Nithya Raman’s victory in the L.A. City Council’s Fourth District (CD 4) race last November was surprising and historic in many ways. Having never held office, Raman unseated incumbent David Ryu, becoming the first challenger in 17 years to oust a sitting councilmember. She also became the first woman to represent the district and the first South Asian and first Asian woman elected to the City Council.
In addition, the election drew a record-breaking turnout, as city council races shifted from odd-numbered to even-numbered years to sync with state and national elections and increase voter participation. According to Raman, in the previous general election for the CD 4 seat, there were 24,000 people who voted out of a district of 250,000 residents and 180,000 registered voters. The 2020 CD 4 election brought more than 130,000 voters to the polls, and Raman made history again by receiving the most votes of any L.A. City Council candidate ever.
As a political newcomer, Raman, a Harvard- and MIT-educated urban planner and anti-poverty advocate, ran a progressive grassroots campaign that championed the idea of creating an inclusive L.A. where people of all backgrounds could help build a city to thrive in. She centered her platform around solving the city’s biggest issues, such as homelessness and housing, climate change, police reform and more. And now, a few months into the job, she’s implementing policies to effect change in those areas at City Hall.
We caught up with Raman to talk about her campaign, her plans to make CD 4 — and, by extension, Toluca Lake — a better place to live and work, and how she’s hoping her constituents will join her on her mission of bringing lasting change to L.A.
Path to Public Service
Raman decided to run for public office because, like many, she was frustrated by the city’s lack of progress on homelessness. “People get very heated about it; people are very rightfully angry about what they see as the perceived failures of our city and county and state to take on this issue,” she says.
Raman got a firsthand look at how L.A. was approaching homelessness when she briefly worked at the city’s administration office after moving here in 2013. She was tasked with writing a report on city spending on homelessness, and her findings “shocked” her — the city was spending over $100 million on homelessness and focusing a large percentage of those funds on incarceration rather than supportive services. Those findings drove her to find solutions in her own community in Silver Lake, where she resides with her husband and their twin children.
She served as co-chair of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council’s Homelessness Committee, and in 2017, she and a group of neighbors founded the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, an all-volunteer nonprofit that provides direct aid and case management to people experiencing homelessness in Silver Lake, Los Feliz and surrounding neighborhoods. She spent countless hours securing grants, facilitating outreach, assembling hygiene kits and more, and in the process realized that SELAH was doing the work of the city, and doing it well; the organization has since become one of L.A.’s largest and most active volunteer-run homelessness nonprofits.
“My efforts to work on homelessness in my own neighborhood, to push for affordable housing and to think about how we could solve some of our biggest challenges led me to believe that our City Council, which is so powerful, was a useful place from which to solve those problems,” Raman says, describing herself as a problem-solver and a coalition-builder. “I feel like my background in understanding policies, in evaluating programs and trying to make them better, but also in trying to create dialogue and to build consensus around a positive approach forward, is really needed in L.A.”
“Nithya for the City”
Raman channeled her frustrations with the city’s inaction into action, crafting detailed transformative policies aimed at making systemic changes and launching a campaign with the slogan “Nithya for the people” that galvanized communities in CD 4 and beyond to take part in their municipal government and make their voices heard.
Her grassroots campaign attracted nearly 2,000 volunteers, who joined her in knocking on thousands of doors throughout the sprawling district — which includes Laurel Canyon, Toluca Lake, Los Feliz, Larchmont, Hancock Park and parts of Koreatown, Hollywood and Sherman Oaks — in the months leading up to the primary and helped her connect with people online when pandemic restrictions hit.
She also raised more than $200,000 in small-dollar donations and was the only campaign in the city that didn’t accept money from corporations, real estate developers or representatives of the fossil fuel industry, a decision she made to show both her commitment to serving the people and her rejection of influence peddling in city government.
Throughout her campaign, it was also important for Raman to show people their power to shape the city. “I think what I saw in L.A. was a City Council that didn’t always reflect the values of its residents, because so few people participated in city politics,” she says, explaining that this lack of civic engagement contributed to decisions and politics at City Hall not “reflecting the priorities, needs and views of the majority of Angelenos.” To shift this trend, Raman engaged with groups that didn’t usually show up for elections, such as renters, who she says vote in disproportionately low numbers compared to homeowners, despite being a majority in the city.
To further increase representation at City Hall, she also reached out to community groups and individuals already dealing with the issues she was aiming to solve, asking for their expertise to help inform her policies. Through this practice, called co-governance, Raman says she has invited “impacted residents, communities and experts to have a seat at the table in thinking about the policies that matter to them.” The process has driven some of her policy-making, and she hopes to continue the practice as well as deepen the connections she has made.
Homelessness and the housing crisis were a key focus of not only Raman’s campaign, but everyone who was running. “If they weren’t at the center of your campaign, you were ignoring what was the most important thing in L.A,” she says.
According to last year’s homeless count, CD 4 saw a 53% increase in homelessness — the largest of any district. Raman says she hopes to reduce that by transforming how the city handles homelessness, advocating for a services-led approach rooted at the neighborhood level.
This, she says, starts with homelessness outreach. “How do you make connections between people who are experiencing homelessness and the outreach workers who are here to help them navigate their way back into housing?” Raman asks, explaining that L.A. does not have a system of consistent and proactive outreach to homeless individuals, some of whom struggle with mental health or substance abuse issues and don’t receive regular visits from mental health service providers.
The first motion Raman introduced upon taking office addressed that concern. It explores a new model of outreach, one that aims to shift the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s “‘reactive” approach to a ‘proactive’ system: establishing consistent outreach schedules where unhoused people can be engaged by the same geographically-assigned caseworker on a predictable basis,” her motion reads. Her second motion called for funding a CD 4 “navigation center” where unhoused individuals could have a place to access hygiene, storage and social worker services. Such places, she says, would allow caseworkers to establish relationships with people in need and “direct many of their guests into stable housing and treatment.”
Raman also wants to stop homelessness before it starts. “More people are falling into homelessness every day than the number of people that we’re able to house in our system,” she says. “I think unless we change those numbers, we won’t be able to make progress on this.” A big part of the work that the City Council is doing and will continue to do is focused on tenant protections and giving people the ability to stay in their homes. Raman most recently introduced a set of amendments to the council’s proposed Tenant Anti-Harassment Ordinance, a motion aimed at protecting rental tenants from specific retaliatory actions by landlords.
Another way of keeping people housed is to increase the availability of affordable and supportive housing. “We’ve been trying to find places in our district where we can partner with affordable housing developers and homeless services providers to be able to provide more of those resources,” she says, and “working on ways to make our city a place where it is easier to build exactly the kind of housing that we so desperately need.”
“It’s about time CD 4 was represented by a woman!” Raman says jokingly about her glass-ceiling-breaking win. “But in all seriousness, I do feel like L.A. does have a real dearth of women who are in elected office at the moment.”
There are 18 elected positions at the city level — 15 councilmembers, a city attorney, a controller and a mayor — and only three of those are currently held by women. Raman says she’s proud to be pushing the envelope, but wants to see even more representation so that the City Council is more reflective of the communities it serves and can become more attuned to the issues residents are facing. An example Raman brings up is childcare.
“The women who I’m on the City Council with are focused on childcare; they think about parenting, they think about the obstacles women face in balancing their professional and their personal lives, and they think about it because they have to,” she says, adding that she comes from a culture where women are expected to do the majority of child and elder care. “I think that burden is very keenly felt by women, and we have already talked about this in council regularly. We are taking action legislatively, and I hope to do more to make sure that the burden of caregiving that often falls more on women can be addressed through the tools that the city has and that we use our position as city representatives to lobby the state and the federal government to do more to support caregiving.”
Community Supporting Community
While campaigning in Toluca Lake, Raman and her team called Aeirloom Bakery their home base. “They were so kind and gracious; they gave us a whole corner of the café,” she recalls, saying that it has since become one of her go-to places on Riverside Drive. Raman says the team knocked on every door they could access in the neighborhood. During her time spent here, she became captivated by the community’s small-town charm and engagement on issues.
“What’s so interesting about Toluca Lake is that there’s such incredible involvement from residents in the community,” Raman marvels. “The Garden Club, the Neighborhood Council, the Homeowners Association, the Chamber of Commerce, they all work together on so many initiatives that make Toluca Lake what it is, and I’m really excited to collaborate with these groups and to find more avenues for collaboration.” She says efforts like the Homeowners Association’s Flamingo Flocking Fundraiser to support local nonprofits show “a community stepping up for its own community, and I feel like the more that we can work together on things like that, the better.”
While the pandemic has put a pause on community gatherings, Raman says she looks forward to the day when she can connect with residents and take part in Toluca Lake traditions such as the Holiday Open House when it’s safe to hold events again. For now, she wants to let her constituents know that, despite the social distance, she is here to serve them and work with them on building a better L.A.
“If you’re excited about taking on some of our local challenges, we are really excited to work with you to take those on,” she says. “Let us know how we can work with you to make this neighborhood and our whole district better.”