HODG “Looking Local” Candidate Series: Sam Yebri
The Hang Out Do Good local advocacy group is conducting a series of “Looking Local” conversations with candidates currently running for local offices, including Los Angeles Mayor, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, LA County Sheriff, Los Angeles City Attorney, State Assembly District 51, and several Los Angeles City Council seats. The conversations take place on Sunday afternoons, via Zoom, and are open to the public (see the remaining schedule below). This conversation with Sam Yebri, one of four candidates who will be on the ballot to represent District 5 on the City Council, was structured as a Q&A with HODG hosts and took place on Sunday, Sunday, April 3. Yebri immigrated to the U.S. from Iran with his family when he was just a year old. He attended law school at Yale University, and now owns his own law firm in Century City, specializing in employment and business issues. He’s also a former Los Angeles Civil Service Commissioner, and is endorsed by LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, former U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, several labor groups, and more. These were among the topics covered in the HODG conversation:
Please introduce yourself..
Yebri said he’s running for City Council because the city that allowed his immigrant family to live and raise kids here is broken now. He said his parents arrived from Iran with just two suitcases, but he grew up to attend Yale. Since then, he’s worked with the Bet Tzedek legal services group, fought hate crimes with the Westside Anti-Defamation League, and now owns his own law firm. At the same time, however, Yebri said he’s watched the city decline in recent years, which has moved him to action. He said he is taking no money from PACs or developers, and he’s supported by unions, businesses, LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, and former U.S. Representative Henry Waxman.
What is your understanding of a Councilmember’s job?
Yebri said he believes there’s no level of government more important than the City Council, which has two jobs: first is attending to the daily concerns of residents, including services such as trash, trees, traffic, and more….and second is dealing with the city’s big crises – especially homelessness and public safety. Yebri said the job also requires working closely with other departments and other levels of government, and requires someone who has a broad range of experiences.
There are not many sites in CD5 where we can house homeless individuals. Do you commit to building more supportive housing in the district, where, and – in the meantime – what can we do about homelessness in CD 5?
Yebri said that yes, he does commit to building more interim and permanent housing in the district, as the city is now legally required to do by the decision in Martin v. Boise (which said cities cannot enforce anti-camping measures if they do not have enough beds to shelter everyone who needs housing). Yebri said the only way out of the crisis is to provide a lot more housing with wraparound services for those in need, but that he also refuses to accept the current approach – just building new housing from the ground up – because it’s too slow and expensive (e.g. $25 million to build a new building with only15 units). Instead, he said, we “have to shift to more urgent and sustainable” methods of building, including projects on our commercial corridors, and we can’t let excuses or small obstacles like lot shape or grade stand in our way. Also, he noted, not everything has to be a big new building — other kinds or construction, like emergency shelters and tiny homes, cost only about a tenth as much as a new apartment building.
But Yebri said that at the same time we’re building new housing, we also have to protect vulnerable tenants, so they don’t fall into homelessness. These protections can include things like scaling up Section 8 voucher programs, and providing a right to legal counsel in eviction proceedings. Yebri also cited the Westwood Transitional Village, created by the Salvation Army, as a great example of programs that work and could be extended or replicated elsewhere in the district. That facility, he said, has 130 beds, was welcomed by the community, and is a model of what such places can be. Yebri said he’d like to scale up solutions like this…and also, closer to home, the well-known Alexandria House.
At the same time, however, Yebri also noted that people who need homes are not homogenous, so many different kinds of housing are needed. For example, he said, as many as 40% of young adults who age out of the foster-care system are LGBTQ. So we need both cost effective housing options, and unique approaches for specific situations.
Finally, Yebri noted that the city of Los Angeles does not have its own health department and relies on LA County for health and mental health services. But that County system has failed us, he said, so it’s time to do things ourselves, set up our own health department, and fund more health-related non-profits. Also, locally, Yebri said that the currently-underway conversion of Olympia Medical Center into a mental health facility is great…but that we can’t simply build our way out of the crisis. And while Measure HHH, which provides funds for the construction of homeless housing, is part of the solution, he said, it’s only part of it and there’s a lot more we need to do.
What is your plan to create more affordable housing in CD 5?
Yebri said that for decades the city failed to build enough housing, and now costs are too high, and people can’t afford to build. He said that almost all the affordable construction we’re seeing now is in Transit Oriented Communities projects, which contain between eight and 20% affordable units in an otherwise market-rate building, but that’s not enough. And there’s no monitoring or oversight of those projects to make sure the units are being used as intended and promised.
Also, with TOCs the only kind of affordable units being built at the moment, Yebri said, no workforce or middle income housing is being built for people near our big job centers like UCLA and Cedars Sinai, where we desperately need more.
A further complication, Yebri said, is that permitting issues for affordable housing are huge. In his experience serving on the board of an organization for adults with developmental disabilities, Yebri said, he’s seen that some kinds of projects that have taken six years to build in Los Angeles take only 6 months in other cities…so we can’t continue to allow delays and carrying costs to drown affordable housing projects.
Finally, Yebri said, we also have to protect our existing rent-stabilized units. And the city should try to acquire existing apartment buildings in a cost effective way, along with hotels and motels for adaptive reuse as housing, and master leasing of new buildings. In other words, he said, we need creative solutions, and we need to streamline the application process for affordable projects, especially those near transit, so people can walk to work.
What is your mobility plan, and plan to tackle climate change in CD 5?
Yebri said we currently have a historic, once-in-a-generation opportunity to promote public transportation and combat climate change with the new Purple Line Extension. “I’m pumped for it,” he said. Yebri said he gave up his own car seven years ago, so he uses public transit, and the coming of better mass transit that allows more people to do the same is “the sort of future LA we all want to see.”
Also, in addition to buses and trains, Yebri said we need more bike lanes, and more first/last mile solutions, such as micro-transit, to help people get to and from transit lines. And, as he said earlier, we also need more housing near transit, and more housing on commercial corridors, along with incentives for businesses to use and promote transit, and clean and safe subway stations, because people need to feel safe to expand transit ridership.
And finally, he said, we also need to improve electrification, especially in new construction, with better solar capture, electrical storage, EV charging stations and other infrastructure improvements. Los Angeles, he said, is currently lagging in these areas when it should be a world leader. But “this is a unique opportunity for our city,” he said.
There have been several high-profile crimes recently in CD 5. What does public safety look like to you, and what are your priorities for public safety?
Yebri said he doesn’t want to slide back to the high-crime days of the 1980s or ’90s, but violent crime is up 50% this year, and arrests are down, while CD 5 is “ground zero” for everything from smash and grab robberies to murders – 13 of them in 2021 (up from 1 or 2 just a year earlier). So Yebri said public safety is definitely the top job for a City Councilmember right now, and no other level of government does as much to keep people safe.
Also, he said, this particular issue keeps him and his wife up at night, especially when they hear people racing in the street near their home. “It’s not OK,” he said.
In general, Yebri said LAPD is the starting point for emergency response calls, but the number of officers is down lately and the department can’t hire enough people because officers are retiring and/or being poached by other cities. So Yebri said he does support increasing the number of LAPD officers, to 10,000. To get to that number, he said, the department needs an average of 60 new cadets per training cycle, but they’re only getting about 40 now. So LAPD has to do a better job recruiting, training and overseeing officers, as well as reduce its incidents of officer misconduct, to help rebuild the force.
Also, Yebri said, we should restructure our emergency response system, especially for calls relating to mental health issues. Currently, he said, LAPD gets 140,000 calls per year, which isn’t sustainable. So one big step, he said, would be to empower the police to opt out of non-police work. For example, he said, a recent audit by City Controller Ron Galperin urged LAPD to get officers out from behind desks and put them out on patrol…something LAPD does support. Also, Yebri said, we need to do more to get guns off streets (especially illegal and ghost guns), and we need more security cameras, common sense bail reform, and to prosecute hate crimes. And finally, Yebri said, he will continue current City Council member Paul Koretz’s tradition of maintaining a public safety director position in the council district office.
If elected, what are the first three things you would do on day one of the job?
First, Yebri said that during his campaign, he’s been going directly to the community – speaking to neighborhood associations, PTA boards, churches, etc. – and has learned that local issues really matter. So he knows he’ll need to immediately create a great team for constituent services. For example, he said, he knows that, as a lawyer, if he doesn’t return his clients’ calls, he’ll be fired. So he said he’ll bring that perspective to the job from the very beginning, even when problems are complicated, and constituents have conflicting viewpoints, such as when there’s a big homeless encampment near a school.
After installing a great constituent services team, Yebri said his second move would be to look for opportunities for potential infrastructure upgrades – such as potholes, intersections, and parks (26% of all city residents don’t live within a 20 minute walk of a park, even though dollars are available in Quimby funds).
And third, Yebri said, he would start creating systems and benchmarks to move things along so nothing languishes. For example, he said, lots of data shows that people want a compstat (computer statistics, commonly used to track law enforcement data)-type system for the environment. Also, he said, better data tracking could help with small business permit issues (he cited one restaurateur who has been trying for nine months to get a rotisserie permit for his new restaurant), and building vacancies, which can lead to problems with blight, trash, and more.
How much of a Councilmember’s job requires collaboration, what are your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to collaboration, and can you give us an example of how you led a successful collaboration effort?
Yebri noted that he has worked as both a litigator and a mediator. As a mediator, he said the goal is always to try to find common values and shared goals that can lead to an acceptable compromise. For example, he cited neighborhood discussions for a Pico Blvd. housing project for adults with special needs. It was proposed to have 64 units, with ground floor retail, and would be the tallest building on Pico between the 405 and La Brea. Initially, he said, neighbors were afraid there would be traffic issues with so many units, but Yebri pointed out that the intended residents don’t drive, and he was also able to explain to neighbors how we need to build housing right now for our most vulnerable populations. He said he worked hard on neighborhood outreach for the project, and by the end of the process, after carefully explaining how the project would and wouldn’t affect the community, the opposition disappeared…and the building is now scheduled to open late next year.
Who do you support in the LA mayoral race?
Yebri said he’s not endorsing anyone in either the mayor’s race or any of the other current electoral races, because he wants to focus on CD 5 and to be able to work closely with whoever wins in the other elections.
Do you support the current recall campaigns?
Yebri said he generally does not support recall efforts, because they’re a “massive waste of money,” so he doesn’t support the Gascon recall campaign even though he does have concerns with some of Gascon’s policies. For example, he said, we definitely need to reform our system of incarceration, but some crimes really do need to lead to prison sentences, so we should have a real conversation about it. He said he has also criticized Gascon’s stance on hate crimes, which definitely need consequences. That said, however, Yebri also pointed out that Gascon has modified some of his positions recently, especially those on violent crimes by minors and gangs, which he says is good because victims need to be heard. So “I hope I can work with him to make sure we’re all safer,” Yebri said.
What will you do with your law practice if elected?
Yebri said he will definitely give up his law firm if elected, because being a Councilmember is a full-time job, and “I’m all in.” This is an important job at an important moment in our history, he said, so it’s actually more than a full time job, and he wants to try to make a difference in the position.
Which one corner or block in CD 5 makes you sad, and why?
“Only one?,” Yebri quipped. First, he said, is the intersection of Wilshire and Beverly Glen – where he witnessed a traffic fatality. Second is Westwood Village, he said, which has a 42% vacancy rate, and 33 unhoused people in four blocks, which just “can’t continue.” Next, he said, is the recent violent crime on Melrose Ave., especially the recent shootings there, which are “not OK” and have made people scared and upset. And finally, he said, Pico Blvd., which has been downzoned since the 1980s, and should be much greener and more vibrant. The current one-story commercial corridors on Pico, Yebri said, just don’t make sense these days, and “I want to see these neighborhoods become more vibrant.”
What will your first priority be for your discretionary funds, and would you support a resident advisory board to oversee the use of these funds?
Yebri said that given recent upticks in crime and traffic/pedestrian deaths, public safety would be a priority for his discretionary spending. But he said he does like the idea of public involvement in the discretionary spending process, though there are concerns that all neighborhoods are fairly served. So his job would be to make sure the funding is distributed equitably. To achieve that, he said, he is open to different approaches, such as designating “buckets” of funds for small groups, special events, and more. But whatever process he winds up using, he said it will definitely be fully transparent, and will maximize community involvement.
Do you support the Uplift Melrose plan?
Yebri said that he’s the only candidate currently on the ballot that has said he doesn’t support Uplift Melrose as originally presented. He said he does “want to get to yes,” but there are still “genuine concerns” about traffic and emergency responders, the issues which led current Councilmember Paul Koretz to oppose and eventually pause the project. Yebri said it’s not responsible for a Councilmember to ignore legitimate concerns, and you need to communicate with stakeholders to resolve the issues. But that said, he also said there are also some good elements in the plan – such as bike lanes, infrastructure improvements, and lighting upgrades – which would make the street safer and align with goals of the Livable Communities Initiative. And “that’s the kind of city I want to build.”
Finally, Yebri said he’s running for office because “I love this darn city. I love it to my core.” He also said he’s not afraid to take on big issues or the forces aligned with them, and that current corruption charges against several city officials mean that we “have an opportunity to go in a new direction, or we’re going to continue to decline.” In closing, Yebri said, “I’d be honored to earn your vote….I know you will hold me accountable and I’ll do good work for you.”
To learn more about Yebri, or to donate to his campaign, see https://www.samforla.com.
Please note: this article was originally published in the Daily Bruin.