Karen Bass and Rick Caruso Fight Over How to Fix the Homelessness Crisis in Hollywood’s Hometown

It’s no exaggeration to say that parts of Los Angeles look like scenes from a disaster movie. 

The swelling ranks of people living in tents, vehicles and makeshift shelters on the streets of Los Angeles have reached humanitarian-crisis proportions. The dire need to address the upsurge of slumlike encampments dotting the city’s streets, the San Fernando Valley’s canyons and the Hollywood Hills has dramatically raised the stakes of the mayoral election to succeed the outgoing Eric Garcetti.

Homelessness and the spike in violent crime are the overriding issues motivating voters in the charged race between veteran Democratic legislator Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso. The contest, which comes to a head on Nov. 8, has drawn more attention from entertainment industry politicos than usual because of the severity of the city’s problems.

Bass, an L.A. native who has represented the city in Congress for a decade, tells Variety that the debate over how to handle homelessness is what motivated her to leave Washington, D.C., for a run at Spring Street. Bass got her start as a community activist in South L.A. in the 1990s and says much of today’s debate about homelessness reminded her of missteps that were made back then. “It’s the déjà vu that drove me to enter the race,” Bass says. “I think we made serious mistakes in the ’90s, policywise, and it’s absolutely, positively contributed to what we’re going through now.”

Caruso and Bass have each called for declaring a state of emergency on the issue. Caruso, 63, tells Variety that he wants to hire 500 caseworkers and undertake a massive push to get the unhoused off the streets and into shelters. “Based on what I’ve seen out there, it is absolutely solvable if somebody is willing to make very humane, tough and smart decisions,” he says. “This city alone is spending $1 billion a year on homelessness issues, and the problem continues to get worse.”

The dysfunction in Hollywood’s hometown is affecting business for the industry in large and small ways. And the fact that encampments are mushrooming even in ritzy West L.A. zip codes is driving up the alarm among some of L.A.’s most privileged residents. Industry heavyweights, including investor Jeffrey Katzenberg, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, CAA’s Bryan Lourd and UTA’s Jay Sures have been active behind the scenes in the mayoral race.

“The homeless situation in L.A. is terrible, it’s just terrible,” says Sures, who has long been politically active as a fundraiser and is supporting Caruso. “It’s not fair or right for anyone — residents, homeowners, business owners or the people sleeping on the streets in tents. It’s a total failure.”

It’s clear that the race is coming down to the question of who is better equipped to address the needs of L.A.’s most vulnerable residents. Homelessness is perhaps the most conspicuous symptom of a thicket of social problems that range from the dearth of affordable housing to long-term economic dislocation and the harrowing rise in mental illness and substance abuse.

Entertainment attorney Matt Johnson, a partner at Johnson Shapiro Slewett & Kole, sees Bass, 69, as having the right set of skills and connections for the daunting challenge.

“The homelessness problem — that’s not going to be solved on a local level. You have to bring the full palette of stakeholders to the table: the county, the state, the federal government. You need to have the philanthropic community involved. You need to have the business community involved,” Johnson says. “It’s clear to me that Karen is the only person who can bring disparate parties with disparate interests to the table.”

The homeless population in Los Angeles County has been rising steadily since 2018, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. The nation’s most populous county, with nearly 10 million residents, had more than 69,000 people experiencing homelessness this year, according to the 2022 count released in September by LAHSA. The city of L.A., with just under 4 million total residents, bears the brunt of that number, with nearly 42,000 within its borders experiencing homelessness. That means L.A. has about 40% of the county’s population but about 60% of its homeless population.

Backers of Caruso point to his unusual background that mixes his success as a real estate developer and his track record of taking on big civic projects under past L.A. mayors Tom Bradley and James Hahn. In the 1990s, Caruso led the reorganization of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. In the early 2000s, he served as president of the Los Angeles Police Department in the wake of the Rampart police brutality scandal.

Caruso’s diligence and vision has impressed boldface-name supporters like Sarandos, Netflix’s co-CEO and chief content officer. “He has that unique track record of figuring out complex things to do and doing them,” Sarandos says. After 23 years in Los Angeles, after moving Netflix operations boldly into the heart of Hollywood in 2017, Sarandos is dismayed by the situation around those offices today.

“I’ve known most of the mayors in my 23 years. They talk about how hard everything is to do. And vital city services are progressively worse year after year. The quality of life for average Angelenos is pretty difficult,” Sarandos says. Caruso “has done things in this city and state that are nearly impossible, and never once has he told me how hard they are.”

Bass has been endorsed in the race by most of the Democratic establishment, including President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Bass finished seven points ahead of Caruso in the June 7 primary, and enjoyed a wide polling lead as recently as late September — though a more recent poll showed Caruso closing the gap and taking a three-point lead.

Caruso has spent $62 million of his own money to flood the L.A. region with TV ads. Those spots have slammed Bass hard for her appearance at a 2010 Scientology event in Hollywood, and for questions about her ties to USC and an advanced degree that she received from the university. Bass’ campaign and its surrogates have painted Caruso as an anti-choice Republican who switched his party affiliation for electoral expediency in deep-blue Los Angeles. Caruso asserts that he is pro-choice.

An unexpected earthquake hit L.A. politics in early October when a secret recording surfaced of three L.A. City Council members using racist language. Los Angeles City Council president Nury Martinez was forced to resign from her seat within days after the recording captured her using a racist term while trash-talking the young son of a fellow council member last year. Pressure remains on the other two council members involved in the conversation.

Each candidate’s response to the crisis showed their contrasting approaches to the job. Caruso underscored his message that City Hall is corrupt, and he is best positioned to clean it up. Bass, on the other hand, responded by convening political leaders from across racial groups to show a message of unity.

Bass held a 15-point lead among likely voters, according to the Los Angeles Times poll taken in late September. The conventional wisdom among political observers in L.A. is that Caruso’s only path to victory is to drive a big turnout of angry voters. The Southern California News Group poll, released on Tuesday, showed his campaign could be having an effect. Caruso’s three-point lead among likely voters was within the margin of error.

The urgency of the unhoused crisis has overshadowed every other issue in the race. Bass and Caruso have courted Hollywood for high-profile support, but neither has offered much in the way of specific proposals to address entertainment industry needs.

“I have a long history of working with the entertainment industry,” Bass says. “I was involved in starting and was on a board to diversify the below-the-line crafts. In Sacramento, I pledged to do the tax credits. In Washington, D.C., I’ve been working on piracy and copyright issues.”

She also has a personal connection to Hollywood’s Golden Age: “My grandmother, who I never met, worked at MGM in 1932 — one of the few Black people at the time.”

Caruso also has family ties to showbiz through two of his four adult children. Son Gregory is a writer, producer and director; son Justin is a DJ and musician. So Caruso knows firsthand that L.A. city taxes can be hard on those in the industry who largely earn freelance income.

“We do talk about this. It’s crazy to me what Los Angeles has done because we have overregulated and overtaxed people to the point that they have moved out of Los Angeles,” Caruso says. “And all they have to do is move next door to Culver City or go to Glendale — they don’t have to go far away. The City of Los Angeles and any city is a competitive business. And we have to be competitive. We can’t be unduly taxed here and expect people to want to stay.”

Caruso has estimated that his homeless plan would cost $843 million in the first year alone. At a debate on Oct. 11, he vowed that he would not raise taxes to pay for it. Johnson says that Caruso’s plans on the issue “are simply impossible to achieve, and that he knows that.” He adds, “I never appreciate that in politicians, when they’re making promises they know they cannot keep.”

Bass’ plan would cost just $292 million in the first year, but she has not ruled out seeking new taxes. “We have an emergency on our streets,” she says. “We have thousands of people who could fall into homelessness any day. To say I would not raise taxes makes no sense. I’m not saying I absolutely will, but I’m not taking any tool out of the toolbox.”

The businessman who hopes to prevail over Bass for L.A.’s top elected job reiterates that he believes existing resources can be used more effectively. “What we’ve been doing is providing services on the street without housing people,” Caruso asserts. “And it’s three times more costly to do that. This system is broken.”

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