The City Council killed a five-year effort to construct a subsidized senior citizen housing project this week because tenants could not be restricted to Hawthorne residents.
The project was to have been a 53-unit apartment building with initial monthly rents averaging $325, including 12 units renting at $110 a month and four at $210. The rest would be $405.
The cheaper rents were to have been subsidized with a 30-year, $500,000 interest-free loan from the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
Margaret Coulter, a state official who attended the council meeting, said Hawthorne is the only city in the state to turn down a rent subsidy that had already been approved.
"Everybody who has gotten money has taken it," Coulter said. The rent subsidy program has provided similar loans to about 50 cities since it was begun in 1981, she said.
Developer Michael Keehner challenged the council to find a comparable senior citizen project with covered parking, carpets, drapes, recreation rooms and other amenities that could be built with average rents as low as $325.
"I don't believe you are going to find cheaper anywhere else," she said.
But the rents were not the pivotal issue.
Councilman Chuck Bookhammer said, "The city is talking about donating a piece of property that is worth in excess of $350,000. We need written guarantees" that only Hawthorne residents will be permitted.
Councilwoman Ginny Lambert echoed his concern, saying that the city bought land for the project "with the sole intent to house Hawthorne seniors. I don't see any guarantee that the project is for Hawthorne seniors."
Keehner produced letters from state housing finance agencies that stated while such guarantees were prohibited, cities could impose residency preferences.
But City Atty. Michael Adamson said people displaced by nearby Century Freeway construction might have priority over Hawthorne residents. The city has fought a long, losing battle in federal court against subsidized housing projects for those displaced by the freeway. In official city meetings, some speakers have asserted that many of them come from low-income, high-crime areas.
In response, Keehner produced a letter from Nancy Giles, the state official in charge of the rental housing construction program.
Giles wrote that the last of the people displaced by the Century Freeway would be offered housing within 90 days and will thereby lose priority over Hawthorne residents in a project that has not yet begun construction.
But Adamson said the letter would not have standing in federal court.
The city attorney also said that the rent subsidy, taken together with the city grant of land, might trigger a referendum required by Article 34 of the state Constitution for low-income housing projects in which 50% of the units are subsidized.
Arguing in favor of the project was Ann Trojan, president of the South Bay Gray Panthers, an advocacy group for the elderly.
"We waited a long time. What is there to be gained by waiting any longer?" she said. "El Segundo is building 96 units. The rents aren't even established and over 500 people have signed up."
She said proposed rents in Hawthorne were less than in other cities for similar projects, citing rent ranges between $415 and $650 for a Redondo Beach apartment and between $505 and $650 for a Manhattan Beach project.
"Our highest, which is $405, is not very high," she said.
Councilman Steve Andersen, who was the sole supporter of the project on the council, said he was willing to accept a preference for Hawthorne residents if a guarantee was not legally permissible and was willing to gamble on a referendum.
Afterward his motion to approve the project failed for lack of a second, Mayor Betty Ainsworth directed City Manager Kenneth Jue to continue working on new proposals for senior housing.