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L.A. council members make uneven progress on homeless housing

L.A. council members make uneven progress on homeless housing
A developer sought to convert this motel on Roscoe Boulevard in North Hills into homeless housing, but the plan fell through. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

When Los Angeles City Council members vowed to back a minimum number of new homeless housing units in each of their districts, Councilman Paul Koretz cautioned that it might not be easy in the pricey neighborhoods he represents.

“I’m 100% committed to it,” Koretz said, “but we definitely will need some help” finding sites.

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Months later, as some council members have neared or breezed past the number, the Westside councilman is among a handful who remain far from that target.

It is nearly two years ahead of the deadline the council imposed on itself, and more apartments are in the pipeline. But the slow start for some members underscores the challenges the city faces in spreading housing for the homeless across L.A.

Housing advocates say high land costs in affluent neighborhoods and other practical barriers, along with fears of community opposition, have historically steered nonprofit housing developers away from some areas. Earlier this year, a city analysis found that homeless housing has been disproportionately built in poor and racially segregated neighborhoods.

As elected officials plan for thousands of units of new housing, they have vowed to reverse the “containment” of homeless housing and services on skid row and plant new units all over the city. Doing so helps homeless people rebound in their own communities, close to family, friends and familiar resources, advocates say.

Placing homeless housing throughout the city also reassures residents who worried about where those units would be built, said Miguel Santana, chair of the citizens oversight committee for Proposition HHH, a $1.2-billion bond measure for homeless housing.

“Angelenos are willing to do their share,” Santana said, “as long as they know it’s being spread around evenly.”

Council members pledged to back at least 222 units of supportive housing in each of their districts by July 1, 2020, including units dating back to July 1, 2017, around the time the city began funding HHH projects. Meeting that target would put L.A. on track to meet its goal of adding 10,000 homeless housing units in a decade.

So far, no new projects have been approved in Koretz’s Westside district.

The same goes for Councilman Joe Buscaino, whose district stretches from Watts to San Pedro, and Councilmen Mitchell Englander and Bob Blumenfield, who represent the western San Fernando Valley. L.A. council members have the power to quietly block homeless housing in their districts, but the four lawmakers say they have not thwarted proposed projects.

“We’re pursuing every angle we can,” Blumenfield said, touting other efforts to bolster affordable housing. “But I don’t control what developers do.”

Only one HHH project has been proposed in his San Fernando Valley district: a 26-unit project that Blumenfield helped usher along by enlisting the city to purchase the Reseda site and put it up for development to serve the community. It has strong support from Blumenfield, but even if it is approved, he will need many more units to meet the 222-unit goal.

Englander, in turn, enthusiastically supported the idea of converting a Roscoe Boulevard motel into housing for scores of homeless veterans. But that plan never moved forward.

And Buscaino already has hundreds of supportive housing units in his district, but all were approved before the period covered by the pledge. His spokesman, Branimir Kvartuc, said Buscaino was eager to support such projects but had only recently gotten a pair of HHH proposals totaling more than 110 units.

Meanwhile, Councilmen Gil Cedillo, Jose Huizar and Curren Price, who represent districts covering downtown, parts of the Eastside and South L.A., have already exceeded the goal, according to the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which is tracking their progress.

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Several others are not far off, including Councilman Mike Bonin, whose coastal district includes some of the most expensive areas in the city.

At a recent community meeting, some residents prodded Koretz about building homeless housing. The pledge “was really a big deal for our part of town where I don’t think there was that urgency,” said Scott Epstein, head of the Mid City West Community Council. “It’s been an important rallying cry.”

Koretz and his staffers stress that land is coveted and pricey in his Westside district, which includes Bel-Air, Cheviot Hills and Westwood.

“My problem isn’t community opposition,” Koretz said earlier this summer. “I haven’t been able to get to the point where we have anything to oppose.”

For instance, affordable housing developer Steven Spielberg said one possible project dissolved because his nonprofit ultimately did not purchase the La Cienega Boulevard motel that it had been eyeing. Spielberg said the seller wanted the firm to submit an offer so quickly that it could not perform “due diligence.”

He and his firm have since proposed a new 50-unit building for homeless residents in the district that Koretz represents, which the councilman supports.

Another plan for turning a motel into homeless housing fell apart in North Hills, which is represented by Englander, after the owner of the motel chain insisted on a steep payment, said Andy Meyers, chief executive of Shangri-La Construction. The motel is still operating on a busy stretch of Roscoe Boulevard near the Anheuser-Busch brewing plant.

No new HHH projects have been proposed in the district. Converting motels can be an efficient way to create homeless housing, but such properties are concentrated in poor and segregated neighborhoods. Only two motels exist in Englander’s district, according to a housing department report this spring.

“The district is slightly hamstrung,” said Shangri-La President Ayahlushim Getachew.

Alan Greenlee, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Nonprofit Housing, said that Englander’s and Blumenfield’s Valley districts might also be short on HHH proposals because affordable housing developers haven’t been as likely to scope out sites in those “relatively far-flung” parts of the city.

Homeless advocates have urged the city to examine land it already owns for possible housing, especially in areas where private land is costly. Bonin, for instance, has neared the goal in his coastal district with projects slated for sites owned by the city and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

But when city analysts scrutinized hundreds of “surplus” sites, they ruled out almost all of them for homeless housing — including scores of sites in Koretz’s district — because they were too small, already in use, impractical to build on, or had other issues.

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L.A. staffers are now examining parking lots owned by the city, which were not included in the initial review, along with property owned by other public agencies and private entities as another pool of possible sites.

The city has also offered an incentive to developers building HHH projects in areas with high land costs, allowing them to receive more of their fee when construction loans close, according to a housing department report. As of this spring, the department said it was too soon to tell if it had been effective.

Ultimately, elected officials will need to mobilize community leaders to address a problem the housing market will not fix on its own, said Greg Spiegel, director of strategic initiatives for Inner City Law Center.

“Developers — it isn’t their job to solve this problem,” Spiegel said.

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