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Foes on Housing Issue Stage Policy Debate on Skid Row

Times City-County Bureau Chief

As the usual large numbers of homeless wandered the streets and slept on sidewalks, the Bradley Administration and Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky dueled Wednesday on Los Angeles’ Skid Row over city housing policy.

Yaroslavsky, in a sidewalk news conference outside Weingart Center, a rehabilitation and residential center for the homeless, demanded that an outside auditing firm investigate the low-cost housing record of the Administration’s lead agency in providing more homes for the poor, the Community Redevelopment Agency. He asked that auditors look into charges by the Legal Aid Foundation that the agency had inflated figures on its construction and rehabilitation efforts.

An hour later, CRA Administrator John Tuite, talking to reporters in the lobby of a Skid Row hotel rehabilitated by the agency, defended his organization’s record and angrily welcomed an audit. “I am not afraid of audits,” he said, slamming down on a table a thick pile of previous federal and state audits of his agency.

Behind the obvious hard feelings was a clear policy difference between Yaroslavsky, who plans to run against Bradley next year, and the redevelopment agency, whose board is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council.

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Defense of Policies

Tuite strongly defended Administration policy of using CRA funds to construct and rehabilitate low-cost housing and to continue to build high-rise residential and commercial downtown buildings, as well as theaters, restaurants and museums.

Clearly skeptical of continued emphasis on downtown, Yaroslavsky, without making the charge himself, said that “some people” believe the CRA is more interested in “subsidizing the building of more high-rises” than constructing low-cost housing.

Both sides, however, agreed that the shortage of low-cost housing is reaching a crisis stage because of continued demolitions of apartments and cheap hotels, hard-core unemployment in black and Latino areas and a growing population of poor, many of them immigrants.

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Just a few blocks of Skid Row separated the two press conferences, and the locations provided an appropriate backdrop to Tuite’s and Yaroslavsky’s words.

Homeless men and women roused themselves from a night’s sleep on 4th Street and walked away with their cardboard shelters as police officers watched. Homeless men wandered by as Yaroslavsky berated the CRA, some giving him a curious look. The sound of a bottle breaking on 5th Street punctuated Tuite’s reply. A young woman, her blouse half open and exposing her stomach, lay sleeping on the sidewalk near the hotel.

At the center of the dispute between Yaroslavsky and the redevelopment agency is a proposal by Bradley to increase the limit on the amount of property taxes the CRA can obtain from downtown development.

The limit is now $750 million. The revenue is obtained after the agency condemns under-used land and sells it to developers. When new buildings go up, property taxes increase and the revenue goes to the CRA, where it has been used for physical improvements for downtown and low-cost housing. Bradley proposed raising the limit to $5 billion, with roughly half committed to continued physical improvements for downtown and half for a big increase in the amount of low-cost housing built or financed by the CRA.

Last week, at a hearing of the City Council Revenue and Finance Committee, chaired by Yaroslavsky, the Legal Aid Foundation submitted a report claiming that the agency had “grossly inflated” statistics on the amount of low-cost housing it had built for families. The foundation said the agency had counted homeless shelter-cots and men-only rehabilitation center beds as family housing.

Referring to the foundation study, Yaroslavsky said, “I want to know how many units have been constructed. . . . Before you raise that cap the City Council and the mayor ought to know, otherwise you are buying a pig in a poke.”

His face red, his voice loud and emotional, Tuite defended his agency. “We will help keep downtown a 24-hour community,” he said of the CRA goal of turning the area into a large and populous business, residential, cultural and entertainment area. Then, referring to his agency’s other task, he said, “We’ll assist the poor.”

He dismissed the Legal Aid Foundation report as a quibble over statistics. He said that it was true that the CRA reported cots and single-room occupancy hotel rooms as family shelter. But he said that was done only to meet the reporting requirements of the city Building Code, whose loose definition of a family includes “an individual or two more more persons related by blood or marriage. . . .”

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