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L.A. City Council members don't deserve unilateral veto power over homeless projects they don't like

L.A. City Council members don't deserve unilateral veto power over homeless projects they don't like
The empty lot, right, was proposed to be the site of a 26-unit housing for the homeless, but has been vacant for a year. (Los Angeles Times)

It’s not easy building supportive housing for homeless people. The city of Los Angeles puts plenty of reasonable demands on developers who want a share of its $1.2 billion Proposition HHH fund for homeless and low-income housing. But requiring a developer to get a letter of acknowledgement from a City Council member before even applying is neither reasonable nor necessary.

Now, a community group is contending the policy illegally gives council members unrestricted veto power over affordable and supportive housing. In a Superior Court lawsuit filed last week, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment argues that requiring a developer to get a letter from the City Council member representing the project’s site violates the California Fair Employment and Housing Act as well as a state anti-discrimination statute that prohibits local government from imposing requirements on residential projects that it doesn’t impose on all other types of developments.

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Lawyers for the group contend that requiring the letter “causes a discriminatory effect against people of color, individuals with disabilities, and families with children.” The suit notes that certain racial and ethnic groups and disabled individuals disproportionately make up homeless and low-income households. The lawsuit asks that the courts overturn the letter requirement for developers seeking either HHH funding or financing from the city’s Affordable Housing Managed Pipeline.

The requirement to obtain a letter has long been troubling because it allows a City Council member to privately squelch a project at the beginning of the process for any reason — such as the design or the makeup of the tenants — or no reason. All of these things have happened. On some occasions, council members have given over letters only after developers gave in to the members’ demands. One developer recounted nixing a plan to even apply for HHH funding for a project after talking to a council member who balked at the idea of putting homeless housing there.

Certainly, many council members have given out letters with little issue. But if council members are worried about a project’s design or their constituents’ input in a development, they should adopt citywide requirements on those issues for all HHH applicants.

HHH projects are vetted extensively by the city’s Housing and Community Investment Department and two oversight committees before the City Council votes on them. So council members have a final say on projects — but in public where they will be held accountable for their actions and can’t torpedo a good project on a whim with impunity.

Developers, housing advocates, and nonprofit groups have urged the city to scrap the council letter requirement. City officials should do so now, before a judge makes them.

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