When Mel Wilson was a young boy growing up in Alabama, he saw a segregated society — white and black Americans attended separate schools and shopped in separate stores. It was a childhood that has influenced much of who he has become as a leader today.
“My core values were shaped by my life experiences,” Wilson said. “Life was a harsh awakening for me as a kid, and at eight years old my first job was picking cotton in the hot dirt fields of Alabama. What I found out very quickly was that there was not much equity when it came to work and pay.”
After working for a week, he was only paid $2 along with a few coins. His employer said that he was to be paid by the pound, not by the hour, and to work harder in the next week if he wanted to earn more money.
Now running for Los Angeles mayor, Wilson was raised as the eldest of three children by his mother and grandmother. In the early 1960s, the family moved to Los Angeles on a six-day journey across the country in a ’61 Chevy with no air conditioning and a U-Haul trailer hitched up behind it.
After setting into Pacoima, his mother houses cleaned for $12 a day while ensuring her children would be provided with educational opportunities. Wilson attended Cal State Northridge and left as an all-American football player with a business degree. Once he graduated college, Wilson was drafted in the fifth round by the New York Giants and later played professionally in Calgary, Canada, for a year and a half.
After a career-ending injury, Wilson reassessed his life. Real estate, he decided, would allow him to help others and put food on his own family’s table. So, he returned to Pacoima.
“It was a place where the establishment would require that African Americans had to live there no matter your income strata or no matter what possessions or profession you had,” Wilson explained. “It was a low-income area for the most part, and it was really left out and left behind by the elected officials in the area. They didn’t do a very good job of taking care of Pacoima, so I looked at that and looked at how we could make our community better.”
Wilson joined the Property Owners Association and was then encouraged to join the Pacoima Chamber of Commerce. After turning 30 years old, he was elected as the chamber’s president.
At the time, Pacoima was what Wilson would call a “food desert,” with no shopping centers in the community. Wilson persuaded his Pacoima Chamber of Commerce board colleagues along with a local developer to build a shopping center at Glen Oaks and Van Nuys boulevards.
Fulfilled by helping others through leadership, Wilson became a member of the United Chambers of Commerce of the San Fernando Valley, a coalition of 32 business organizations including 18 member chambers.
Wilson became the vice president of the fire commission, where he introduced a motion to hire 500 new paramedics citywide in five years, and served as a member of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board twice, under both former mayors Richard Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa . He played a central role in building the purple and green lines, opening the 105 freeway, expediting the reconstruction process of the 10 freeway in the wake of the Northridge Earthquake and constructing the 25-story Metro headquarters.
Wilson is now hoping to take his passion for leadership and advocacy to the LA mayoral office.
“I’m the only one in this race who’s worked with three sets of LA County Boards of Supervisors,” Wilson said. “We work together in closed sessions on personnel issues, on strikes and building infrastructure all over this county. I’m the only one who really has been ingrained in the community for all these years, being appointed by three different mayors. I know what the problems are in our city. I have solutions for these problems. I have a vision of a better LA, so that’s why I’m running for mayor and my top priority is making our city safe.”
Wilson recently attended a cleanup event in Watts’ Serenity Park, where three law enforcement agencies joined with community leaders to cut weeds, trim trees and improve the park’s image. He said he believes this unity can help enact meaningful change.
“I know that by working together, we can hold our criminals accountable, and we should hold our police officers accountable, too,” Wilson said. “I have a plan to hire up to 1,500 police officers and 350 mental health experts who will help not only the police but the state of the mental illness crisis in this city.”
Along with addressing public safety, Wilson will focus on the city’s housing affordability, which he described as part of a “housing shortage crisis.”
According to reports, 58% of renters in LA spend more than 30% of their income on rent, while nearly one-third of renters in the city spend more than 50% of their income.
Wilson insists that by waiving and deferring many of the city’s development fees, which are of the highest in the country, with the agreement that builders will build more affordable units, the city’s housing shortage crisis can be mended.
“This is not just for the homeless but for the workers who are starving to have a place to live,” Wilson said. “We have to build smaller. We have to build along transit corridors, and we can build more affordably.”
Wilson will also look to address homelessness by creating 30,000 homeless shelter beds in industrial areas along transit corridors, moving populations from the homelessness crisis’ epicenter Downtown to industrial properties across the city.
In one instance, Wilson viewed an industrial building that was retrofitted into temporary supportive housing and operational within six months with mental health therapists, a physician and a dentist on staff. The building was meant to not only shelter and feed the homeless but to help transition them from homelessness to affordable housing.
“I have a master’s degree in commercial real estate, but my thesis was on how to create housing that’s affordable for workers in LA, so I know how to solve this problem,” Wilson said. “We can do this with 30,000 units, and it doesn’t take three years to build. It doesn’t take $250,000 to build an 8-foot-by-8-foot room, but what we’re doing now is spending half a million to $800,000 for a one-bedroom unit for permanent housing. We can do this a lot more affordably.”
Wilson’s next main priority is to make LA more business friendly, an issue that is close to Wilson’s heart, as he spent four years on the city’s Business Tax Advisory Council.
While on the council, Wilson worked with USC’s Dr. Charles Swenson to create a recommendation for the mayor. They found that one of the reasons why businesses were moving out of the city was because of LA’s high business tax. While their conclusion was never acted upon by the mayoral office, Wilson still points to examples of his findings in the county today.
“If you look at all the major auto dealerships in this region, the majority of them are not in our city but are in Santa Monica, Orange County, Buena Park, Calabasas, Thousand Oaks and a handful in the San Fernando Valley, but the auto dealers I met with are saying this tax is just too high,” Wilson said. “That’s why we have to make LA business friendly and we have to streamline the business processing for permits.”
Wilson wants to invest in youth by hiring 75,000 high school students to work part time for 16 hours a week on a basic wage of $15 per hour with the promise of increasing their pay by $3 per hour if they complete a semester’s worth of work.
By encouraging work at a young age, Wilson hopes to foster a mutually beneficial cycle of employment for the city’s youth.
“I was a kid who had a part-time job, and it kept me out of trouble,” Wilson said. “I also want to invest in our kids’ parents’ child care subsidies. Right now, it costs $1,000 to $1,250 per child per household. If you have two kids, that’s $2,500 a month. That’s why it’s hard to get people to go back to work, because their child care is so expensive. So we’re going to subsidize child care based on the income of that household. The less you make, the more subsidies we give you, and we bring that out of the city’s budget.”
By using his leadership background along with his love for the communities across LA to address crises impacting Angelenos, Wilson hopes to turn his vision of a clean and safer Los Angeles into a reality as the city’s mayor.
“We’re focused on fighting for the workers, small-business owners and the middle class,” Wilson said. “Those are the people I’m on this fighting line for, and it’s an uphill swing, but I’ve been against the odds all of my life. This is just another one of those journeys along the way.”
Los Angeles Mayoral Election
The 2022 Los Angeles mayoral election is Nov. 8, while the top-two primary will take place on June 7. To learn more about mayoral
candidate Mel Wilson and his campaign, visit mel4mayor.com.