The new City Council finally showed up for work on Friday.

The five freshmen and 10 veterans had been meeting for two weeks, but it was getting hard to tell. For the most part, they looked like the old council — verbose, but in a quiet sort of way. Polite. Patient. Hardly the activists of the campaign season or the young first-termers who promised to lock horns with the establishment and pass sweeping progressive legislation.

They even seemed missing in action for a while during Friday’s presentation on child poverty in Los Angeles. Each member rose to offer stock words of alarm at hearing what they already knew — that thousands of L.A. children live in squalor and are at risk of emerging into adulthood without health care, housing, a meaningful education or jobs.

Then Ed Reyes erupted. The wonkish city planner and aide, who surprised even himself two years ago by being elected to the council, abruptly steered the exchange of platitudes into a confrontation over economic segregation. Lashing out at zoning protections that he said kept high-tone neighborhoods off-limits to working families as effectively as the long-banished racial covenants once did, Reyes challenged his colleagues to open up their wealthier districts to hearings — on where to put low-cost housing.

“What’s it going to take to bring this kind of decision making, where you are willing to challenge the homeowner associations, the preservation groups and the folks who are going to tell you why you should not have affordable housing in your district?” Reyes demanded.

The councilman from the densely packed, immigrant-populated 1st District was expecting to take the full weekend before revving up his campaign for an inclusive zoning ordinance — a law that would require developers of market-rate housing to reserve 10 percent to 20 percent of their units as “affordable” properties. But after a decade of studying the issue as a planner and half a term wrestling with it on the council, it was as if he just couldn’t hold it in any longer. His spirited outburst, and Tom LaBonge’s impassioned and somewhat alarmed defense of established neighborhoods like his 4th District’s Hancock Park, broke open a hole in the council’s self-imposed politic silence on re-allocating resources.

Through that hole gushed the full reservoir of challenges, confrontations and — maybe — solutions that the city will face over the next few years. Eric Garcetti, clearly pleased that the issue was finally getting some play, joined Reyes and members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now at a Monday news conference on inclusionary zoning. So did Antonio Villaraigosa, who warned that a population the size of Chicago’s is expected to head toward Southern California in the next decade — and will need a place to live.

Later the three men, joined by Jan Perry, presided over a sometimes-raucous hearing at which union activists exchanged jeers with uniformed Wal-Mart workers over plans to severely restrict “big box” superstores. There was talk of beefing up living-wage laws. Utopian proposals to remake Los Angeles into a city of understanding and abundance suddenly seemed workable.

But then some of the union people at the big-box hearing chastised themselves for verbally attacking their unrepresented brother and sister workers, and in the process mirrored an uncertainty over tactics now faced by council members grappling with poverty and unequal distribution of resources.

For example, should an inclusionary zoning ordinance permit builders to keep affordable units out of their big apartment complexes and housing developments if they pay a hefty fee or promise to build the affordable units elsewhere? Yes, say some advocates quietly, because that compromise will bring crucial support from council members who are otherwise skeptical of new mandates on builders — and new neighbors in their districts. No, say more aggressive reformers, who insist that the whole point of the ordinance is to ensure that teachers drive the same streets as bank executives, that housekeepers attend the same PTA meetings as film producers, and that police officers do their grocery shopping in the same stores as cosmetic surgeons.

“We want the children of janitors to grow up right next to the children of lawyers,” Garcetti said. “We want doctors and working people to have their families together, because that’s what this city is about.”

Even the closest of allies on the housing issue have yet to show they are completely on the same page. Garcetti, for example, must send chills up the spines of wealthy homeowners and business interests when he calls for “affordable housing in every neighborhood in the city.” Reyes insists instead on carefully targeting affordable housing to “the most appropriate areas.” They might mean the same thing, but they are still working the bugs out of their collective pitch and may come to rely on Villaraigosa’s skill at articulating a collective vision and crafting workable legislation.

A quick head count still leaves the trio short of a majority on affordable housing and other progressive lawmaking. Their homework will include lobbying not just their colleagues from the liberal but insular Westside and the more conservative Valley districts, but also the representatives of South L.A.

Bernard Parks doesn’t quite say he supports gentrification, but has called for more market-rate building in the 8th District to pick up the standard of living there. The practical Jan Perry must balance the needs of her poor 9th District constituents south of the Santa Monica Freeway with the downtown business interests who pay the tax bills. Neither is shy about defending their district. But Parks and Perry could be won over — they have hired Reyes’ old boss, ex-Councilman Mike Hernandez, who began pressing his colleagues for housing equity a decade ago.

Reyes, meanwhile, is suddenly in a hurry. He has been working on the issue for about a third of his life, but the exit last month of five of his colleagues and the arrival of five new members jolted him into noticing that the first two years of his term were history.

“We have to talk about where we can build new housing,” Reyes insisted on the council floor Friday. “In the age of term limits, we are running out of time.”

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