The race for City Council District 11 (CD 11) has been wide open since January, when incumbent Councilmember Mike Bonin announced that he would not seek reelection — just a week after a recall effort against him failed due to a shortage of petition signatures.
Long a relatively progressive stronghold in Los Angeles, the district, which encompasses most of the Westside, is also home to a vocal and well-organized group of voters highly critical of Bonin’s policies on homelessness, traffic management, and other issues.
Candidate Erin Darling, who entered the race in February, says he’s seeking to carry on the Westside’s progressive tradition. A resident of Venice and a former member of the Venice Neighborhood Council, Darling is an attorney with a private practice specializing in criminal defense and civil rights. He’s also served as a deputy federal public defender and an attorney with Public Counsel and the Eviction Defense Network.
Darling spoke with Knock LA about housing, homelessness, and other key issues facing Los Angeles and the Westside.
What do you want voters to know about your background and experience relevant to this position?
I grew up in Venice and I still live in Venice. I went to California public schools from kindergarten to law school. I graduated from law school in 2008 and began working at a local nonprofit called Eviction Defense Network, where I represented low-income tenants facing eviction.
This race is characterized mostly by [the issues of] homelessness and housing, and I’m the candidate with experience keeping people in their homes. The homelessness crisis is a housing crisis. We don’t have enough affordable housing and the City of LA has neglected to build affordable housing for decades.
If we’re going to address the homeless crisis, we need to strengthen renter protections to keep people in their homes because we know people enter homelessness at a faster clip than they exit. Rents are skyrocketing; wages have been stagnant, and the extent at which they’ve increased in the last year or two is definitely not keeping pace with the rising rents.
What are some of the policies you’d like to implement when it comes to addressing these issues?
First, right to counsel. This has been a pilot project for over a decade. Just as someone facing a criminal charge deserves a public defender, someone who’s poor and facing eviction deserves a lawyer. We know that unrepresented people lose [eviction cases] and often times are forced onto the streets. And we know that when people are represented by lawyers, they’re more likely to stay in their home. We need to expand this pilot project so that indigent tenants go to court with a lawyer — because landlords have lawyers.
Second, we need to amend the community plan to require a higher percentage of inclusionary zoning [mandating affordable units in new housing developments]. We know there’s more development happening, but it’s not affordable. and [new inclusionary zoning requirements] would also include workforce housing. There’s too many people who work on the Westside but who can’t afford to live on the Westside. That means teachers, nurses, and essential workers are effectively super-commuters. It’s not good for the environment and it’s not good for communities.
The Westside needs to become more affordable for people who work there — and also people who have been displaced. People who come from working-class gentrified communities should be prioritized in terms of who has a foot in the door when it comes to newly built affordable housing.
You entered this race after Mike Bonin announced that he wouldn’t be seeking reelection. What led you to the decision to run at that point?
I didn’t see any of the candidates reflecting my values. I was frustrated with the homelessness crisis not being discussed in the context of a housing crisis. People are angry about homelessness, which makes sense, but they’re angry at homeless people as opposed to the phenomenon of mass homelessness. We need to solve this crisis, and we need to solve it by housing people, not by playing whack-a-mole and pushing people out of the district into another part of Southern California.
A bunch of Westside community groups coalesced around me as a candidate, and it was nice to feel that there was this organic support. This isn’t my lifelong dream. I like my job, but I do feel like it, with an open seat we’re at a potential crossroads. Will we be a place that lives up to the progressive values that a lot of the Westside identifies with, or will we become a fortress that’s only for the wealthy? I don’t want my three-year-old to grow up in a community like that.
With the recall attempt against Bonin and all the vitriol around things like bridge housing facilities, it seems like progressivism is on the defensive on the Westside. Do you see political tides turning in DC 11?
I feel like there’s a vocal minority that has been very well organized and that has been able to channel rightful anger about the homelessness phenomenon. But I feel that addressing homelessness is a progressive issue. We need to house people. This is what makes sense, and if you care about homelessness, then vote for a housing lawyer.
With the exception of Bonin and Nithya Raman, members of the City Council have adopted a more enforcement-heavy approach toward homelessness.
It makes sense that local elected officials feel the frustration of their constituents. That frustration is real, but I feel like it takes leadership to say, “look, I get why you’re frustrated, but let’s deal with this problem. Let’s have a unified city approach. Let’s coordinate with the county. Let’s get state surplus money and federal emergency funding.”
I think it’s one thing to say, “our constituents are mad, so we have to do something,” but at the end of the day, enforcement alone is just pushing people from one part of the city to another. It doesn’t address why people become homeless. It doesn’t prevent people from slipping into homelessness. It certainly doesn’t address people’s mental health issues.
We’ve talked a lot about housing and homelessness. Are there other issues that you see as priorities for the district, or for the city as a whole?
The existential crisis of our time is climate change. We have to address the local manifestations of climate change first by making sure that LADWP converts to 100% renewable energy. The most aggressive [timeline] for that is by 2035, and the City Council needs to push them to get there by 2035. That means making expensive investments up front that we’ll rely on for decades. There’s really no excuse for not taking the most aggressive approach possible toward renewable energy and creating infrastructure to get people out of their cars. We also need to bulk up fire service because of the increase in wildfires. We have to phase out oil and gas drilling and storage. These are very immediate things.
The other thing is just constituent services. People get frustrated when they feel local government isn’t listening to them and bread-and-butter concerns don’t get addressed. I think when basic constituent services aren’t met, people are more prone to be angry, and we know where that leads in American politics. When people see their calls and emails getting ignored, or they see an encampment full of trash, they feel like things are out of control. And when that happens, there’s a danger of reactionary politics.
How do you plan to build constituent relationships and make sure people feel they’re being heard?
For one, creating a system where any call or email gets responded to in 48 hours. Also, hiring field deputies who come from the community, so that someone who’s a field deputy in Venice is from Venice. A field deputy in Westchester is from Westchester. It should be someone embedded in the community so people feel a part of local government.
[Following the recall effort against him], Bonin very publicly said he was stepping away from this race to focus on mental health. This now seems like a very charged race. Are you anxious about that at all?
It’s super charged. The vitriol and just the level of discourse — if anything it’s a motivator to me. I want to return to a sense of neighborliness. I want people to talk to neighbors like neighbors. I think two years of social isolation, where people were on social media, has created a situation where people aren’t talking to each other as neighbors and it’s reduced the sense of community. It becomes much like a larger problem in American politics, which is that people are screaming past one another. So I think that’s a motivator for me.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Knock LA is a journalism project paid for by Ground Game LA. This article was not authorized or paid for by a candidate or a committee controlled by a candidate.
Erin Darling is one of several candidates endorsed by Ground Game LA.