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Kevin de León’s Cynical Self-Reinvention Is Hurting Los Angeles

The disgraced Los Angeles councilman says he wants to address homelessness. Advocates say he’s hurting any real progress.

Myung J. Chung/Getty Images
Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León

Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León has said he will not resign in the wake of racist audio featuring him and other councilmembers that scandalized the City Council in the weeks before the midterm elections. His stated reason for clinging to power? The beleaguered city lawmaker says that he wants to increase his focus on addressing homelessness in his district. “No, I will not resign, because there is a lot of work ahead,” he said in an October interview with Noticiero Univision, specifically citing the homelessness crisis and evictions. 

But activists for unhoused Angelenos take a dim view of his sudden interest and say he has not done much during his time in office to help those on the streets. To hear them tell it, de León is actually disrupting the effort to curb homelessness by remaining in office. 

De León has been a target of public anger and criticism since October, when an audio recording came out, capturing a long conversation between him, then City Council President Nury Martinez, District 1 Councilman Gil Cedillo, and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera. While the foursome were there having a secret meeting to discuss the then ongoing redistricting process, they spent part of their conversation disparaging progressive Councilman Mike Bonin and his adopted Black son, District Attorney George Gascon—of whom Martinez said, “He’s with the Blacks”—as well as the Black, Oaxacan, and other groups in the city. Their redistricting discussion sounded more like a division of spoils: The four also discussed how best to use the process to protect political allies by redrawing district lines to favor them, as well as strategically weakening tenants and progressive officeholders. 

After the audio came out, Martinez and Herrera both resigned from their posts. Cedillo, like de León, opted to keep out of the public eye as news of the audio flooded local news, but he had already lost his reelection bid earlier in the year to progressive Eunisses Hernandez. His term ended this month. De León is in a much different position: He is not up for reelection until 2024. And despite receiving pressure to resign from other councilmembers, Mayor Karen Bass, Governor Gavin Newsom, and even the Biden administration, he shows no intention of doing so. 

But activists and advocates for poor and unhoused Angelenos in de León’s district have been emphasizing that the councilman’s stated purpose for remaining in his seat is insincere at best; they point out that not only has the councilman done little to aid their cause since taking power, de León has been nonresponsive to their approaches since the audio leaked, focusing solely rehabilitating his image. 

Pastor Stephen “Cue” Jn-Marie, who leads the Church Without Walls on Skid Row, said that the problems facing the unhoused community predate de León. Nevertheless, he said that given the disproportionate amount of Black Angelenos who are unhoused, specifically on Skid Row, the anti-Black views expressed in the audio do not offer much hope that de León will be a force for change.

“For Kevin to say he wants to say he wants to stay and address [the homelessness] issue, it needs to be addressed, but we need to address that with people we can trust,” Jn-Marie said.

When reached for comment, de León’s spokesman Pete Brown denied that the councilman and his office were unresponsive to the concerns of homelessness advocates. He said that groups such as Streetwatch L.A. (an offshoot of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Los Angeles branch) and J-Town Action & Solidarity have been protesting the councilman and his staff and opposed the office’s efforts to get people into housing.

“Many of the voices, most of the voices, are from outside Council District 14,” Brown said. “In a democracy that’s not how it works. Voters hire and fire their officials. We have heard quite strongly from our constituents that they do not want councilmember de León to resign, that he has been an effective leader on pressing issues such as homelessness and affordable housing.”

Roberto Flores, co-founder of the Eastside Café, a community center and mutual aid site in El Sereno, said that de León has been busy doing public relations work, handing out food and toys in politically allied areas and dodging critics. Flores called the councilman “very arrogant.”

De León came into office in 2020, when the district was struggling. Outgoing Council District 14 Representative José Huizar had been suspended from office after being indicted for corruption; his trial is pending. De León was sworn in early as a result, and the district gained an active member after months of Huizar holding limited power, having been stripped of his committee roles and largely absent from public view. C.D. 14 is vast, covering Boyle Heights, El Sereno, parts of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, and most of downtown Los Angeles, including both City Hall and Skid Row. As a result, it’s become a place of massive disparity and inequality, with billion dollar luxury skyscrapers looming next to the epicenter of the country’s homelessness crisis. 

When de León ran for the C.D. 14 seat in 2020, he campaigned on taking widespread action through a variety of means. The former state Senate president pro tempore, who challenged Senator Diane Feinstein from the left in the 2018 Senate election, touted his experience and stressed urgency in dealing with homelessness. He repeatedly advocated for alternative housing solutions, such as building modular housing projects, converting shipping containers, and using city-owned properties as housing. 

By the time he took power in October 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic had effectively halted any of those proposals, as the city, county, and state worked to find ways to get unhoused people out of congregate shelters to avoid a mass outbreak on the streets. Efforts such as Project Roomkey, which housed people in hotel and motel rooms, became the dominant focus while health officials urged authorities not to displace encampments, even as some in power in Los Angeles looked to expand sweeps. 

Even then, there was some initial hope for change. Phillip Kim, a Skid Row resident and advocate for unhoused Angelenos, noted that soon after taking office, de León echoed an activist slogan “house keys not handcuffs” while meeting with service provider and advocacy group the Los Angeles Community Action Network, or Lacan, which has called for de León’s resignation following the audio leak.

De León’s mayoral campaign echoed his City Council platform, but he failed to advance after the primary. His run for mayor was controversial; while seeking the council seat, he was asked over and over if he’d leave early for higher office, which he never fully denied.

While in office, the councilman’s record was a mixed bag. He voted in favor of expanding city ordinance 41.18, which banned encampments in areas throughout the city, although urging that housing be offered alongside sweeps, Brown said. Asked ahead of the mayoral primary, he said he “needed more time to review” Measure ULA, the now approved proposal to tax real estate sales above $5 million to finance affordable housing and tenant protective services. 

When de León took office, the city’s homeless population, according to the January 2020 Homeless Count, was 41,290. In C.D. 14, it was 7,617. When the first pandemic-era count was done in January 2022, those numbers increased to 41,980 and 9,204, respectively. The increase citywide wasn’t as large as people expected, in part thanks to pandemic-era measures that kept more people from falling into homelessness. (Advocates, service organizations, and policymakers expect a major spike in homelessness in 2023 when those are removed.)

De León’s spokesman Brown pointed to several tiny home villages that opened in the district as housing created under his term. Tiny homes—prefabricated sheds set up on city-owned sites—are considered to be shelter, but housing policy workers and advocates debate whether these units count as housing or only a temporary measure. Since de León took office, several such sites have opened, including in Highland Park and Eagle Rock. 

Since the audio came out, City Council meetings have been met with protesters calling for Cedillo and de León’s resignations. Council leadership has clashed with them; Council President Paul Krekorian has had activists removed and called recesses to interrupt these disruptions. When de León made his first council appearance on December 9, chaos ensued. Councilman Bonin expressed his view that de León’s continued presence was hurting city business. Later that day, at a city-funded toy giveaway in Lincoln Heights, activist Jason Reedy and others confronted de León over the tape and accused him of holding up city business. These proceedings grew violent: Video taken of their confrontation shows de León throwing Reedy around, while another video released by the councilman shows Reedy punching him. It’s not clear who struck first. Both men filed battery reports with the Los Angeles Police Department. Councilmember Monica Rodriguez referred to the incident as  “terrorism” against de León.

Disputes between de León and homelessness activist groups predate the release of the scandalous audio recording. The councilman has accused groups in the district of trying to keep people on the street and not take housing at Project Roomkey. These groups have, in turn, roundly quarreled over this contention and have pointed to other instances in which the councilman has failed to offer his support. Steven Chun, an organizer with the Little Tokyo–based J-Town Action & Solidarity, said that C.D. 14 intended to do a sweep in Toriumi Plaza in the neighborhood, which J-Town opposed. They were in contact with one of de León’s staffers and tried to set up a meeting to discuss the matter. “We thought that we would have a meeting, thought we would set a date, and they did the sweep anyway,” he said, referring to the March 2022 clearing of the plaza.

The October audio leak came amid a contentious citywide election which saw a major shake-up of the City Council and a new mayor. As many officials left, bitterness and animosity from some of them played out rather publicly—Paul Koretz echoed a popular phrase directed at the council from Los Angeles activists during the George Floyd protests by saying, “I yield the rest of my time, fuck you” at his last council meeting; Cedillo put a public letter explaining why he did not resign, arguing that other officials have also made negative comments and were not held to a different standard. He had already spent months ignoring constituents. A supporter of Bonin’s replacement, Traci Park, aggressively shoved a protester out of Park’s inauguration on camera. 

Flores says that de León is trying to win back support by handing out trees and food for the holidays. Kim agreed: “His current social media posts are safely in older Latino community spaces. He shows up, takes some video and photos and by the time other people show up who have issues, he’s not there,” he said. Jn-Marie echoed this view, noting that de León is only seen out in areas where he’s not likely to encounter angry constituents. 

Activists and providers in C.D. 14 argue that de León’s continued presence on the council, where he has been stripped of committee roles and largely absent from votes, is hurting both overall constituent services as well as crucial activity to ameliorate the homelessness crisis. On December 13, the last meeting of the council for the year, the legislature voted to end the city’s Covid protections at the end of January, which also means the eviction moratorium will end, affecting Angelenos in every district, including C.D. 14. De León did not show up for that vote.

While largely lacking in power, advocates for the unhoused insist there are some material contributions he could make, such as ceasing the sweeps of homeless encampments in the district by turning them into “spot cleaning” activities, which would be free of LAPD involvement and more akin to a trash pickup instead of a displacement. Chun pointed out that new C.D. 13 Councilman Hugo Soto-Martinez has started doing that in his district since taking power this month. 

Brown said that the councilman is still in favor of developing alternative housing such as shipping containers, and is exploring master lease agreements with properties in the district. He also pointed to plans for another tiny home village in Boyle Heights, as well as incoming $47.5 million grant money for infrastructure and street improvements in Skid Row; that grant was applied for in the first half of 2022 and although some bike lanes and streetlights will go inside the boundaries of Skid Row, the majority goes to adjacent neighborhoods along San Pedro Street such as Little Tokyo and the Flower District. 

Activists have been criticized for shouting for de León’s resignation at council meetings, but at de León’s first appearance at one since the audio came out, the other councilmembers themselves got up to leave the chamber in protest. At the last full council meeting of the year on December 13—and days after the incident involving Reedy—several left when he appeared. That had the effect of delaying a vote in support of new mayor Karen Bass’s emergency declaration on homelessness (unlike the Covid emergency vote, de León did vote on this, in favor).

Los Angeles is currently set to lift eviction protections in February, following a 12-0 vote in October. The council is in recess until January. Brown said that de León intends to attend meetings in the new year.

There is an effort underway to recall the councilman. Some advocates in the district said they support it as a matter of practicality given the time until de León is up for reelection; others, like Chun, worry that it will be a costly, time-consuming matter. Others said they are hoping to get other members of the council, such as progressives like Nithya Raman, Soto-Martinez, and Hernandez, to take action in the meantime to introduce motions and direct policies that would help District 14.

As for what de León could do, Flores said that if the councilman is committed to helping unhoused people, he can and should do so, but as a private citizen. “That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t leave. He should still resign,” Flores said. “We’re not going to tell him don’t help. We’re not going to stop him, but you’re not representing anybody.”