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L.A. panel opposes yanking funds for Chatsworth homeless housing project

Cars drive by a street with a street sign in the foreground and business in the background
A lot on Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Chatsworth, shown in 2019, where housing is planned using Proposition HHH funds.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

An unusual bid by Los Angeles City Councilman John Lee to pull back funding from a Chatsworth homeless housing project met headwinds Thursday, as a council committee voted unanimously against rescinding the money.

“We can’t keep punting the obligation that we have to start actually making a dent in this crisis,” said Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, a member of the Homelessness and Poverty Committee.

The decision now heads to the full council, according to a spokeswoman for the committee leader. The council voted more than a year ago to fund the Topanga Canyon Boulevard project using money from Proposition HHH, a $1.2-billion bond program approved by voters. As it stands, more than $7 million in HHH funds is slated to be allocated for the project, according to the housing department.

In the three years since the Los Angeles Fire Department began tracking them, fires related to homeless camps have more than doubled.

The unanimous vote belied a simmering debate at the Thursday meeting, where two council members who have been rumored as possible mayoral candidates — Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kevin de León — sparred over the idea.

De León tried unsuccessfully to delay the vote, suggesting that Lee could use more time to work out a more concrete plan for a faster, cheaper alternative in his district to replace the Chatsworth development. De León added that in general, he has no problem with “clawbacks” of HHH funding.

Ridley-Thomas, who heads the committee, said he had serious concerns about the idea of pulling back such money. He also balked at the suggested delay in the vote, saying he would ordinarily be accommodating, “but in this instance, I think we are making a huge mistake, potentially, by trifling with the most compelling crisis that confronts our city.”

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“We simply have to be clear that marching forward is the order of the day,” Ridley-Thomas said.

No one seconded the motion to delay the vote. De León remarked that there was “a hypocrisy in that this committee protects the very status quo in the institution that actually delays housing at great cost.”

“I just find some great irony there, but, you know, we can move forward, Mr. Chair,” de León said.

Ridley-Thomas thanked him and replied, “Irony all over the place. We can unpack that at a later point.”

“Oh, we shall,” de León replied.

Council members typically defer to the lawmaker who represents an area when it comes to development decisions in their district, but the Chatsworth project — and the bid to defund it — has generated debate far beyond the neighborhood.

Last year, council members backed funding for the Chatsworth project amid concerns that the San Fernando Valley district that Lee represents was the only district that hadn’t yet approved any housing under HHH.

The planned project, now named Lumina, has drawn criticism from Lee and from Chatsworth residents who argue it will be too tall and too close to a school. Bruce Paul, president of Chatsworth Community Preservation, warned of “major safety factors at stake if this project is allowed to go forward,” arguing that clogged traffic during construction would send commuters detouring through neighborhoods where schoolchildren walk.

In his recent motion, Lee argued that the HHH funds for the Topanga Canyon Boulevard project should be pulled and earmarked instead for an innovative project that could be built more quickly and cheaply in his district, citing a new proposal for housing along Devonshire Street in Chatsworth as an example. That Devonshire Street project won support from the committee Thursday, along with two others that sprung from an innovation program.

“I am not here to block a project,” Lee told the committee. “I am here to ask the city to support us in building a better one. One that will ultimately yield more beds for our finite investment of taxpayer dollars.”

Besides the costs, “I have objected to this location since the beginning,” Lee said, citing concerns with limited parking, a constrained lot for the building project, and a busy intersection near the site. “And despite my repeated offers to work with this developer to find a new site, they have turned me down.”

Affordable housing developers and advocates argued that pulling back the funds would jeopardize other HHH deals and gut confidence in L.A.'s funding commitments. Affirmed Housing, the San Diego-based developer of the 55-unit project, said it had already purchased the property, lined up other funding and was expecting to break ground later this year. The company said the new project would provide quality housing to homeless people, including homeless veterans.

City Councilman John Lee responds to a Times editorial on his motion to withdraw city funding from a homeless housing project.

“If the city revokes this legal, binding contract, California housing agencies will question whether to provide much-needed state funds to the city, and investors and lenders will not trust any other existing HHH contracts,” said Cristina Martinez, project manager for Affirmed Housing.

West Hills resident Zach Volet complained that the Valley council district was “dead last” in such housing. “Once again, John Lee is not only abdicating his responsibility to provide housing, he’s actively hurting the effort,” he said.

The Valley district that Lee represents has a Project Homekey site — a Travelodge hotel converted into housing — and residents are supportive of the other planned project on Devonshire, the councilman said.

Ahead of the Thursday vote, committee members received a confidential report from the city attorney’s office about the legality of rolling back commitments for HHH funding. A city lawyer declined to detail the analysis at the public hearing.


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