“Something has to change. And it has to be the people on City Council”
Alexandria Contreras thinks the Downey City Council lacks vision.
Walking around the neighborhood that the 26-year-old grew up in, a section of the city north of the 5 Freeway that borders Pico Rivera, she points to infrastructure that needs to change and infrastructure that needs to exist.
Corner curbs that are not wheelchair accessible and sidewalks that end abruptly represent Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) code violations, she says, and is one of the reasons why she is running for Downey City Council District One. Large sections of the neighborhood’s streets don’t have sidewalks at all (residents’ lawns extend to the curb while still being city property) and she remembers being instructed as a child to walk in the middle of the street rather than along the curb where she would be less noticeable to oncoming cars.
“I would like to see Measure S funds shift towards ADA accessibility,” she says sitting outside of Starbucks around the corner. “Everyone should [be able to] move around the city.”
Measure S, a half percent increase to the transactions and use tax to fund public safety and infrastructure, was approved by Downey voters in 2016. Most of the projects it funds are park improvements and there were no improvement projects north of the 5 Freeway.
Making the city less car-centric has also been a central component of Contreras’s platform.
“We need protected bike lanes that connect the schools,” she says. “I don’t know how many times one of my friends nearly got killed riding their bikes. It’s a danger.”
A 2018 study found that Downey tied with Lancaster for having the third highest number of deadliest intersections in California. The intersection at Firestone Boulevard and Lakewood Boulevard was ranked the fourth deadliest intersection in the state.
After receiving a grant form Caltrans in 2013 for $225,000 (this city chipped in another $25,000), Downey approved a bicycle master plan in 2015 intended to be a guiding document for expanding biking infrastructure in the city. Save a designated bike lane on Brookshire Avenue, the city is a far cry from the 37 miles of bike lanes and routes laid out in Phase I of the plan’s proposed bike network.
“This plan won’t be window dressing,” then-mayor Mario Guerra told the Long Beach Press-Telegram in 2013 after it was announced that the city would be applying for the grant: “It won’t sit on a shelf.”
Lars Clutterham, member of the city’s Green Task Force during this time, doesn’t remember there being much appetite on the part of elected officials to fund infrastructure modifications to make Downey more bike friendly. He likened the process to political grandstanding.
While driven to make the city more accessible for bicyclists and those with disabilities, it was housing that initially inspired Contreras’s run. An organizer for YIMBY California, a pro-development housing advocacy organization, housing policy is well within Contreras’s wheelhouse. She’s calling for the creation of a housing authority and rental data registry as well as easing up on restrictions of accessory dwelling units in an effort to expand housing stock.
Late last year cities across the state, such as Long Beach and neighboring Bell Gardens, began passing eviction moratoriums. California had just passed AB 1482 which bans no-fault evictions and limits annual rent increases to 10% or lower depending on cost of living. Tenant advocates argued that moratoriums were necessary in order to prevent landlords from hiking rents or evicting low-income tenants before it took effect at the beginning of this year.
Residents at Eden Roc Apartments began reporting sharp rent increases, says Rodolfo Cortes, co-founder of the Downey Tenants Union (DTU). The building had been purchased by Winstar Properties. The company recently received national attention when it evicted two Downey tenants for allegedly being outside of their units without masks after testing positive for Covid-19. The tenants claimed they had already recovered by that time and their attorney pointed out that at $947 a month they had the cheapest rent in the building.
Moratorium proponents in Downey say that with the exception of councilmember Sean Ashton, the lone vote in support of the moratorium, the Downey City Council was unwilling to even meet with them regarding an eviction moratorium. When it finally did come to a vote, Ashton was the only yes vote and the ordinance failed. Councilmember Rick Rodriguez, a landlord, abstained.
It was during these contentious City Council meetings that Contreras first met two fellow candidates for City Council. The three represent a sort of new crop of progressive activists in Downey that are taking on the traditionally conservative city’s establishment.
Catherine Alvarez, also a DTU co-founder, is running for Downey City Council District 3. She’s running against Eric Pierce, editor of the Downey Patriot, a community newspaper with close ties to the Downey Chamber of Commerce. His position with the paper has raised some eyebrows given the fact that Downey Patriot has reported heavily on the race and also hosted a candidates forum.
Community activist and Bernie Sanders volunteer Juan Martinez is running in District 5 against Deputy LA County District Attorney Mario Trujillo, who has the endorsement of a majority of the City Council, and realtor Carmela “Carrie” Uva. According to September 24 campaign finance disclosure forms, Trujillo raised more than all other candidates combined with the princely sum of $125,526.
“I’ve always seen myself as an organizer, I never really saw myself as a politician,” said Contreras. Her experience with the council during the eviction moratorium fight was a breaking point.
“Something has to change,” she remembers saying. “And it has to be the people (on the) City Council.”
Contreras is running a largely grassroots operation with a band of volunteers. With the exception of YIMBY California, which has deep ties to establishment figures and institutions in Sacramento, her donations have largely come from smaller donors. Campaign finance disclosure forms submitted on September 24 revealed that Pacheco outraised her by a nearly 3 to 1 margin. Her car, painted to promote her candidacy, and a recent fundraiser featuring local Downey music acts, gives her campaign a DIY feel.
Even Contreras herself was surprised when she was able to nab the LA County Democratic Party endorsement away from Pacheco who is closely tied, financially and institutionally, with Democratic establishment figures like Downey Assemblymember Cristina Garcia.
After an endorsement committee selected Contreras, Garcia District Director Edgar Estrada pulled the endorsement for a floor vote which Pacheco also subsequently lost. Leading up to floor vote, Pacheco sent out a blast text and robocall warning delegates of a “take over” of Downey by “extremist activists.”’
This characterization of activists critical of the City Council mirrored comments made by then-Councilmember Frometa during the eviction moratorium debate.
“I am not going to be bullied into making any kind of decision,” she said after acknowledging that she sympathized with the plight of tenants in attendance. “This mob mentality cannot continue.”
Tensions between community activists and elected officials have been heightened by recent protests outside of officials’ homes. It represents a stark departure from the usually staid nature of Downey city politics. Contreras hasn’t participated in these demonstrations but she understands them.
“[Officials aren’t] meeting with anyone, concerns are being ignored,” she said. “If you’re just going to gaslight the public, people have every right to take it to your doorstep.”
Mayor Pacheco did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.
The following interview took place over the phone and has been edited for length and clarity.
Downey saw a 48% jump in homeless this year from 2019. In the past 4 years, homelessness has increased around 24% in the city.
The state has launched the program “Project Homekey” which distributes state and federal funding to counties and cities to purchase hotels and motels that they can then convert into supportive housing for unhoused individuals.
The City of Norwalk was recently selected by LA County to be the site of one such motel conversion but city officials are unhappy with the city’s lack of input on the matter. Mayor Jennifer Perez has said that the state, by way of emergency powers, has “disenfranchised” Norwalk and estimates a loss of “$140,000 in transient occupancy tax and $15,500 in property tax annually.” Back in April, Norwalk passed an ordinance banning hotels and motels from converting their properties into homeless housing without city approval.
Would you support this program in Downey?
Yes, I would.
Homelessness has gone up and Downey doesn’t have any sort of year-round emergency shelter or long-term shelter for people to stay. There are a lot of motels here in the city [where] there are already people who are homeless who are paying to live in them and that’s setting them back from being able to save up to get an apartment. It’s a simple, easy fix that the city can provide to make sure that residents here are able to get back on their feet.
And it’s necessary. We’re in a housing crisis and homelessness is just going to get worse if we don’t act. And that’s one solution of many that we can use to make it better.
What are other solutions for addressing homelessness?
We need to ramp up the amount of housing that we have here in the city.
We can fast track applications for affordable housing developments here and attract nonprofit developers as well.
I’d also like to see the formation of a housing authority to help people get placed into affordable housing.
Rents have been steadily increasing in Downey, like the region as a whole, which has led to displacement of low-income residents.
You’re an organizer with YIMBY California which asserts that “the housing crisis is the result of a shortage of homes.” Some tenants advocates argue that this is false, and that in fact the current housing crisis is a result of real estate speculation, land banking, and exploitation of low-income tenants by land owners. Rather than relying on public-private partnerships to create affordable housing projects, which are costly and slow to build they point out, organizations like the LA Tenants Union support more drastic measures like strict rent control and the use of eminent domain in order to create public housing using existing housing stock. Where do you land on this?
I think we can have a mixture of both.
If you look at rent control, and when it was first established, we downzoned first across the state and then enacted rent control. Once you began downzoning rents shot up because housing supply became limited.
I am personally very wary of using eminent domain, because of how it has historically been wielded against low-income communities and communities of color. [What] I can see happening here in the city of Downey is [the city will say] “Okay, well, we’re just going to take some area of the city that is one of the neglected pockets and put all that housing there.”
That’s not what I want to see happen. We need affordable housing in the nice parts of Downey, we don’t need to push it far away.
So that’s why I’m not fully on board with eminent domain. My family has a history of displacement. So I’m very hesitant to use that as a tool because of how it’s been used in the past.
But we need rent control, we need a rent freeze right now.
My neighbor next door, her lease was up. And even though maybe it’s not too bad, it still went up $100, because that’s what it was allowed to go up to based on the price before. During a pandemic that’s outrageous. People are struggling with work.
Affordable housing is difficult to build, and there’s ways as a region, it’s more of a regional issue, we can streamline the process to make that easier. We need to build more housing.
We need rent control; we need a rent freeze; we need community land trusts. We can do all of it. I don’t believe we can do just one without the other, we really need a combination of all of these things in order to tackle the housing crisis.
Gentrification and displacement is literally built into the city based on zoning, and will continue unless we change zoning. And so, there are ways that we can mitigate what’s happening and make sure that current tenants [stay in] place and protected and at the same time build housing for the people who need it.
Tenant advocates in Los Angeles have called for the city to use eminent domain to acquire a property in Chinatown, originally restricted by an affordability covenant but which could potentially be sold and rented at market rates, to retain it as affordable housing. Would you support using eminent domain for this purpose?
I definitely support that.
The Ellis Act* is a nightmare for most tenants and I actually support it. I think it’s a good idea because in-fill development is one way to achieve housing.
There are ways to build more housing without displacing tenants. The thing is, I think we all have to understand, the way things are currently happening, tenants will be displaced. But we don’t have any way to prevent that from happening right now, it is inevitable, with our state, city and regional policies around housing. What we can do, and what we need to do is make sure we mitigate that as much as possible.
*The Ellis Act allows a landlord to evict tenants if they are removing their property from the rental market.
You support establishing a rental data registry in Downey. Can you tell me what this is and why you think it would be helpful?
Yeah, so it allows people to know how much they’re paying in rent compared to their neighbors. It provides better data for the city to understand what’s happening. It will allow us to know what units are vacant, what units are occupied, what the rent is, what the leases are, and what evictions are taking place. All of this is important information to know.
The more transparent it is, the more power you give the tenant against landlords to make sure that they’re not being taken advantage of, and to make sure that they’re not being screwed over in some way, shape, or form.
[Landlords will] also have to turn in a copy of that eviction notice to the city before you do anything so that way the city can make sure nothing fishy is happening.
We need to keep track of housing, homelessness, turnover, that sort of thing. And also short term rentals, keep track of short-term rentals are happening here, as well.
You’ve said that you’re in support of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), and made that a significant component of your housing platform. Can you tell me about that?
So in the neighborhood I grew up in, there are a lot of illegal ADU conversions that people have done for their families or for additional rent. And I know that because the city made it illegal that some of these places are less than safe. So what I’d love to do is in the City of Downey is pathway for people who have illegal units to not get in trouble.
I would love people to be like, “Okay, we have this, let’s make it legal now.” Someone will come inspect, make sure everything’s up to code, and you just fix [what you need to] and now it’s a legal structure here within the city. It’s a way for people to provide housing for their family.
My family would love to build. We have a small house on a small lot and my parents would love to keep the garage space. So what we want to do is build a second story ADU on top of the garage. It would be a tiny unit, maybe 400 square feet. But it would be space for my brother and my sister-in-law…
Housing is difficult for them, it’s expensive for them too. He can stay here and cover the cost of to build it, which would be way cheaper than the rent that he’s paying right now. It’s a win-win situation that would provide so many different alternatives for multi-generational family living. I think it’s a really simple, easy fix.
People are already doing it, let’s just make sure that they do it safely. If they’re gonna rent it out, we can keep track of it as well and make sure their tenants aren’t being subjected to any abuse.
In late August, the City Council voted unanimously to raise the chief’s salary by 6% pay over the next 3 years. Would you have voted in favor of this?
The city has allocated close to $40 million for the police department in its FY 20–21 budget, totaling 16% of overall city spending. You’ve said you’re in favor of relocating funds away from the PD into other city services. First off, how much should the police budget be scaled back and where do you think that money would be better spent?
I think it should be scaled back to what it was previously. They did not need to raise it, they did not need to give them more money. We should probably cut back even further than what it was before because Downey PD has been militarizing their police force.
Our police force does not need to be militarized. We can cut back in other ways. The police force does not need to contract with Downey Unified School District. We do not need cops in our schools. We could scale back on what we’re spending on the police and that money could go towards things like an emergency homeowner and mobile home fund to make sure that people stay in their homes because making sure that people stay in their homes is a public safety and public health issue.
During the pandemic, the city could establish more funds for smaller businesses that are struggling to stay afloat. We could have made sure that families, especially the beginning of this, had access to masks, that sort of thing.
We can make sure we run our public transit better. DowneyLink, our public transit system, is dysfunctional. It doesn’t work. We can easily allocate funds to make sure that bus service is quick and rapid so that way people aren’t waiting in long lines.
We could push those funds towards creating protected bike paths throughout the city. The City of Downey is full of ADA violations. And they’re just really waiting for a large lawsuit to happen one of these days. We can push that money towards making sure our city is accessible for people with disabilities.
We can make sure that there are more counselors available in our school district, make sure that we develop a mental health crisis response team, there’s so many things we could be doing with this but we’re not. The City Council lacks vision.
Can you give me specific examples of militarization by the Downey PD?
We bought a big, heavy armored vehicle, it cost like half a million dollars, a couple of years ago. And there’s been a push for more of that kind of spending. This is Downey, we don’t need this. This is ridiculous.
I was one of the organizers for the first Pride March here in the City of Downey, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
Donald Arrington is a local Black Lives Matter organizer and we partnered with him.
A couple of friends who grew up in the city of Downey, who are all queer, LGBTQ, we’re thought, “How cool would it be if we bring a Pride March to the city?” and then Covid happened.
We wanted to make sure to (include) Black lives and Black queer lives and Black trans lives into our march.
The city labeled it a protest and sent cops in riot gear. That’s what I mean, why do our cops have riot gear? Why are we spending our money on this kind of thing? Why do they have sand bag guns with them? There’s no need to be spending money on this, we have (been) slowly militarizing our police department.
Your competitor, Mayor Pacheco, outraised you by a nearly 3-to-1 margin according to September 24 campaign finance disclosure forms. This included donations from two companies that have contracts with the city. Do you support any campaign finance reforms in Downey? Would you accept campaign contributions from a company that has existing contracts with the city?
I don’t think, especially if you’re currently elected and there is a contract with the city, you shouldn’t be accepting campaign funds from them. That is an apparent conflict of interest.
The way I’ve [previously] viewed funding was if people are going to give me money, I’m going to take it. This is how I approached politics at first but my viewpoint has changed. That was my mindset, someone will give me money and I’m gonna do what I want with it.
But as I got more involved in running, I realized this is an issue of integrity. Asking people to trust that you’re going to do the right thing, while you’re also taking money that’s a conflict of interest, is impossible. I want to make sure that I run a campaign that everyone feels comfortable endorsing, that everyone knows that I cannot be bought out. That everyone knows that I will basically not do what predecessors have done and engage in potential conflicts of interest. I really have to make sure that I hold myself to a higher standard of integrity.
Do you support curtailing or censoring public comment given during City Council meetings that is offensive?
We already have a code of conduct for public council meetings.
I’ve talked to so many people who want to get involved with local politics but they are so turned off by [this offensive speech]. My older brother, he’s Black, and he’s just like, ‘Why do I want to listen to this guy call me the N-word and then present my piece?’
For me, public comment is a place for the public to express their viewpoints on what’s happening in the city. They have the right to be angry. They have the right to be upset. They even have, in my opinion, the right to be kind of disrespectful. But for me, where we draw the line is, you do not have the right to attack people based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity. That, to me, is a no-brainer. And the City Council just refuses to do anything about it, despite us having a code of conduct to shut down that kind of speech.
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