Mayor Robert Garcia delivers his State of the City address at the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach, Jan. 15, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova

Mayor Robert Garcia’s message to the crowd inside the Terrace Theatre Tuesday night at the the annual State of the City address was again one of accomplishments—but also of lingering challenges Long Beach continues to face.

The speech, the fifth delivered by Garcia since he was elected to serve as mayor and his first since being reelected in 2018, highlighted how the city has changed since his initial victory in 2014.

He pointed to an unemployment rate that has dipped from 9.8 percent in 2014 to the lowest recorded rate in the history of the city at 4.1 percent last year. Garcia also highlighted a continued decline in crimes citywide, economic successes like the Port of Long Beach record-setting cargo totals and the billions of dollars invested in new housing projects, especially in the Downtown area.

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But he also recognized that those projects may be contributing to the ongoing issues of housing affordability and homelessness that has gripped the city since he took the helm. In an interview before his speech, Garcia said those issues are the biggest facing the city and that he and the City Council are working to rectify it with legislation in the coming months.

“We have to do a better job of ensuring that this next generation of homes we’re going to build have affordable housing in these projects and/or developers are paying into an affordable housing trust fund,” Garcia said. “While the boom has been great, we’re not building affordable housing fast enough.”

Garcia added that he would be supportive of a bill that has been floated by the State Legislature this week that could create a statewide framework of rent stabilization. The mayor has been outspoken against enacting rent control in Long Beach said that regardless of what happens at the state level the city will be working toward establishing new laws to assist renters.

“We want people who have lived here historically to be able to stay and live here,” Garcia said. “That’s going to come from a combination of building homes and ensuring there’s affordability baked into what we’re building and that we’re also including additional protections for people who are renting so they’re able to stay in their homes.”

What has been fast is the dizzying speed in which his administration has successfully campaigned for eight separate ballot measures and charter reforms since 2016.

Garcia touted the changes that measures dealing with the regulation of medical cannabis and utility fund transfers that were passed by voters as well as a block of charter reforms approved in November that established ethics and redistricting committees, but also—controversially—extended term limits for the mayor and City Council to three terms.

But Garcia said none was as important to the health of the city as the voter-approved sales tax increase Measure A which has contributed to miles of road repairs, improvements to city facilities and has facilitated a number of academies for the city’s fire and police departments.

“I think the most transformational change that’s happened in our city has been the unprecedented level of investment in infrastructure that we’ve been able to do because of Measure A,” Garcia said. “We’re spending the most we’ve spent in 50 years on streets, roads, parks and we’re hiring more police and firefighters.”

While Measure A which was approved by 60 percent of voters and included a 10-year sunset clause has temporarily padded the city’s purse, Garcia knows that economic struggles could be on the horizon. He asked the council Tuesday night to increase the city’s reserve fund, which has typically been in the mid-$50 million range, to $75 million.

Garcia also announced that the city would establish a year-round shelter for those experiencing homelessness, a project that the City Council is expected to approve next month. The 125-bed shelter came at the suggestion of the city’s Everyone Home Long Beach Task Force and is part of the mayor’s plan to cut into the housing deficit.

The announcement of the shelter was coupled by a call by the mayor to increase new housing production to 8,000 units above where the city’s stock stood when he took office in 2014. Garcia set the target date for that increase at 2024.

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Garcia’s speech set a tone of hope, but also one of unfinished work. Long Beach is under construction and the mayor identified parts of the city that could use more work in the coming years.

The city has expanded its tax revenue stream and is adding new bells and whistles in the form of a renovated Aquarium of the Pacific, new City Hall and countless luxury high rises. 
But it faces a future in which a budget deficit could force contractions in city services and potential layoffs of employees. And then there is climate change, a factor that the city has begun rolling out resiliency plans for what it intends to do to combat the worst effects of a hotter, drier city that could see portions of its residential and city buildings negatively impacted by sea-level rise.

“Climate change is the single biggest factor that faces the world,” Garcia said. “There is no bigger issue than climate change and so we’ve got to push as far as we can. It’s imperfect but we have to try to push as far as we can.”

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.