A controversial, U.S.-funded senior housing project won a crucial endorsement from the Lawndale Planning Commission on Wednesday, clearing the way for a City Council hearing Feb. 4.
After a lengthy hearing and debate, the commission voted 5-0 in favor of a zoning change and special-use permit needed for the project. It also voted, 4 to 1 with Commissioner Gary McDonald dissenting, to allow modification of certain parking, setback and height restrictions for the project.
The action was important because of imminent deadlines for using $3 million in federal funds to build and subsidize rents for the 56-unit project, according to Paula Burrier, the city's housing director and acting planning director.
Although McDonald said that his reading of project documents led him to believe that the city has more time to make a decision, Burrier said that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development set a Jan. 28 deadline for city approval of the project.
She said a few days leeway will be allowed, so the development can proceed if it is approved by the City Council, acting as the Lawndale Housing Authority, on Feb. 4.
Representatives of Cooperative Services Inc., the nonprofit developer that secured the federal funds, warned last week that the company will consider moving the project to another city if Lawndale delays action much longer. "You have to have a willing partner" to undertake a project of this kind, said Noel Sweitzer, a consultant to Cooperative Services.
Funds provided under a federal program known as Section 202 are much sought after because the subsidy enables senior citizens on limited incomes to pay extremely low rents, Burrier told the commission Wednesday.
"There are hundreds of applications for every unit of Section 202 housing that is built," she said.
The Lawndale project would be open to those with incomes up to $12,550 for individuals and $14,350 for couples, Burrier continued. Rent would be 30% of income or less, adjusted for certain expenses. For example, a person on a Social Security income of $535 a month would pay only about $130 a month in rent, she said.
Commissioner Carol Norman, a strong supporter of the project, said this may be the city's last chance for senior housing.
She said that in the past the city has tried to negotiate with commercial developers so that it would not lose local control of the projects, but that the private developers have been unable to provide sufficiently low rents for seniors on Social Security incomes.
She added that if Lawndale rejects this proposal by a nonprofit developer, other nonprofit companies will steer clear of Lawndale in favor of more receptive cities.
Norman, in warning against further delays, said: "I'm not willing to play Russian roulette with the lives of some 500 senior citizens who would occupy the project over the 40 years (of the federal funding) just to see whether HUD really means its deadlines."
At the four-hour hearing Wednesday, about 15 seniors and others urged that the project be adopted while seven residents opposed the project, mainly because they fear that it would not provide adequate parking.
The proposal calls for 33 parking spaces for 56 units, a lower-than-normal ratio than that used in many cities because few low-income seniors can afford to drive and maintain automobiles.
Stressing the need for low-cost housing for needy seniors, Norman said that in her work as a housing coordinator for the city of Hawthorne, she has encountered a number of residents who out of financial need are forced to live in their cars.
But, in a remark that raised the ire of some seniors, who rolled their eyes and muttered among themselves, project critic Herman Weinstein responded that "if some of these seniors are living in cars, it means they have a car that's going to suck up parking places."
Weinstein noted that the project would require taxpayer funds to subsidize rents, and that federal regulations prohibit the project from excluding non-residents of Lawndale. The project would be "wide open to everybody," he said.
In an effort to address residents' complaints about a parking shortage around the site, 153rd Place and Condon Avenue, the commission recommended that the City Council consider acquisition of a triangular-shaped, privately owned piece of property next to the project site that might allow additional parking.