Suit Seen as No Reflection on Freeway Housing Plan

Times Staff Writer

A lawyer for the public-interest law firm that recently sued the City of Hawthorne for rejecting Century Freeway replacement housing projects said the action does not reflect the group's view of the housing program in general.

"The state has been on time with its work and we are satisfied that it has been doing a good job," said Bill Lann Lee, an attorney with the Center for Law in the Public Interest. The center secured a federal court consent decree in 1981 requiring, among other things, that at least 3,700 units--55% of them for low-income people--be provided to replace housing lost to the freeway. The court then lifted a 9-year-old injunction that had blocked construction of the $1.6-billion freeway, which will link Los Angeles International Airport and Norwalk.

Approximately 125 units of Century Freeway replacement housing are now occupied, another 150 will be occupied in within six months, 340 more are under construction and still others are in the planning stage.

Discrimination Charged

Lee, however, asserts that Hawthorne discriminated against its own poor and minority residents in the freeway's path by rejecting a 96-unit replacement project and placing a limit on low-income occupancy of a 32-unit building that has disqualified the building as part of the replacement program.

Under the program, builders receive construction funding through the state Housing and Community Development Department, and displaced people receive assistance in renting or buying apartments and condominiums.

Although 88 condominium units are nearing completion in Hawthorne, Lee claims that they do not answer the housing needs of poor people who cannot afford them. A 28-unit low-income apartment complex is about to be approved by the city, officials say.

Lee said the freeway route in northeastern Hawthorne runs through two census tracts--one 89% black and the other 52% mixed minority--and that by turning down one housing project and disqualifying the second, the city is denying homes to the people who will be displaced. The state Century Freeway Housing Program office in Inglewood said that between 250 and 300 Hawthorne families will be displaced by May, 1986.

Charges in Suit

The suit, filed by the law center in U.S. District Court on Feb. 7, accuses Hawthorne of denying replenishment housing "arbitrarily and without legal justification" in violation of federal and state laws guaranteeing equal housing regardless of race, color or low-income status. On March 14, the center will ask Judge Harry Pregerson to grant a preliminary injunction compelling the city to approve the two projects.

"Racial discrimination is not our motivation," said City Manager R. Kenneth Jue. (During the 1970s, Hawthorne lost Anglo residents as it gained ethnic minorities, who now make up more than 40% of the population.)

Jue said the main reasons for rejecting the 96-unit project--proposed for nursery property on Kornblum Avenue near El Segundo Boulevard--were concerns about traffic and school overcrowding. Some council members also said they were concerned about how many Hawthorne residents will actually live in the building, and about whether 36 units designated for senior citizens will always be reserved for them.

But the law center contends that transcripts of lengthy council hearings last October and November show that the decisive factor "was the often crude opposition by local homeowners" who "focused on the characteristics of the intended residents" rather than the merits of the project.

Fear of Crime

Transcripts filed with the court contain references to Nickerson Gardens, a troubled public housing project in South-Central Los Angeles. "You know what crime they have in there," one resident said. "You're going to have the same problems in this project . . . if it is built."

Another resident warned of dilapidation and graffiti and said, "We don't need any more hoodlums in our neighborhood. We've got them every night up and down the block."

A councilman, unidentified in the transcript, said, "I don't particularly care to have the HCD (state housing) project come to the city. We have a HUD (federal housing) project . . . and we all know how that has turned out." The council member was referring to allegations of crime in federally funded housing projects built in Hawthorne in the 1970s.

Councilman Charles Bookhammer in voting against the project said he felt "an adamant referendum from the residents of the neighborhood that they don't want this project."

Mayor Guy Hocker, the only council member to support the development, said, "I can't envision the city not wanting housing, knowing how desperate people are for housing. I find it difficult to vote against something that would provide housing for disadvantaged people."

Praised by Officials

Robert Hirsch, a partner in the Goldrich, Kest & Associates development firm, said the building will be owned by the company and maintained under state supervision. He said the design was praised by Hawthorne officials, adding, "If this project didn't have the Century Freeway label, it would have sailed through."

The second project, a proposed development by Shapell Housing Inc., on Cerise Avenue near Rosecrans Avenue, was approved by the council in January, but it contained a limit of 35% on the number of low-income units. The Century Freeway housing legal counsel said the building could not be accepted as freeway replacement unless 49% of the units were specified as low-income. He asked the city to review the matter.

Jue said the city did not believe the 35% limit would be a problem and said he thinks the council "would consider lifting it if they (Shapell) were to come back."

Hocker said it was the council's understanding that the 35% limit would not affect the project, adding, "If it were brought back, it would be changed. The only thing that would hold that back would be the advice of legal counsel (that we not do it) because of the lawsuit."

James H. Mitsch, chief of general services and public works, said the city "wants the project to go through" and probably could have worked things out if the lawsuit had not been filed.

Wants Reconsideration

Mark Maltzman, Shapell vice president, said he wants the city to reconsider the limit. He also said the company is looking at building the project as conventional apartments.

Countering the statements of Jue and the mayor, Michael Houlemard, executive director of the freeway housing program, said the city knew last fall that a 35% cap would not be acceptable. He said his office has worked amicably with such cities as Compton, Inglewood, Pico Rivera and Buena Park, but Hawthorne "has never sat down and discussed our program with us."

As a party to the freeway lawsuit and the consent decree, Hawthorne was assigned 275 replacement housing units. Jue contends the number is a "goal" and the city has no legal obligation "to provide any."

Houlemard, however, said the city is "required to participate in the program" and to "make a good-faith effort to meet the goal."

Attorney Lee contends that Hawthorne supported housing replacement when the freeway route went through Anglo areas but backed off when it was shifted to minority neighborhoods.

Charge Denied

Mitsch vehemently denies this, saying that the route always went through predominantly black Holly Park. He said that portions of the proposed route near what is now the Hawthorne Plaza mall were shifted northward, in part because it would have made construction of the mall impossible.

The Kornblum and Cerise projects are both in Moneta Gardens, and both sides in the legal dispute are using the high volume of building there to bolster their cases.

Lee said traffic and school problems will stem from the 795 units approved by the city for construction last year, not from the Kornblum project. (Councilman David York, who voted against the project, conceded that "whether we have this development or another down the line, we will have impact.")

The suit quotes a statement from the city's general plan: "The Planning Department will continue to support development proposals for the conversion of horticultural properties (such as the Kornblum site) to residential uses."

But on the other side of the issue, Jue said that most Moneta Gardens construction conforms to present zoning and the city has no control over it despite its impact. "The city did have the final say on this (Kornblum) because it was a zone change," he said. "The underlying factor here was traffic and the school problem."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World