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Editorial: Councilman Jose Huizar should be supporting a Boyle Heights homeless housing project, not thwarting it

An empty lot, located at the intersection of 1st St. and Lorena St. in Boyle Heights, that a nonprofit hopes to develop into housing for the homeless.
(Los Angeles Times)

The breeze-swept, one-acre vacant lot on a corner in Boyle Heights seems to have all the elements necessary for a new housing development for homeless and desperately poor people. The owner — the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority — is willing and eager to lease it out for affordable housing. A respected nonprofit group wants to develop there. The neighbors across the street — the residents of the Evergreen Cemetery — are uncomplaining. The project has the approval of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council.

But there’s one big thing it’s lacking: the support of the local Los Angeles City Council member, Jose Huizar. The same Jose Huizar who helped make homelessness a priority for the council and who championed Measure HHH, November’s ballot measure that will finance up to 10,000 units of new affordable housing, most of it for chronically homeless people.

Granted, Huizar is not the only one balking at the project on East 1st and Lorena streets. The owners of the popular El Mercado shopping center and restaurant just east of the site oppose the proposal and have appealed the city planning department’s approval of its environmental report. And some residents who live on nearby streets say that they’d rather have a park there, that the project wouldn’t directly benefit the people of Boyle Heights, or that it would be filled with mentally ill homeless people. But Huizar has the most power to stymie the project — or help it along.

None of Huizar’s issues are compelling enough to justify such stubborn opposition to the project.

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Huizar’s beef with the developers goes back at least four years, when the amount of space to be reserved for retailers and other commercial users was cut from 26,000 square feet to 5,000 with the Metro board’s blessing. Since then, the developer — A Community of Friends, a nonprofit that develops housing for homeless people and provides the wraparound services they need — has increased the commercial space to 10,000 square feet and made other changes to try to appease opponents. At the suggestion of local residents, it’s also working to add fitness and child care centers to benefit the neighborhood. That would leave room for 49 units of housing; no more than half would be for homeless people, with the rest reserved for low-income veterans and families. Supportive services would also be provided to those in the project who need them.

Still not satisfied, Huizar has not only withheld his blessing, he has held up the developer’s progress through the bureaucracy that HHH’s supporters in City Hall had vowed to streamline. The City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management committee, which Huizar chairs, has been sitting on the El Mercado owners’ appeal of the project for a year without holding a hearing. Huizar’s aides say they hoped the developer and the El Mercado owners would work something out without the council’s help, but that clearly has not happened. The two sides didn’t even meet until January of this year, according to Dora Leong Gallo, the chief executive of A Community of Friends. Belatedly acknowledging this reality, Huizar’s staff said last week that he would set a meeting for next month.

The councilman said four years ago that the project needed more retail businesses to avoid creating “dead space” at that location. His aides said this past week that he wants a project that “complements and creates synergy with” El Mercado next door. They also voiced concerns about another homeless housing project the developer runs in Boyle Heights.

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Frankly, none of Huizar’s issues are compelling enough to justify such stubborn opposition to the project that he won’t even try to make it better.

Neighborhoods are quick to oppose projects that house homeless people. That’s why developers spend hours at community meetings trying to allay fears and soliciting input. The opposition to this project, where only a fraction of the housing would be set aside for homeless people, does not bode well for a city that is hoping to build thousands of units of desperately needed housing across the city for chronically homeless people in the next decade.

If these projects are going to succeed, city officials need to put considerable political will behind them. Huizar has said as much himself. Yet he’s not exhibiting it here. Huizar should be taking the lead in helping the developer and the owners of El Mercado come up with a proposal they both support. Or he should let both sides state their cases at a council committee meeting. All these housing projects are challenging. We expect Huizar and his colleagues to facilitate the process, not throw obstacles in its way.

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