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L.A. wins legal battle over laws meant to ease the way for homeless housing

The New Genesis supportive housing complex on skid row.
The New Genesis supportive housing complex on skid row, an example of the kind of housing that Los Angeles sought to ease the way for with a new ordinance passed last year.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles city officials won a key battle Thursday over a pair of local laws meant to ease the way for more housing for homeless people, defeating a challenge from a Venice group that sought to overturn the ordinances.

Fight Back, Venice! sued the city over the two ordinances, arguing the city flouted state law when it approved the local laws. Then state lawmakers stepped in, exempting the L.A. ordinances from the California law at the heart of the case.

The Venice group denounced the bill as a blatant attempt to kill its lawsuit — and it looks like it will. At a Thursday hearing, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge concluded the state had rendered the lawsuit moot.

Judge James C. Chalfant granted a motion by the city to dismiss the case, rejecting arguments by Fight Back, Venice! that the new law passed in Sacramento was unconstitutional.

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Chalfant left the door open, however, for the Venice group to elaborate on one of its arguments about the legality of AB 1197, saying it could present any additional evidence in a motion to reconsider ahead of a January hearing.

Los Angeles officials celebrated the Thursday ruling as a victory that would help them move faster to house people sleeping and suffering on the streets.

The two ordinances are meant to smooth the way at City Hall for homeless housing: Under one of the ordinances, supportive housing projects that meet a list of requirements can avoid a lengthier process that includes environmental review and can trigger a public hearing. The other law made it easier for motels to be converted temporarily into housing.

Both ordinances have already been in effect, but the city has been advising housing developers about the legal fight when they pursue such projects. Ben Winter, chief housing officer to L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, said in court papers that developers had shied away from taking advantage of the easier process because of uncertainty surrounding the lawsuit.

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“The risks associated with taking advantage of the laws were too high for the majority of developers who were building supportive housing” for homeless people, said Tommy Newman, director of impact initiatives for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which has advocated for such housing through its Everyone In campaign.

Newman said he expected to see a rush of housing projects filing to use the easier process, saving time and money.

“This ruling is pivotal to getting homeless people the shelter they desperately need. Now,” Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer said in a statement Thursday.

Fight Back, Venice! complained that after it sued the city, arguing that officials hadn’t properly reviewed the new ordinances under the California Environmental Quality Act, Los Angeles had used the “nuclear option” by lobbying state lawmakers to exempt the city ordinances from that California law.

The resulting bill, AB 1197, was unconstitutional, violated its rights to due process, and improperly singled out Los Angeles without a “rational basis” to do so, the group argued.

“The bill was targeted directly at this litigation,” its attorney Jamie T. Hall wrote.

Attorneys representing the city countered that the state law was constitutional because there was a rational relationship between the stated goals of the bill — facilitating homeless housing — and exempting the two L.A. ordinances.

The arguments raised by Fight Back, Venice! were “intended to do nothing more than add further delay,” they wrote.

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Christian Wrede, a member of Fight Back, Venice!, said in an email Thursday that “all Californians who value the rule of law should be alarmed by what transpired in connection with this fundamentally meritorious case.”

Wrede said he was taking issue not with the judge and his ruling but with L.A. city officials.

“City officials knew full well that they were going to lose this lawsuit, so they got their friends in Sacramento to rewrite the law after the fact,” Wrede said. “It doesn’t get much shadier — or much stinkier — than that.”

Garcetti, reacting to the Thursday decision, said in a statement that he had sponsored AB 1197 because “we can’t let frivolous lawsuits stand in the way of the housing we need to confront our homelessness crisis.”


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