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Shortchanged in San Pedro

TO UNDERSTAND WHY HOMELESSNESS is such an intractable problem for Los Angeles, one need look no further than San Pedro. That’s where more than two dozen acres of former military housing originally intended for homeless families are instead being sold for millions of dollars.

Like many of the best bits of beach-adjacent real estate left in Southern California, this property has a tangled legal history. For decades, it housed workers for the nearby Long Beach Naval Shipyard. When that base closed in the 1990s, the plan was to use many of the 545 housing units for the homeless, under a federal law requiring that the needs of the homeless be considered when the government disposes of surplus military land. Locals erupted in opposition, so a series of scaled-down proposals were considered.

Finally, in 2003, the city agreed to only a pittance of homeless housing on the site, over the loud objections and threatened lawsuits by advocacy groups such as Volunteers of America, or VOA, which had proposed building much more. The Department of Housing and Urban Development sided with VOA, a national faith-based charity that provides healthcare, housing and other services to the needy, and ripped up the city’s agreement with the Navy.

The Navy then sold a 42-acre chunk to residential developer Robert Bisno for $88 million and gave 28 acres to VOA. The group said it would build 155 units of emergency and transitional family housing, something Los Angeles desperately needs.

All’s well that ends well, right? Not quite.

Shortly after VOA acquired the rights to the land last May, it turned around and sold 19 acres to Bisno for $31.3 million -- a tidy profit considering it received the property for free. As for the remaining nine acres, the Los Angeles Unified School District recently stopped by, interested in the site as a possible home for a school.

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These deals may be unsavory, but the federal Base Closure Act includes a provision that allows homeless agencies to sell land they acquire from the military -- as long as the money is used for other homeless services. VOA says the money from its sale is going into a trust fund that will be used to research “innovative solutions” for ending homelessness. The agency says it can do the most good this way.

It may well be right. But one of the most innovative and straightforward solutions for ending homelessness is the kind of housing that should have been built in San Pedro. The L.A. City Council -- especially Councilwoman Janice Hahn, in whose district this property lies -- can help VOA live up to its commitment by rezoning the remaining land for more multifamily housing. That would allow VOA to build as many family units there as possible.

The provision of the Base Closure Act requiring consideration of the needs of the homeless was a response to one of the great shames of our time: the estimated one in five homeless who are also veterans. Programs to assist the homeless, veterans and non-veterans alike, are planned for both Ft. Ord in Monterey and Treasure Island in San Francisco, a former naval station. This city’s homeless deserve a second chance, too, in San Pedro.


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