional use permits, such as those for serving alcohol.
Currently, such renewals can occur in 1, 5, 7 or even 15-year intervals, according to O’Farrell’s June 2016 council motion.
Such erraticism does not lend itself, O’Farrell said, to easy planning for an owner. He instead wants businesses in good standing to have a fixed timeline for their permit renewals of every 5 or 10 years. That way, he said, they can plan for it.
According to O’Farrell the cost for some restaurant owners can run between $15,000 and $30,000, just to go through the alcohol permit renewal process.
“We can reduce that greatly for good operators,” O’ Farrell said.
But candidate Doug Haines said permits should be harder, not easier to renew as the area becomes more and more saturated with liquor markets and restaurants that serve alcohol.
Haines said he also worries that the fewer times the city has to evaluate if permits should be renewed, the worse for the public.
“He may be promoting it as a way to help business,” Haines said, “but what it is, is a way to reduce public input. It stiff-arms the community…. Neighborhoods won’t really have the opportunity to have input [on whether an alcohol permit should be renewed] if there are problems.”
The key plank in Haines’ platform is that O’Farrell is overdeveloping the district, especially with luxury condos.
Even when it comes to the question of small business, Haines once again points to the overdevelopment, which has risen rents across the board.
“It’s the small businesses in the area suffer,” Haines said. “Like the small vacuum shop down the road.”
He calls it the “Wal-Mart effect.”
“They suck the air right out of the room,” he said.
Candidate Bill Zide said the streamlining of bureaucracy that O’Farrell has proposed is a good start, but he said he sees the “interconnectedness” of a number of problems in the district—new luxury development, rising rental and retail rents and homelessness, for example—that are hurting the area’s mom and pops.
“What we like about our area,” Zide said, “are the cafés, the small restaurants. They are what make the neighborhood unique. Mitch O’Farrell is far more interested in bringing in development and bringing in the chain stores.”
Zide also pointed to the recent rise in commercial rents in the district, which has occurred with gentrification.
“Casbah Café went out of business in Silver Lake,” he said. “If you don’t own your building and your landlord triples your rent, then what do you do?”
The popular eatery closed in December 2015 and left a note taped to its door. The first sentence read: “Casbah is a good example of a turning point in a neighborhood where reality switches from everyday common sense to the corporate world reason.”
Zide also pointed to the rise in homelessness in Council District 13, which according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, saw a 34% increase in 2016 from the year prior. The area’s homeless population ranked 3rd overall citywide in 2016.
According to Zide, small business owners have told him the issue drives their customers away and they get no help from the city.
“When they bring the issue up or call the [Los Angeles Police Dept. (LAPD)], the LAPD tells them we can’t do anything. The councilmember has told us not to enforce” existing ordinances that allow the city to remove a homeless person’s possessions from public areas, Zide said. “It’s become very political. It’s very visible. People are angry. The businesses are livid.”
But, Zide said, nearly all the district’s problems stem from overdevelopment.
“It bleeds over to everything. [O’Farrell] wants to make Hollywood great again,” Zide said, borrowing President-Elect Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. “He generally feels that way. What’s happened to Manhattan and San Francisco. That could be our future.”
Candidate Jessica Salans, 27, said she decided to get into the race after working on the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
“The election shook me up,” she said. “Bernie empowered me to find my personal power.”
According to Salans, who is from the San Francisco Bay Area and has lived in the district the last 2 1/2 years, Sanders’ call to become more politically involved resonated.
“How do we continue this political revolution?” she said. “What can this political revolution look like?”
Salans, who has worked in theatrical management and said she abhors idleness, said the council district needs to work better and quicker than it currently does.
“I hear people say, ‘I had this problem and I called the council office and I didn’t hear back.’”
For Salans, her grassroots campaign is all about simplification—getting rid of the excess for a more streamlined efficiency, even fewer staff.
In regards to small businesses, she said O’Farrell’s recent small businesses initiatives lack out-of-the-box thinking.
“When you read the resolutions,” she said, “you get to the final motions and it’s sort of like a downer…. It’s great common sense,” what O’Farrell is proposing, “but at the same time there seems to be a lack of vision overall.”
Salans said if elected, she envisions one of her staffers would be charged specifically to liaise with business owners through the district’s neighborhood councils, which she said she feels are currently underutilized.
“You need to go to your neighborhood council,” for help, Salans said. “That is where your power lives. It can be a one stop shop.”
She also envisions having town hall meetings bi-weekly or even weekly.
Doing so, she said, would help business owners and other constituents get their questions answered faster.
“What we need is a stage manager, like a production hand within the district office that says ‘we are here to lend you a hand,’” she said.
And she said she thinks she can do it with a small, energized staff.
“I just think that more can be done with [staff] that is already there,” she said. “I don’t understand. They make it sound so much more complicated than it is. It’s not about quantity of staff. It’s about quality.”
Sylvie Shain, an Echo Park resident and tenants’ rights advocate, said she is running for the council seat because she feels there is an accessibility problem with O’Farrell’s office.
“This is somebody who represented himself as a community spokesperson in his bid when he was first elected and I think he has lost the pulse of the community,” she said.
Shain entered the race following her fight to prevent the conversion of a Hollywood apartment building on Cherokee Avenue into a boutique hotel after its renters were evicted under the Ellis Act, a state law often used by developers to evict tenants so buildings can be converted into more profitable condominiums. The 1985 law was originally proposed to help “the little guy.”
Shain said she worries that O’Farrell’s “Open for Business” initiative may unfold in a similar way.
“When you are crafting legislation, it’s important to ensure that the law is meeting the intent…and it’s protecting the people it’s supposed to and it’s not just a loophole for the bad players to take advantage of the framework,” Shain said.
Shain said she agrees there are “legitimate concerns” over the city’s “hamstringing of small businesses.”
However, she said she also worries that O’Farrell’s initiative fails to address serious gentrification issues threatening many of the district’s small businesses.
“Something that’s really important to me is to stem the displacement of people and businesses from their communities,” Shain said. “What has been expressed to me from business owners is not just the strain of opening up a new business. It’s also the fear of losing your [existing] business because as property values increase, commercial tenants…are subject to rent increases that make it more difficult to operate.
Shain said she will be releasing more information about how she plans to help small businesses as the campaign ramps up.
Candidate David De la Torre, 47, is a commercial accounts manager in stevedoring at the Port of Los Angeles. He hails from the Elysian Valley and said he is running because he sees a disconnect between O’Farrell and the everyday people of Council District 13.
“I’m unhappy with where priorities lie at the present time,” said De la Torre. “I think too much has been lost in the most basic services and necessities and that life impacting issues are overlooked.”
De la Torre was a founding member of the Elysian Valley Neighborhood Council and is currently chair of the area’s neighborhood watch.
In reference to small business, De la Torre said he wants small business to flourish in the district and that the city bureaucracy’s “obstructionist mindset” needs to change.
“Small business is important,” he said.
“We need to expedite the process to assist small business. But it cannot be done at the expense of permitting [as in issuing permits to] businesses not in line with what the community wants or needs.”
De la Torre said he worries O’Farrell’s Open for Business Initiative could hurt rather than help communities in the long run. By making it easier for any business—regardless of how large or intrusive it may be—to open its doors without adequate community input.
“I think at face value, it sounds like a step in the right direction, but,” he said, “…is it streamlining [the process] so we get quality projects in the community? Or is it a streamlining so that any project gets into a community?”