Long Beach Mayor Rex Richardson sat down with Business Journal reporters Jeremiah Dobruck, Brandon Richardson and Jason Ruiz in his office at City Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 8. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Long Beach Business Journal: When you were elected, you made homelessness your office’s primary focus. The first thing you did was declare an emergency on homelessness. What are the benchmarks you’re using to determine if the city is moving the needle to address the crisis?
Rex Richardson: The declaration of emergency was about giving a central focus to our city staff and giving something for the new council to organize around. We were very clear: You’re not going to solve homelessness in a six-to-nine-month emergency, but we could increase our capacity to manage it and position ourselves to make greater progress in the future.
One key thing is shelter capacity. Immediately looking for more space to expand our ability to have permanent shelter. Now we’re north of 1,600 beds. We were able to get the Rescue Mission acquired with a great partner, which adds to our capacity not only for ongoing shelter but a winter shelter. Every year, it’s been sort of a political hot potato of where you put the winter shelter. Now we never have to have that fight again.
The other big part of this is outreach. Many cities don’t even have their own outreach, but we’re a big city with our own health department and continuum of care, and we do homeless outreach. But it wasn’t sufficient for the amount of encampments and street-level homelessness. So we’ve expanded that. At the beginning of January, people still had to go to the Multi-Service Center. We put that on wheels. We just rolled out our second Mobile Access Center that brings people out to help address some of the chronic homelessness issues. That’s helpful.
But we’ve got to show progress on unsheltered homelessness by adding additional capacity. Tiny homes, for example: 33 may not be a big number but it’s important to those 33 families. But tiny homes are an experiment. If it works, you scale it. So it’s important to get it right. [Previously expected to open this year, the city announced a new location for the tiny home project at the southeast corner of Spring Street and California Avenue, slated for a 2025 opening.]
By expanding that capacity that allows us to start thinking about how we address the root causes of the issues. We can’t live in a perpetual state of emergency, we have to start addressing root causes.
LBBJ: What is the city doing to address the root causes of homelessness such as mental illness, addiction and poverty?
RR: Moving forward, we’re gonna have to be able to produce housing faster. We found out that now we can approve 100% affordable housing at 60- and 90-day approvals. That’s great. The progress on housing approvals in general has gone well this year — we’ve seen 1,500 entitlements in the first six months of the year.
LBBJ: What does the city do to increase housing?
RR: We set the conditions for housing to be built — through the process and through subsidies. The more you can pull the subsidies in, the more you can entice housing in your community. Over the last three or four years of affordable housing, Long Beach has produced more affordable housing than the next nine jurisdictions combined. It’s not close. Our streamlining processes are working. But we have to answer the big question of subsidy. We basically cobble together federal dollars and other things, which was small.
So how do we have local dollars? We can’t sit on our hands. The city of Los Angeles has the ULA measure, Proposition HHH — they went to their voters who passed taxes to subsidize and boost affordable housing production. We’ve never done that. And so Long Beach was a co-sponsor on LACAHSA, LA County Affordable Housing Solutions Agency. I’m the vice chair of this board. It’s a regional body to help boost housing production across the region and help cities that need the money. We’re having a full-throated conversation about what happens in the future as it relates to generating revenue to help support those cities. There are a number of options being explored right now and I fully support a lot of these strategies because they’re going to help us have what we need to produce housing.
LBBJ: Can you give us an example of those strategies?
RR: Subsidies. Money. Dollars.
LBBJ: Yeah, but how are we getting that money?
RR: This agency, and the county, we’ve been having a very public conversation about how to fund this agency and how to continue Measure H [a .5% percent sales tax hike, half of which would be dedicated to homeless services and short-term housing]. It’s a big threat for us if Measure H expires in 2027. As it expires, that’s going to be a threat to our ability to manage homelessness. So both the county and LACAHSA are exploring ways to continue the homeless funding beyond 2027 and how to increase dedicated housing funding. This is a big regional housing crisis, we need solutions.
Now let’s talk about some of the other things: mental health reform, substance abuse. What you’ll find is that the funding for mental health goes to counties and the benchmarks for success were set 20 years ago. So Long Beach, other big-city mayors, we’ve been engaged in this bigger conversation about how we want localized mental health. I made a motion as a council member to explore ways to localize mental health, which is now being developed locally into a mental health strategic plan. But also, statewide, legislation that kind of limits us, the legislature finally reformed it in this last session. Long Beach supported the bill, MHSA (Mental Health Services Act) reform, and a big piece of it is taking about $1.5 billion and tying it up in a residential mental health bond. So that’ll be on the ballot this March. That allows much-needed resources that can come to communities like Long Beach that actually are building housing and have a health department. It frees up money for residential mental health, that’s where we have a big shortage.
The second big part is conservatorship reform, which just made the ballot, too. That changes the threshold for how you can intervene in someone’s life in order to make a difference. Previously, the standard was so high for a family member to go into another family member’s life, who may be living in the streets, maybe substance use, maybe not making good decisions. That’s an important tool.
LBBJ: And Care Court launches in January. How do you see the city being part of that?
RR: I think it’s a welcome change. We need it. It’s essentially a court system where we’ll be able to have custom engagement and intervention in people’s lives. But without the laws around conservatorship and without the resources, we have to manage our expectation of how successful it’ll be.
LBBJ: These big macro changes are coming, but what would you say to someone who’s asking you, ‘When am I actually going to see the impact?’
RR: I think people are seeing the impact. Look at it this way: Coming into office, we have to figure out how we make a difference in people’s lives. Key example: picking up the trash. We were in a position where we were having a hard time collecting the trash as soon as I came into office. If we can’t collect trash on time, residents don’t have confidence that we can tackle the big issues. So what did we do? We focused on that. And this is the first time we’ve been fully staffed up in our refuse department in many, many years. If you do the small things that matter to people, then they believe you when you say you’re working on the hard things that may take a little bit more time.
LBBJ: You are the city’s first Black mayor. How do you think this has shaped your experience as mayor?
RR: Look, I’m the first person to hold the mayor’s office with a family and small children. That’s never happened since we’ve had citywide mayors. So I am firstly concerned about how people, how families are doing, how young people are doing.
I’m also a mayor from North Long Beach who knows what it’s like to have a resilient, difficult community that, sure, maybe it didn’t have a great reputation when we started, maybe there were challenges, but how do you inspire a community to really bring out that spirit of grit, that spirit of unity to show real results and have people feel good about the future? Those experiences — being a dad mayor, being a mayor from North Long Beach and being a mayor who understands our roots, my own family’s history with my mother integrating her schools when she was 7 years old — the age of my daughter — my grandmother protesting Governor George Wallace when they didn’t allow people to integrate University of Alabama.
All of those experiences help my context as a mayor, and help me to put things in perspective. It helps inform my budget, my priorities, my agenda. But also my perspective having moved here on a Greyhound bus from Alabama, which has the history as the segregated Jim Crow South. So, yeah, they inform my decisions and that’s why I think about equity. That’s why I think about young people. That’s why I think about opportunities.
LBBJ: The West Side Promise. What quality of life improvement should Westside residents expect through this plan? And how soon do you think they could start seeing some movement?
RR: It starts with community engagement. There’s a lot of opportunities on the Westside, with respect to the Inflation Reduction Act — that’s 10 years of funding to communities like West Long Beach to address environmental challenges and other things. We’ll also be looking at programs that we have in the city. The Long Beach Pledge is an example. That’s the guaranteed income program. Well, how can we expand that?
The Long Beach Housing Promise — that’s an innovative agreement to bring partners together around issues like housing. How does that show up on the Westside? We bring those partners together. We put resources in there to see how nonprofits and philanthropy can show up for the Westside. I think the point here is, we’re going to start with community engagement and putting infrastructure in place to see some long-lasting change over the next decade. It’s more important for me to get it right than to go quickly on certain things.
LBBJ: Give us your elevator pitch for opening a business or developing property in Long Beach.
RR: Long Beach is a place where businesses will come and thrive. I think we are embedding the values of ease, speed and predictability as it relates to doing business in our city. Whether it’s a permit for a toilet or to build 900 units of housing. To do business in our city, it should be easy, it should be very clear and you should understand what the timetable is. And so some of the steps that we’ve taken like rolling out our Long Beach Builds platform to make it much more transparent.
The other thing is Long Beach is situated between Los Angeles and Orange counties, we’ve got a Downtown on the waterfront, we are more affordable than most other cities both in terms of commercial and residential properties. We’re independent, we control many of our local services. That means we can have more custom boutique care. It’s important to me that our whole city be accessible and thrive and have economic opportunity.
So we’re in the process of updating plans in every part of our city, making sure we have a very clear vision for how a business can fit in and succeed. I think we’re showing the right signs of investment moving forward. Lots of excitement in our five key growing industries [education, health care, aviation and aerospace, tourism and the ports].
LBBJ: Beachwood Brewing closed their flagship in Downtown due to concerns about crime, homelessness and construction. Did you talk to them to try to keep them here and what would you say to companies thinking of leaving?
RR: I think there’s actually a lot of excitement in Downtown, but a lot of the small businesses have been caught in this transition for a long time. You have construction that should be done in the next few months that’s actually bringing people to activate the Promenade.
Beachwood was right there on the Promenade and that construction has been hard for them. They’ve been in this transition window. And then on top of that there’s been chronic challenges with homelessness in certain pockets and we’re finally starting to see some of that be addressed. Lincoln Park and Billie Jean King Library, we’re starting to see more engagement there. We just got the biggest grant we’ve ever received at one time for homelessness … specifically targeted to these areas. So they’ve been through some difficult times but our businesses are resilient, they’re strong and we’ve been able to show up for them.
LBBJ: A lot of those problems Beachwood complained about that other businesses are experiencing are incredibly hard to stop from happening — they happen in a moment and then it’s done. Where do you think the city should be investing more money in response to these concerns?
RR: Mental health, 100%. One: we have to do a better job at hiring and retention. That helps us actually respond to people. Two: complementing it with robust proactive services. If someone we know is having a challenge in the community, we should have the resources to go in and engage with them. It’s not something that’s funded in the city. It’s something that we partner with the county or we go to philanthropy. That is one area where I think we have to do better. We just have to make sure those businesses know that we were standing with them through this transition.
LBBJ: Is crime up in Long Beach?
RR: It’s down in terms of homicides and violent crime, but property crimes have increased. You’ll see the same trends in a lot of our downtowns. So what I’ll tell you is our police department is responding. People like the neighborhood safety bike teams, they like to see more engagement proactively. Those are things I would like to expand. As we retain and hire more, I would like to see more emphasis on community policing work. Right now we’re at 16 neighborhood safety bike teams, I would love to get to 32. Those are the things that are showing up for people.
LBBJ: Outside of Los Angeles, Long Beach is the city hosting the most events during the 2028 Olympics. What does this mean for the city?
RR: Arts, culture and entertainment is big for me. If you think about how that makes money for people, it’s really four ways: it’s conventions and meetings and we’re back to pre-pandemic levels. Then you have special events: Grand Prix had record levels, we’re doing more festivals with record levels. But the two areas where we’re a little light are our entertainment and sports. The Olympics allows us to have a benchmark to help launch Long Beach into the future as it relates to expanding in those areas.
I’ve talked a lot about the Queen Mary. I’ve got a goal to have an amphitheater done before the Olympics in that area that can bring live events and concerts to our city. The scale we’re talking about, maybe not as big as the Hollywood Bowl, but definitely bigger than the Greek. Imagine that on the water in Long Beach. That brings much more economic activity in the Tidelands area. Huge for us.
The Queen Mary itself: the city had a bad narrative a year ago. We’re in the black today. We don’t have shareholders, we take our profits and put them right back in the city. So as we head into the Olympics, I think it’s an opportunity for the world to get to know Long Beach as a cool city, a working-class community that has a lot of good things going for us. The platform of the Olympics really positions us to help redefine who we are as an arts, culture and entertainment hub for Los Angeles County.
LBBJ: So you’re hopeful the Queen Mary can cover its own costs.
RR: The Queen Mary definitely can cover its costs. The big-picture repositioning of the Queen Mary, that’s going to have to have supplemental funding. What I would like to do is master plan all the areas around the Queen Mary — the city taking the lead, not handing it to a private developer. I think it’s very possible for the Queen Mary and the development around the Queen Mary to be self-sustainable, 100%.
LBBJ: For business owners and residents who want to help make Long Beach a better place, what is the best way for them to help shape policy and enact positive change?
RR: Support our local small businesses, join the board of your business improvement district, get involved in a city commission. We’re in a really exciting moment as a city right now as it relates to investment in our public infrastructure, as it relates to charting a more climate-resilient future, investment into bringing more activity and tourism into our business districts across the city. We’re in a very exciting moment and I think now’s the time for us to just double down on Long Beach. Get involved and be a part of the future.