Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu is the first Korean-American to hold a council seat in Los Angeles. He was sworn into office on June 29, 2015 and helms District 4, which includes Toluca Lake, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys, Hancock Park and Los Feliz. In a conference room at his Cahuenga Blvd. office, the affable 44-year-old Ryu opened up about his life and his Council duties with The Tolucan Times.
Can you tell us about your childhood and your family?
I came here when I was six. My brother and sister were born here and my grandmother came to help take care of the family while my parents worked two or three jobs. Six of us lived in a two bedroom apartment. I went to John Burroughs Jr. High and John Marshall would have been my home high school, but I went to Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet. Then when I went to college, luckily I got a few scholarships and thank goodness for Cal grants, Federal programs, Stafford Loans and State programs, stuff like that; I was able to go to UCLA for undergrad.
Were you groomed for politics?
No. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. When I was in my third year of college I told them I wanted to be a social worker and they flipped out.
Did you become a social worker?
I worked in non-profits and while I was at UCLA I worked on different advocacy groups. I saw non-profits as the vehicle for change. I even went to Washington, D.C., and worked for an international non-profit working on conflict diamonds (Editor: diamonds illegally traded to fund conflicts in war zones) and issues like that. My dream job prior to that was working for the United Nations and I actually got to intern there.
Where did you go for that?
New York. There’s two headquarters – New York and Geneva. They asked me to go to Geneva but I just couldn’t afford it. I pulled out all my loans…got everything together…it was about a three-and-a-half month internship at the U.N. It was an amazing experience. And our opening session was with then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Then after that I had so much college debt, I was thinking maybe I just need to get a real job and I did work in the private sector on the east coast for about a year. That’s when my resume was circulated and I was hired by L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Burke. She’s an amazing person. I didn’t know how lucky I was to get that job.
What was your title at that point?
Legislative Deputy. This was my dream job that I didn’t know existed. I got to work on mental health, HIV/AIDS, alcohol and drug issues. I got to work on my passion projects – senior services, homelessness, public health.
You seem to believe in justice, fighting for the underdog. Are there other people on the City Council like you?
Many are, yeah. And it’s not just fighting for the underdog, per se; I’m for equity and opportunity. Because I do understand we don’t have the resources to help everyone. So first, I want to help those who want to help themselves and I want to try to make it as equitable as possible. It’s not about just helping, it’s about trying to lift people out of poverty and trying to make sure there’s less barriers to opportunity.
So what happens when you hit a roadblock, like at the recent meeting in Sherman Oaks? You want to build homeless housing but people fight you.
I thought that meeting was a success. There was about 250 people in attendance and there was only a handful of people raising a ruckus with signs. We had LAPD, we had County offices there, we had the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority there, we had several non-profit housing providers there, we had United Way; we had a whole cornucopia of services for anyone who wanted to learn about homelessness. There were a lot of people asking, what actually is Bridge Housing? People kept on saying shelter but the mayor’s Bridge Home Initiative is not a shelter. When we say Bridge Home or Bridge Transitional Housing they have to stay there a minimum of 90 days and a maximum of 18 months. The goal of Bridge Housing — it’s literally a bridge to permanent independent living. So within that 90 days or within that year, we’re trying to get you prepared and at the same time trying to find proper housing for you to live in. So people came and asked, is Bridge Housing the same as halfway housing? And those people got their questions answered. But the fundamental thing, step one, and this has been proven through trial and error, is what we call Housing First — the model that began in New York. Because in order to provide the mental health treatment, the alcohol treatment, the job training – you need a roof over your head.
What are your thoughts on Airbnb?
Part of the housing problem is people using homes or apartments for short term rentals that could be rented out long term and that is decreasing our supply. It’s unfair to say Airbnb is causing this housing crunch, but they are a contributor. I’m one of the Councilmembers who is asking for the most restrictive form of Airbnb. I took a stance that it should be no more than 60-90 days, but the compromise was a 120 days per year cap to use your primary residence as an Airbnb.
Why did you move your Toluca Lake field office?
One of the reasons for the Toluca Lake office was to give the Toluca Lake Neighborhood Council a meeting space and an office space so we wanted to make sure to be committed to the area. Now the problem was, in Toluca Lake, there aren’t many properties available, and without getting into too many specifics, our roof caved in. And it’s hard for us to even find an office because we have all sorts of requirements. The Toluca Lake office was on the second floor and there were ADA accessibility issues. We looked heavily for a place in Toluca Lake and it turns out a lot of property owners don’t want to rent to the City.
So moving your office out of Toluca Lake should not be interpreted as you turning your back on Toluca Lake?
No. We found the closest place possible to the old office. The Toluca Lake Neighborhood Council has an office here. (Editor: the office is at 3330 Cahuenga Blvd W., Los Angeles.)
Tell us about Tree Policy Reform?
The urban canopy is something that’s very important to the City. We haven’t taken an actual measurement but we’re a district with one of the largest amount of urban canopy within residential areas.
Urban canopy is trees and foliage?
In neighborhoods, street trees. But a lot of them haven’t been maintained which is why there’s a lot of overgrowth, a lot of dead trees, branches falling all over the place. And of course now we have the Sidewalk Program. And in repairing the sidewalks it became a huge issue between fixing the sidewalk and saving the tree. Engineering comes over and says, in order to fix the sidewalk we have to cut down the tree because if we prune the roots the tree will die, so public safety-wise you have to get rid of the tree. But now the neighbors don’t want the tree to be gone. So how do you fix the sidewalk without taking the tree out?
You’re between a rock and a hard place.
The Urban Forestry Department of L.A. has been decimated. It’s to a point where my office is the Urban Forestry Department. I might as well hire an actual arborist to work in my office. But that’s not my job, we have an Urban Forestry Department, so that’s why I’ve been fighting to do a whole top-down assessment of the Department and how we can beef it up again. We just funded them for another 68 staff, which basically backfills and it’s still not enough. So that’s why I’m saying — Tree Policy Reform — we need to come up with a better policy to fix sidewalks as well as having a tree replanting process.
Will you seek re-election?
Yes. I am seeking re-election now. My immediate goal is to continue finishing up all the things I’ve started then going for re-election. God-willing if the people think I’m doing a good enough job then I can continue on the various initiatives that I’ve started and see them through.
Learn more about David Ryu and his Council activities at DavidRyu.lacity.org.
Sal Rodriguez is a lifelong Los Angeles resident and Supervising Editor of The Tolucan Times.