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The Nextdoor Election

Los Angeles's election was a bleak referendum on how much the rich hate looking at homeless encampments.

There are only two things that people talk about on Venice Beach's Nextdoor, the hyperlocal social network. Homelessness, and lost dogs. Here are just a few of the posts from the last 48 hours:

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It is thread after thread after thread after thread of this. Homeowners living in $2 million houses moaning about tents, RVs, the "monster in the median"—which refers to both a homeless encampment next to a public library and a proposed affordable housing complex that would replace beach parking near it—and "transients," while simultaneously strategizing how to kill the affordable housing projects that would house them. 

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The most prominent "Democratic" political candidates in Los Angeles have run campaigns that have focused almost entirely on catering to these people by promising to disappear the city's unhoused population, making homeless encampments invisible to people in the city's richest neighborhoods. 

The platform of mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, a billionaire property developer and Republican until recently, is to "declare a state of emergency" on homelessness, "REMOVE TENT ENCAMPMENTS PERMANENTLY & ENFORCE QUALITY OF LIFE LAWS" by hiring more cops, and some "drain the swamp" stuff. There are no other issues he mentions on his website.

Tuesday, that message proved to be successful in a race in which only 14 percent of registered voters actually showed up. Caruso got more votes than longtime congresswoman Karen Bass, who ran a more progressive and humane campaign, and notably spoke about things besides homelessness. This was, then, a Nextdoor election. There is no better encapsulation of this than the city council race in District 11, which encompasses Venice Beach, Marina del Rey (where various billionaires park their yachts), the Pacific Palisades, and several other of the richest neighborhoods in the country. There, among many clear-the-encampment candidates, employer-side lawyer Traci Park stood out.

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Appropriately, Park's origin story, as she tells it on her YouTube, started with her commenting on Facebook, about homelessness. Park's video ads feature extensive footage of homeless encampments and explain that she got her start in the campaign because outgoing mayor Eric Garcetti and Bonin "broke promises" in response to a Facebook comment she left about clearing encampments, leading to what she pitches as more or less a dystopian hellscape "all across our district."

Park ran against progressive civil rights attorney Erin Darling in a crowded field to fill incumbent Mike Bonin's seat after he announced he'd step down for mental health reasons. The mental health issues for Bonin began in part because Bonin, who experienced homelessness himself, was relentlessly slammed for being soft on encampments by rich property owners and was the subject of a failed recall campaign focused exclusively on his failure to disappear homeless encampments largely in Venice Beach: "I've been open about being an alcoholic, and I have been open about having lived on the streets," Bonin told KCRW radio. "And some of the people I work with still give me booze for Christmas and still vote to criminalize homelessness." On Tuesday, Darling came away with Bonin’s endorsement and the most votes, but Park was in a close second place; the two will now face each other in a run-off in November.

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Park and Caruso's success on Tuesday show a dynamic that has been mentioned by the national press and discussed as a "shift right" from Democrats living in Los Angeles, which is seen by Ben Shapiro types as a hotbed of progressivism in the radically left socialist state of California. But few in the national press have stated plainly that homelessness, housing, and the perceived (but incorrect) assumption that the scourge of homelessness is making the neighborhoods more dangerous are the only things that Tuesday's election was about for many people in LA. 

In District 11, Park and her supporters blanketed the neighborhood with mailers and ads that focused almost exclusively on homeless encampments, and outraised and outspent Darling by a 10-1 margin. According to the local free newspaper the Venice Beachhead, “this has resulted in voters being bombarded by 91 messages, email, snail mail, videos, commercials.”

Much of her messaging has been hypocritical, suggesting she will clear encampments using the police, while opposing new housing and groups that lobby for landlords’ rights support her.

A mailer supporting Traci Park notes that she will "FIX WHAT'S BROKEN" above a photo of a homeless encampment and a picture of children playing soccer. The ad was paid for by the California Apartment Association Housing Solutions Committee, a lobbying group for landlords whose website proudly notes it is supporting a bill that would "help more landlords recover from the COVID-19 pandemic" and has published a guide for landlords who want to evict their tenants but cannot because of California's COVID-19 eviction moratorium.

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According to one investigative report on the lobbying group’s campaigns to kill tenant protections, the association sought to “deregulate land-use protections in cities and allow developers to build more luxury housing in middle- and working-class neighborhoods,” moves that would increase industry-wide profits but also “fuel gentrification and higher rents, the displacement of middle- and working-class residents who can’t afford rising rents and new luxury housing, and more evictions and homelessness.”

Darling has been endorsed by city council members, a state senator, the country's public defenders union, the LA Times, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the California Working Families Party, and more—a generally liberal to left leaning assortment of individuals and groups.

Park has been endorsed by LA's firefighters union (UFLAC), police union (LAPPL), airport officer union (LAAPOA), deputy sheriff association (ALADS), the Chamber of Commerce, the California Restaurant Association (CRA)—the business community and law enforcement.

The LA Times reported that the LAPPL alone had spent $500,000 on Park’s campaign through a political action committee supporting her, part of its $4 million spent this cycle trying to buy influence in LA after Bonin and other city council members publicly disavowed the union two years ago. In a further show of business community support, LAPPL’s PAC has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations from real estate investment companies. 

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The angle Park has gone with is pretty clear: insist Bonin is intentionally destroying Los Angeles, Darling is a carbon copy, but that she’ll do things differently while defending law enforcement and fighting against more housing and homeless shelters.

"The Westside deserves solutions to our out-of-control encampment crisis, rising violent crime, and our inhumane homelessness epidemic,” reads one mailer sent out by the LAPPL. “Erin Darling will deliver more of the same; that's why Mike Bonin endorsed him."

Another mailer, designed to look like a movie poster: “See Councilmember Mike Bonin and his handpicked twin, Erin Darling, deliver more of the same on the Westside of LA: rampant homelessness with no solutions, violent crime with fewer neighborhood police patrols, and excuse after excuse for why our streets are dirtier and more dangerous.” The poster is rated "NC-17 NO CAMPING ORDINANCE ENFORCEMENT."

In other ads, there’s an attempt to strike a more gentle tone by focusing on unhoused people: "Encampment living is dangerous and inhumane, for the people living there and for the surrounding neighborhoods. Traci Park knows an aggressive plan is needed to address our homelessness crisis, without criminalizing poverty, addiction, or mental health disorders," one mailer sponsored by the LAPPL reads.

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Another mailer for Park features a picture of an unhoused person’s tent cluttered with their belongings, then a text overlaid "Traci Park will get unhoused people off the streets for their safety and for public safety."

Park has gone to great lengths to insist her plan simply calls for the restoration of public safety, but runs up against the inconvenient fact that time and time again we see encampments don’t actually increase crime rates, especially when they are part of programs to eventually provide permanent housing. While Park isn’t alone in disregarding the evidence―LA’s City Council just voted 12-3 to expand the city’s anti-encampment law―she is perhaps more committed to doing so, calling for the removal of encampments while opposing the construction of alternatives.

Park told the Nation last year that she was for enforcement of anti-camping laws "particularly around sensitive-use areas—our beaches, our parks, around schools," as well as focusing on building shelters not permanent housing. Despite this, Park had opposed two recent temporary housing projects in the district, insisting the "the community at large has suffered" and "services providers aren't held accountable—there's no performance standards or accountability metrics."

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Park’s rhetoric about efficient, effective, prudent housing, support for private solutions to public problems, and enthusiastic support from police and corporate landlords is hard to distinguish from what some call the “the homeless industrial complex”—a system of public-private partnerships structured more by profits and reactionary policy than a desire to actually help house people.

“Homelessness is both a result of and an impediment to the pursuit of economic growth. Visible signs of poverty disrupt cities’ capacity to sell themselves as products and lure increasingly global capital,” Tracey Rosenthal, co-founder of the L.A. Tenants Union, writes for The New Republic, in a report on this complex. "Though unhoused people are much more often victims than perpetrators of violence, their presence is associated with a decline in neighborhood safety and thus threatens the security of speculative investments. As municipal policy aligns with the profit motive, police act as the shock troops for real estate’s capture of public space.”

Rosenthal points to a 2018 LA Times op-ed that observes a simple point: the most vulnerable people in our society—those without housing—are the ones who need a public safety campaign in their name. "It is clear who is truly unsafe because of homelessness and who just feels uncomfortable because of it,” writes Sara Shortt, a nonprofit focused on providing housing to the houseless. “Instead of focusing on making communities safer from the homeless, we must keep the homeless safer in the community."

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Shortt and Rosenthal's point is perhaps the most useful frame for the dynamic that is happening in places like Venice and perhaps in the Democratic party. Park and Caruso and their constituency—most obviously on Nextdoor—pitch Los Angeles as a dystopia, a hell on Earth. And it might be, for unhoused people who cannot afford to pay the neighborhood's astronomical rents. 

But, objectively, it is a nice place to spend time and a nice place to live for the people who can afford to live there, and more housing should be built so that more people can afford to live there. It is 70 degrees, sunny, and breezy year round. There are good restaurants on every block. It has a legendary skatepark, a decent surfbreak, and a boardwalk that people travel from around the world to see. There are annoying things about Venice, too. People—presumably those working in the crypto industry or for Snapchat or Google, which have major offices there—have taken to painting NFTs on their fences; a legendary sign that used to say "TATTOO" was changed to say "CRYPTO" until it was reverted back after the recent crash, there is Bored Ape Yacht Club street art painted on the walls of boardwalk shops, and you can buy NFTs on the boardwalk or have your aura imaged at a nearby crystal popup. 

But the people paying $14 for blue algae smoothies or doing interpretive dance at the public, free "Venice Beach Roller Skate Dance Plaza" or driving hard-to-get electric vehicles from companies like Rivian and Lucid do not seem to hate Venice.

Caruso and Park are the Nextdoor candidates, and there is unfortunately evidence that their message is somehow working. Caruso was, until relatively recently, a member of the GOP that switched to run in the race then leveraged his wealth to secure his candidacy. 

As Alex Shepherd writes for The New Republic, Caruso's campaign is for the city's elites: "The promise is simple: I will take all of the unseemly stuff that you don't like—homelessness, crime, poverty—and I will sequester these problems far from view." A simple look at his plans confirms as much: plans to provide housing are vague at best, the police will be let loose to "clean up" L.A. and "get real" about crime, and more development will happen to provide playgrounds for the rich "where all the problems they don't want to think about will be swept under the rug."

What will any of that look like in actuality? Probably this: