A Vision for the Future: An Interview with Councilmember Cameron SmythTerry Nguyen August 26, 2018 1 COMMENT
Councilmember Cameron Smyth is one of two council members not seeking the three seats up for re-election in November. Smyth, a Santa Clarita native, former mayor and former California state assemblymember, prides himself on his willingness to work across party lines, a task that has become exceedingly difficult in national, and even state, politics. He got his start in local politics in 2000 at the age of 29 and was elected to the state legislature in 2006, serving a six-year term. He then returned to serving on the Santa Clarita City Council in 2016.
The Proclaimer spoke with Smyth about his plans for the rest of his term and his perspective on the issues affecting the city.
“One of the reasons I ran for City Council again was to tackle the growing drug use in our community, particularly among young people,” Smyth said.
The city and state have sought more aggressive methods to combat California’s burgeoning opioid crisis: Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) has introduced legislation to target abuse and addiction, and the city has hosted public events to discuss the epidemic.
In a July meeting, Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Lewis said that there have been seven deaths from opioid abuse in the area, the Signal reported.
Smyth believes that a holistic approach would best help the city tackle the crisis, which involves collaboration with the medical community, treatment providers and both federal and local law enforcement. “Certainly, if the federal government is willing to add additional support and enforcement, we would welcome that,” he added, noting how some drugs are shipped through the U.S. Postal Service.
Drug abuse disproportionately affects at-risk communities, like lower-income residents and the homeless population, Smyth acknowledged. Homeless individuals suffer from higher rates of substance abuse disorders and mortality rates by opioid overdose than the average person, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.
“With the passage of Measure H, [Los Angeles] County has significant resources at its disposal,” he said. The city has around 331 homeless individuals, according to the county’s 2017 Homeless Count, and Bridge to Home, the city’s designated shelter, operated from November to May this year, with the exception of certain extreme weather conditions. Smyth emphasized seeking local solutions, referencing the city’s July 2018 community plan to address homelessness.
“[Our] homeless population is going to look different than the Antelope Valley’s or San Fernando Valley’s — and we have to treat it as such,” he said. Smyth stated that the narrative around homelessness has shifted over his tenure in local government.
“Almost every year, there were a number of residents coming out and speaking against [the shelter], and not wanting it located near them,” he said. “Fast forward to 2017, or 2018, we voted $1 million dollars worth of property to Bridge to Home for a year-round, full-time shelter.”
But in July, the Council was also criticized for unanimously passing legislation that creates restrictions for the homeless in public spaces, the Los Angeles Times reported. Some rules prohibited lying in public buildings, parks or sidewalks, and storing belongings in certain areas. That week, Smyth and Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean published an editorial in the Signal clarifying the legislation.
Like many other cities in the Los Angeles area, Santa Clarita is not immune to rent growth increases. The city’s current rents have increased by 4.2 percent in comparison to August 2017, and this rate is significantly higher than statewide and national rent increases. Larger cities are showing more affordable rent than Santa Clarita, according to the Apartment List rent report.
“I do believe there is a role for the city to have with developing affordable housing options,” Smyth said. “We have the ability to demand or require a certain percentage of a development project is set aside for affordable use.”
Solutions for affordable housing and rent control should be enacted through city government, Smyth said, stating that he is wary of all-encompassing state legislation on housing affordability.
Currently, California housing activists are advocating for the repeal of the 1995 Costa Hawkins Act, a statewide act that limits the rent control policies cities like Los Angeles could impose. While Santa Clarita does not have any rent control policies, the repeal could be a game-changer for the future of affordable housing.
The city currently houses 397 affordable rental housing units in agreement with Los Angeles County or the state of California, and it has one apartment complex designated specifically for low-income families on Newhall Avenue. The complex opened in October 2017 and houses 29 families.
“It is no doubt a challenge,” Smyth said. “But one of the ways that when we talk about housing costs, you have supply and demand. There’s a lot of opposition to growth in Santa Clarita as well, [but] that eases the strain on the supply.”
Development and displacement
The construction of Newhall Ranch is underway after nearly 20 years of local dispute, and the development expects to bring 21,500 units to the city over an approximate 20 year period, Curbed reported. Around 2,000 housing units will be brought in at below-market rates, along with space for retail businesses, shopping and dining locations.
Smyth said that most new development in the city, such as Newhall Ranch and construction in the Plum Canyon area, was not approved by the city or were part of the greater Los Angeles County when it approved.
“These projects are not in the city or were approved by the city, [but] they certainly impact the city,” he said. “It’s a continual effort to make sure that those impacts are mitigated.”
Needham Ranch, which broke ground in late 2017 and was approved by the city, will serve as a 50-acre commercial and industrial space. Smyth sees this development as an opportunity to bring more jobs into the city and alleviate traffic from residents’ commutes.
“Since we have so many people commuting, the more opportunities we have to bring equity to our job and housing balance, the better,” he said. Smyth is mindful of displacement concerns among Santa Clarita’s low-income senior residents or communities of color, but said that new development hasn’t resulted in a serious loss of homes for most folks.
Traffic congestion and road construction is also a major issue for residents, Smyth said, but the increase in traffic is inevitable as Santa Clarita’s population grows.
“The city is installing technology that allows our traffic engineers to look at intersections in real time and can make adjustments within days of reviewing the data,” he said. In addition to supporting public transit options, the city hopes to construct more roads to alleviate congestion. Santa Clarita has grown to be the third largest in the county, and concerns about development and crowding have arisen, Smyth said.
Smyth was drawn back to city politics after a brief stint in the state legislature and in the private sector, and he has his eye towards re-election in 2020. But beyond that, his future remains uncertain.
“I’ve been around long enough to know things change and lives change,” he said, with a chuckle.
What are you hoping to accomplish in the next 2 years?
We have a lot of great capital projects that are in the queue. This year, this month we’ve broken ground on a new sheriff station, a new fire station — we’re looking to open the doors on our new community center in Canyon Country and looking to put a library as well. Those are just some of the new projects that are ongoing that we hope to see completed in the next 18 to 24 months.
One of the reasons I ran for CC again was to tackle the growing drug use in our community, particularly among young people. I have three kids, and my oldest son just started high school today. I see what he and his peers are going through and what they’re exposed to, and it’s important to acknowledge that SC isn’t different than those other communities. We have issues that other cities have, but what makes SC different is our willingness to acknowledge those problems and come together to tackle it holistically. That includes the city, our medical community, law enforcement, treatment providers and all areas of government. Certainly, if the federal government is willing to add additional support and enforcement, we would welcome that. One of the things I learned at this meeting is how much heroin and fentanyl reaches this country through the US postal service. It’s not being smuggled in; it’s just being sent through regular mail. Certainly, there is a role for the federal government to step in and provide greater oversight and security there.
Drug abuse affects a variety of communities
With the passage of Measure H, the county has significant resources at its disposal. We as a city are working with the county to access those dollars. We’re working with nonprofits to apply and receive grant funding. The issue of homelessness is something that needs to be tackled holistically. There’s a lot of nuance to it. SC’s homeless population is going to look different than the Antelope Valley’s or San Fernando Valley’s and we have to treat it as such. What are some of those factors that fall into that? Is it mental health issues, is it addiction issues? Is it a result of domestic violence or a result of economics — people losing their jobs. Our next Council Meeting in a couple weeks, we’ll be receiving a report that was put together through a consultant that the city hired. They brought in homeless experts throughout the Santa Clarita to provide a roadmap for us.
Report is online, the city’s website. One of the things we did in the report that was completed in early July, but we wanted it to be a community document, along with 30 or so participants that drafted it, we wanted to put it online so that residents can review it and provide input so that we can really get as much expertise and comments on it, so we can put it to use.
Ensuring community is comfortable
The narrative around homelessness has really changed over time. During my first go-around on the CC in the early 2000’s, as we discussed a part time winter shelter in the community, almost every year there were a number of residents coming out and speaking against it and not wanting it located near them. It was all of the.. concerns that you’ve heard over the years. But if you fast forward to 2018, or 2017, we voted.. a million dollars worth of property to Bridge to Home for a year-round, full-time shelter. There was not one person… only two people spoke in opposition, and I think it speaks to the education that’s been done around homelessness over the year. It doesn’t carry the same stigma that it has, and I saw that firsthand in less than a dozen years, how it changed in Santa Clarita.
Costa Hawkins Act (rent control)
Tangible solution for affordable housing? Perspective on rent control?
I will (?) support rent control; I’m always hesitant of solutions for cities or counties being implemented by the state legislature in Sacramento. And so I worry about the legislature continually trying to take local control away from cities and counties. One of the things.. the city last year opened up our first affordable housing facility and complex. Again, it’s one of the best looking complexes on the street, and you wouldn’t know it was “affordable housing.” It is no doubt a challenge, but one of the ways that when we talk about housing costs, you have supply and demand. There’s a lot of opposition to growth in SC as well, that it eases the strain on the supply. I do believe there is a role for the city to have with developing affordable housing. Making sure there is affordable housing options. What we’re seeing in SC, is the growth of my parents’ generation… they don’t want.. their families are here, their children are here, they don’t want to leave SC. They’re looking to downsize, and they want to stay in the same community. The city is working towards it. We have the ability to demand or require a certain percentage of a development project is set aside for affordable use. Those are the tools that I’d rather be implemented; the ones that are given to local government rather than the directive from the legislature.
I spent 6 years in the legislature and I know firsthand that while in theory the idea might sound great, but in any state, particularly CA, you can’t have a uniform policy because of the sheer diversity of communities we have there in the state. I would prefer that it still be left to the locals, whether its LA, SC, etc, etc. Let the locals have the tools to do what’s right for their communities.
Development happening in the city
Keep in mind that development in SC is not within the city. When you talk about Newhall Ranch or the other construction in the Plum Canyon area. Those are currently in the County of LA or were in the county when approved. That’s always been, that’s one of the reasons the city even formed, was to have a say over those developments in the Valley. We still struggle with that because…while Newhall Ranch, these projects are not in the city or were approved by the city, they certainly impact the city. And, it’s a continual effort to make sure that those impacts are mitigated, and that… To me, it’s very simple. I don’t support any development projects that don’t provide the adequate infrastructure, which is park, is there enough water, school districts…do we have to build a school? I don’t even look to support a project until I see those sign-offs from the school district, the water district, and then I start looking at the other infrastructure needs.
It’s all through LA County. It’s called unincorporated LAC, so they don’t belong to any city. Their local government is like the County Supervisor. They’re not your constituents — they’re completely separate. The city boundaries are the 5 Freeway and the 14th. So pretty much everything west of the 5 Freeway isn’t part of the city. Stevens Ranch area (not part of Santa Clarita).
Fear of traffic congestion among residents?
Growing our City Bus service — we’re always evaluating that. We have multiple Metro Link stops in the city. It’s just the reality that as the city grows, you’re going to see more traffic. The city is also installing technology that allows our traffic engineers to look at intersections in real time and can make adjustments within days of reviewing the data. Really putting technology to use as well. And ultimately we are working on new road construction. That’s a big part of the solution. There’s a property in the middle of town getting a clean bill of health from state and federal environmental regulators, eventually we’ll be able to put… another East West corridor (around 19:00).
One of the places.. At the end of 2017 we broke ground on Needam Ranch project. It will provide several million square feet of commercial and industrial space, which is important since it’s providing jobs without any new housing. Since we have so many people commuting, the more opportunities we have to bring equity to our job and housing balance, the better. And so, a project like NR that’s going to provide 1,000 jobs upon completion without any new homes is a great asset and a new step of alleviating that traffic to bring jobs *back* into the valley. Yes, in terms of the concerns, certainly I am… growing up in Newhall, the older part of town, I am very much aware and Iwant to make sure that you don’t have that displacement of our minority, low-income communities, the long-term senior residents of Santa Clarita. They should be able to have a home here, as anyone else does. At this point, we really focus on revitalizing the commercial core, especially in the Newhall area, and it hasn’t resulted in any loss of homes or eminent domain of homes and many of the residents there are able to remain.
If you ask anyone during my time in the legislature, I had the reputation of someone who was willing to cross party lines to do what I thought was right for the state, regardless of who the bill author was or which party it was. I felt validated when John Perez appointed me to chair the assembly local government. I was the only Republican to chair a major policy committee at the time, and it.. really reaffirmed that reputation and my willingness to work for solutions. That it was recognized and in some way rewarded with that. I’ve always been a believer in trying to just get to the solutions and not worry about the politics. Certainly there is politics involved and I get that but I’d much rather find ways to work with people than work against them.
What is the most divisive issue in this city?
Currently, it’s hard to say because certainly there are divisive issues that are not relevant to the city. We have national issues, state issues that are divisive. When it comes to the city, you still have.. concerns about development and crowding. I think that’s probably the number 1 issue people would say they’re concerned about. I certainly understand that given the change of Santa Clarita and how we’ve grown to be the 3rd largest city in the county, just behind Los Angeles and Long Beach. I certainly get that. That’s the most… the biggest concern. Now, that could change. We have an election coming up so, based on communication with the city, much of that have to do with roads and traffic.
If you want to bring more jobs, that comes up with a lot of issues residents don’t like.
Jobs, yes, but it’s really roads construction. Roads are really hard to build in a community like SC. Hills, a river bed through the center of town. It’s different than the old San Fernando Valley or the Antelope Valley where you can do a grid system where it’s really flat. How do you build the roads necessary without the bridge and thoroughfare fees that help fund the roads through development? That’s the Catch-22 so to speak.
Santa Clarita is my home; my parents moved here, I’m raising my children here. We certainly have our challenges like every other place, but it’s a special community. We do still tackle issues together, even if we don’t always agree. I think everyone still wants to make Santa Clarita a great place; that’s what makes the job easier for me, even when there’s some disagreements.
Terry Nguyen is a reporter writing about policy and people in the Los Angeles area. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Lily and Brit+Co.