L.A. Councilman Gil Cedillo is one of the leaders of a new effort to address the city's out-of-control homelessness problem. Speaking about the plan to declare a “state of emergency” on Tuesday, Cedillo linked the initiative to the city's bid to host the Summer Olympics in 2024.

“If we want to be a great city that hosts the Olympics and shows itself off to the world,” he told the L.A. Times, “we shouldn’t have 25,000 to 50,000 people sleeping on the streets.”

The statement seemed to indicate less concern for the plight of the homeless than for the plight of foreign visitors who will have to look at them.

But it also revealed the ways in which the Olympics bid — still not yet a month old — is already changing the way city leaders think about civic problems.

Issues such as homelessness are urgent all on their own. But in the minds of city officials, the possibility of hosting a 17-day sporting event in nine years somehow adds to the crisis.

A similar thing happened a couple of weeks ago at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, when it wrote to the federal government asking for $1 billion to speed up construction of the $6.3 billion Westside subway so that it would be open in time for the Olympics. In truth, this is something the MTA would be trying to do anyway, regardless of the Olympics. But invoking the Olympics, and its hard-and-fast deadline, seems to heighten the urgency.

The Olympics can become a central planner's dream — a great excuse for doing Big Things that might otherwise succumb to civic inertia. Another example that is sure to become controversial is the issue of affordable housing. Under the current plans, the city would invite a developer to construct a $1 billion “Olympic Village” in downtown L.A., with enough housing units to accommodate 16,500 athletes. After the Games, the units would be sold off to a mix of market-rate and subsidized buyers. 

Taking it for granted, for the moment, that L.A. does need a lot more housing, projects of this size are generally not even contemplated. Neighborhood groups are adept at tying up projects of much smaller scale. Something like an Olympic Village would typically take a decade or more of planning, politicking, environmental reviews and litigation before some (likely much smaller) project could eventually break ground. But add in the Olympics, and the unthinkable becomes, at least, thinkable.

The L.A. 2024 bid committee has emphasized that L.A. already has most of the infrastructure in place or in the pipeline to be ready for the Games. It's sort of like a couple telling themselves that they'll have a super casual wedding — just family and close friends, no big deal, they won't even have to buy a new dress. But that perspective can disappear once the planning gets under way and complexities mount along with the costs.

As much as the Olympics organizers and the International Olympic Committee might talk about discipline and fitting into the existing context of a city, there is still probably no way to host the Games — or even think about it — without it becoming a civic emergency.

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