Miguel Santana was the city administrative officer for the City of Los Angeles, where he designed the city’s first comprehensive homeless strategy. Santana was appointed President & CEO of the Weingart Foundation in 2021 and serves as chair of the Committee for Greater L.A. Before sitting on a panel for the Zócalo/KCRW event “Do We Even Need a City Council?,” Santana sat down in our green room to talk about the homelessness crisis, East Coast falls, and the L.A. he knows.
What’s one of your favorite places to go in L.A.?
Grand Park. My career has been on one side or the other of Grand Park. I know how it became what it is today and was part of helping that move forward. When they have events, it’s one of the few places where you really see all of L.A. It’s a place where everybody belongs. It feels like the L.A. that I know. There are few places like that.
If you could have one superpower, which would you choose?
I don’t know a superhero who has this, but: the ability to help build empathy and create a sense of community, connectivity, and caring for each other. With that comes the patience to try and respond to systems that are failing. Not necessarily a superpower, but what I feel would make the world a better place.
You’re a Harvard man. What do you miss most about the East Coast?
The fall. I grew up in L.A. and been here most of my life. The East Coast fall was amazing. It’s magical, for those who don’t experience it regularly, it’s hard to imagine that it happens all the time, this amazing change in the environment.
What is one of your most controversial opinions?
There are so many. I’ve been in the persuasion business most of my career working at the city and county. My role was to advise and provide data-informed recommendations. When the city was excited about competing for the 2028 Olympics, I was in a position where I had to ask questions about the viability of it from a financial standpoint and what liability it created for the city. The only way we would be considered was if the city provided the Olympic Committee with a blank check to cover the costs. And so I was kind of the skunk at the picnic because my job was to be honest about what that meant for the city’s fiscal sustainability.
So, you’re clearly a budget guy. What’s one of the worst purchases you’ve ever made?
We live in a house that was built in 1925 and needed everything, from new plumbing to electrical, but we really felt we wanted to restore it. So we had an idea of putting in these high-end appliances that could last for the next generation. We bought this double oven that just didn’t fit. Unfortunately we took it out of the box—once you take it out of box, you own it—so it’s taking up a good part of my garage.
What is something you’ve done in the past that you’re proud of?
If I look at the trajectory of my career—really, my adulthood—the one issue that I have consistently worked on is the issue of homelessness. I started working on it when I was in college. I volunteered at a shelter system near Whittier College and ended up running the program by the time I graduated. When I was at the county, I was responsible for administering the homeless program and piloted ideas like Housing First, which weren’t really known at the time. And when I was at the city, I worked on the first strategic plan for the unhoused. And today, running a private foundation, I get to support organizations that work on this issue. There’s been a throughline my entire adult life. Unfortunately, it’s only gotten worse, but I’m proud I haven’t given up on it.
What does Thanksgiving break look like for you?
It’ll start with a wedding, one of my nieces is getting married. I’m going to spend a quiet Thanksgiving with my wife—just the two of us. Then the Saturday after, my kids who are in L.A. will be coming over and we will have a non-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving.