Vrej Agajanian at his campaign kick-off in April, 2022 (photo courtesy Vrej Agajanian)

Vrej Agajanian Runs for Second Term on Glendale City Council

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WATERTOWN — Vrej Agajanian is running for a second term as a member of the Glendale City Council. Glendale, with its large Armenian population, up until this upcoming June 7 election, has had three Armenians out of its five city council members. Eight candidates are running for the three council seats currently up for election, including two other incumbents, Ara Najarian and Dan Brotman. There is one new Armenian candidate, Elen Asatryan, a former executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America-Glendale and Western Region, and interestingly, two candidates who married Armenians, Isabel Valencia-Tevanyan, with a Peruvian background, and Anita Quiñonez Gabrielian, born in Nicaragua.

Background

Agajanian, born in Tehran, Iran, came to the United States in 1975, and after going back to Iran, he permanently moved to the US in 1980. A graduate of Aryamehr University of Tehran, he soon achieved the California state certification of professional engineer, or P.E.

“From nine years old,” he said, “I have been involved continuously in Armenian organizations.” Agajanian was one of the founders of the Davidian and Mariamian Educational Foundation in Glendale in 1987 but stated that he had to leave it later when he started his television work because of time constraints. He has been chairman of the Armenian Society of Los Angeles (ASLA) and president of the Armenian Engineers and Scientists of America (AESA).

While chairman of ASLA in 1999 and 2000, he related that the city of Glendale wanted to take over by eminent domain its building on Brand Boulevard in order to allow the building of the Americana at Brand shopping, dining, residential and entertainment complex. The city offered $1.2 million but Agajanian realized that was not sufficient due to the high cost of real estate and parking. He negotiated aggressively and obtained a price of $5 million cash, plus the city purchased the land plot he wanted as a replacement, which cost approximately $2 ½ million, and agreed to provide 300 parking spaces in its nearby parking structure. He pointed out that otherwise it would have cost $4 ½ million just to build 300 parking spaces. This negotiation took 2 ½ years and Agajanian considers it one of his major accomplishments for the Armenian community.

Vrej Agajanian (photo courtesy Vrej Agajanian)

Over time, though working as an engineer, he said he became very knowledgeable about Armenian issues. He gave lectures in various parts of the United States, and even Europe, so at one point, he was invited to speak on an Armenian television program. He said he agreed hesitantly because deep down, he was a shy person, despite his active nature. He said that Armenian-language television in California at that time was not focusing on educating its audience overall. On the other hand, he said, “I am an engineer and everything I said was based on facts and figures. I guess they liked it and they invited me again and again.”

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Eventually, he continued, “The owner of the TV station said why don’t you come and do a program. I started doing that and after a while, I guess I liked it so much that I took his station. It was not planned. It evolved somehow to become that. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would become a TV station owner. Then I became so involved in it that 24 hours is never enough for me to do what I am doing.”

He said, “First I started with a TV station called AABC [Armenian American Broadcasting Corporation] TV, and I was running this station for a long time. Charter came to me and said, since you are doing such a good job, we want to offer you another TV station, which is not doing well.” The second one called High Vision TV and is in the Persian language. Both stations air almost exclusively in Southern California, including as far south as a portion of San Diego and are disseminated on cable via Spectrum and Charter Communications as well as on the internet.

Agajanian has kept his own talk show in the Armenian language running daily for some 21 years on AABC TV as a commentator on social and political issues of the United States. He said that he only covers major changes in Armenia, such as the change of regime on the show. Occasionally, he has guests like the Los Angeles County sheriff, Senator Robert Menendez, Congressmen Frank Pallone and Adam Schiff, or other English-speakers, so with them he will provide a brief Armenian translation for the small percent of viewers who do not understand English well, he said.

Agajanian said that on his television show, he does not want to get involved in partisan politics, but instead gives information on what Democrats or Republicans are doing. He said, “I don’t want to get myself involved in an issue. I want to educate our community. I have opinions about the issue which I explain but I never cross the line to go one way or another.”

He gave the example of reporting when President Bill Clinton had to return an item that he brought with him from the White House when he left in January 2001. That led to some upset callers who were Clinton fans exclaiming they did not know he was Republican. Similarly, when he reported President Donald Trump’s claim to have the largest attendance of presidential inaugurations as false by comparing it with videos of prior inaugurations that clearly showed larger crowds, such as that of President Barack Obama, he was attacked as a biased Democrat.

The Glendale City Council positions are nonpartisan, but when pressed for his personal political preferences, he declared, “I am a Democrat, but a Democrat like the ones I knew a long time ago…you can call me a conservative Democrat. I want to help the people.”

Agajanian said, “I am very familiar with the public and what they need because of the TV program. They are in contact with me because it is a live program. Whenever needed I bring guests, but the public is involved and can call and express their opinions.” Gradually this led him to enter into the world of politics. Agajanian said, “I thought I could help the public.” He ran unsuccessfully for Glendale City Council in 2005 and 2007 before finally succeeding in 2017. As city councilmember is not a full-time job, he continued also to run his television stations.

During his first term, he also served as chair of the Glendale Housing Authority and as a board member of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority and was chosen as mayor by the council members for the 2020-21 term.

Agajanian served as mayor during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. He said together with the rest of the City Council, he tried to help businesses and renters. Businesses were going bankrupt because in Glendale, there were many small mom-and-pop stores which did not receive government assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program. They did not have employees to make them eligible, so the Council voted to provide small businesses a reimbursable grant of up to $500 for Covid-19 personal protective equipment. Renters faced steeply rising rents, so 1,000 qualified senior renter households were given $300 for 24 months. There was also a general program for emergency renter assistance.

Glendale Housing

In particular, one issue really motivated him to go into politics – affordable housing – and he was able to create several relevant measures while in office. He said that the city over a period of 44 years made 1,462 affordable housing units for the public, which is an average of 31 units per year. He declared, “I thought this is unacceptable. Thirty-one units in a city with a population of 200,000 is a joke.” When 65 units were created, 6,872 families applied for them. He continued, “That is why I came up with the idea of creating 507 affordable housing [units] which will be ready in two years. This never happened before. I am just trying to catch up.”
The housing shortage in Glendale is great, Agajanian said, adding that the state government had told Glendale that it was short 13,640 housing units in general. When asked about the 2021 California Senate Bills 9 and 10, which respectively are intended to increase housing by streamlining the provisions for dividing one single-family lot into up to four smaller ones for housing and creating even more units in areas close to public transit, job centers and existing urban areas, Agajanian said this will only create at the most some 700,000 additional housing units throughout California. He said, “It appears too many, but I am not sure of that, because California has a housing shortage and rents are going through the roof.”

Agajanian said he had encountered two specific cases which really bothered him in the past few years. In 2019, a big company bought a 43-unit apartment and raised the rent from $1,424 to $2,600. He said, imagine how the people living there must have been affected, as they most likely would not have been able to pay this newly increased rent.

The second case was a person who over the course of 10 ½ months had the rent increased four times. In other words, every two months or so the landlord came back to raise the rent $150 or $200. He exclaimed, “When I saw this, I said your house or your unit is your castle. You have to know for at least one year what your rent is. You cannot have landlords keep knocking on your door to raise the rent. This is not fair to the tenant.”

He said that to deal with unaffordable rents, he proposed rent stabilization in Glendale, with a limit of seven percent increases. He emphasized, “This is not rent control. I am against rent control because I experienced that before.” He said rent control in places like New York City or Los Angeles has led to buildings deteriorating because landlords either do not have the means or it is not worth it financially for him to fix them.

Despite two of his five colleagues on the council opposing this initiative and leaving the meeting, the other two joined him and so it passed. He also proposed a second qualification. If the landlord wants to take back a rental unit for whatever purpose, he is allowed but must pay six months of rent to the tenant if the latter had resided there for over five years. This both allows the landlord to then raise the rent as much as he wants after the tenant leaves, and gives some sense of security to tenants. Otherwise, the tenant in Glendale usually had to pay first and last months rent plus a security deposit for a new apartment, but could not get back the deposit until after vacating the original unit. That made it difficult for people on tight incomes to move.

Agajanian explained, “The big real estate companies initially were against this but after a while came to realize that this is fair both to landlords and to tenants, while rent control, in my opinion, is not fair to landlords.” He added that he personally did not own any apartment buildings so had no personal stake in the matter.

Energy

An issue on which Agajanian states his point of view is different than many of the other council members is energy. The Grayson Power Plant has been serving Glendale since the early 1940s. When Agajanian was elected in 2017, he was offered a brief orientation as a new council member. There, a plan to replace the old gas turbine with a new one was explained. He refused to accept this if the new gas turbine would produce over 100 megawatts of energy, so eventually the level was lowered to 93 megawatts, which he accepted.

Then, a few months ago, he said his colleagues on the council proposed converting completely to renewable energy and ending all gas use. He pointed out that for 25 megawatts of clean energy, the cost was $225 million. If you want a total of 262 megawatts it will cost $2.2 billion to make this zero emissions. He said, “We can’t afford it. Who will pay for it? The residents of Glendale?” Instead, he said that with a little less than $400 million it is possible to replace the plant with clean energy sources combined with 93 megawatts produced by gas. Only after the clean energy is used will the gas machines work to satisfy demand.

Agajanian said, “We have no choice, but because of the elections they did this [new proposal].” After the election period is finished, he is sure that everyone on the council will again agree with him. He added that because of the delay in adopting an approach the cost will end up $40-60 million more.

Parks and Crime

On parks and recreational facilities, Agajanian observed that while the northern part of Glendale possesses excellent, large parks, the south has a very dense population and lacks them. For this reason, the council must spend millions of dollars to clean and renovate park areas, as well as to try to buy some more land suitable for this in southern Glendale.

When asked whether crime had increased over the last several years as in some other parts of the United States, Agajanian declared that in Glendale the situation did not change much because the city did not defund the police department. It is spending the same amount of money and starting this July will even increase the budget a little. He said, “There may be a little bit more crime now, but it is very minimal. We are still one of the safest cities, probably in the entire country.” He added that opioids and drug problems also have not changed much.

Armenians of Glendale

Agajanian said that he noticed that there was no street named after Armenians in Glendale despite the large numbers of the latter. He said, “I thought we deserved to have a street connected somehow to Armenians, and that is how we [in the council] came up with the idea of Artsakh Street.”

In response to a query about the effect of the rising cost of living in Glendale on the numbers of Armenians residing there, he replied that the Armenian population is not decreasing but remaining roughly constant. On the one hand, Armenians sometimes leave to other cheaper places nearby, but then newcomers come and take their places because they want to be close to their relatives. Once they are situated and comfortable, then they may think about moving to nearby areas. There are even Armenians with illegal immigration status who somehow make their way to Glendale, he added, sometimes via Mexico.

Agajanian estimated that there were almost 100,000 legal Armenian residents of Glendale and probably thousands more without legal status. Out of the 90-100,000 legal residents, only 40,000 are registered to vote. On the other hand, out of the remaining 100,000 non-Armenians of Glendale, there are 72,000 registered voters.

A recent change in the voting date may have affected the weight of Armenian influence in Glendale elections, Agajanian speculated. Originally, Glendale held its municipal elections on odd years for council members, Glendale Community College board members, school board members and local issues. In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Voter Participation Rights Act (SB 415) into law. This bill stated that if any city’s voter turnout for the previous four local elections is at least 25 percent less than average voter turnout for the last four state elections, it must hold its elections in synch with state elections on even years with the goal of increasing voter numbers. Glendale did not meet this criteria and so was forced to change its election dates. Agajanian conjectured that when the elections were only for Glendale, Armenians easily got elected to city council because some non-Armenians may have been less motivated to vote solely in local elections, but now that all elections are on the same date, more of the latter are voting and will outnumber Armenian voters in many cases.

Prior to the 2020 election, there were four Armenians out of the five city council members, but in that election, the first affected by the date change, one incumbent lost, leaving three Armenians on the council. This year’s election is the second in the new format, so Agajanian admits it is still unclear what the longterm effect will be.

As to why Armenians register as voters in lower numbers than non-Armenians, Agajanian declared, “Generally speaking, Armenians come from countries where elections meant nothing, whether they came from places like Syria, Iran or the Soviet Union. That is why Armenians still do not believe in elections, or think they do not change anything. This country is very different, and I worked hard through my TV program over the past 22 years to raise the numbered of registered voters. But we are still lagging and falling behind because of our past keeping us away from today’s realities. There is such hesitation to get registered.”

Despite everything, Agajanian is optimistic about their role in Glendale in forthcoming years. He said, “When I came here forty years, this was a city which was asleep. Armenians in Glendale worked hard and made this city a different city. We have all these big Armenian companies, which is good for the city of Glendale. But mostly Armenians have small businesses. They try to keep their buildings nice and clean, and they love their city. As a result, this is a vibrant city.”

Meanwhile, as far as his electoral race is concerned, he seems to have a solid base of Armenian community support, with all three “traditional” Armenian political parties having endorsed him this year through their grassroots lobbying organizations, though he declared he does not himself belong to any Armenian political organization.

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