Important Setback for Homeless Housing

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September 1, 2017 · Posted in Commentary 
Architect's rendering of proposed Lorena Plaza, 3407 E. 1st Street, Boyle Heights

Architect’s rendering of proposed Lorena Plaza, 3407 E. 1st Street, Boyle Heights

Leslie Evans

The Los Angeles City Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee (PLUM) on August 16 rejected a plan from the highly regarded A Community of Friends (ACOF) to build a 49-unit affordable income apartment house in Boyle Heights, half of whose tenants would be mentally ill homeless.

The contested property, a one-acre empty lot at 3407 E. First Street at the corner of Lorena Street in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles, is a one-acre empty lot owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. To the west is the Evergreen Cemetery. To the east is El Mercado, a combined market, restaurant, nightclub, and craft store.

Headed by CEO Dora Leong Gallo. ACOF is a nonprofit affordable housing developer focused on permanent supportive housing for homeless people with mental health, addiction and other special needs or disabilities. The have built or bought and rehabbed 40 properties in the LA area that house almost 1,600 formerly homeless people.

Called Lorena Plaza, the Boyle Heights project has been in the planning and approvals stage for five years. It won approval from the Los Angeles Planning Department. The owner of El Mercado appealed the Planning Department approval, which then went to the PLUM Committee.

Only three of the five committee members attended the August 16 meeting. The chair, CD 14 Councilmember Jose Huizar, whose district includes Boyle Heights, ruled in favor of the appeal, not even taking a vote. The two other councilmembers present, as is customary, deferred to Huizar as the project is in his district.

Jose Huizar

Jose Huizar

Nominally, Huizar’s objection is that there is an old oil well on the property and he is demanding a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) clearance if the project is to proceed. The Planning Department has investigated this issue and ruled that there was no environmental risk.

In an August 17 interview with radio station KPCC, Huizar said,

“The environmental consultant for the project had reviewed documentation – this is what’s called phase one environmental – they recommended a phase two environmental, which would test the soil for environmental contamination. And none was done, and in fact there is an old oil well there, that we don’t know if the soil is in fact contaminate or not.”

There are thousands of abandoned oil wells in Los Angeles. It does not require a full Environmental Impact Report to see that potential soil contamination does not pose a hazard. The phase two physical soil tests that Councilmember Huizar cites as grounds for a prolonged EIR is normally done routinely at the beginning of actual construction.

Huizar went on to make clear that he was against the project in general, saying that a majority of the people who spoke against the project at the PLUM Committee meeting were from the neighborhood while those who spoke for it was affordable housing advocates who were not local residents. Asked by the reporter if this was NIMBYism, he did not answer the question. The project did have the backing of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council.

What Happens Next?

Dora Leong Gallo, CEO of A Community of Friends

Dora Leong Gallo, CEO of A Community of Friends

There are four levels of CEQA review. The first, a categorical exemption, which means there is no objection, has now been ruled out. The next level is a Negative Declaration, which means that an investigation has not found anything to correct, or a Mitigated Negative Declaration, which means that the investigators have found something that needs to be corrected to win approval.

The highest level of CEQA review is a full Environmental Impact Report. This would include identification of all significant effects, alternatives, and potential mitigation measures.

The Los Angeles Planning Department, which has already approved the project, is the lead agency for CEQA reviews. Nominally, even for a full EIR the CEQA reviewers are required to make their decision within 60 days of receiving the report. The catch is that from the Negative Declaration up to an EIR there is a lengthening list of questions that must each be answered by a detailed, time-consuming, and expensive study. Technical sections such as the soil contamination test, traffic patterns, can only be done by certified professionals. Even when completed, EIR’s are subject to appeal to the courts, leaving a determined and well-financed opponent of a project almost endless ways to delay and kill it.

Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, raised his concerns that pushing the Lorena Plaza project into the CEQA process put all such future efforts in danger. He told the LA Times, “If we don’t find a way to make it work we have sent a message to everyonje who would ppose a project like this in their neighborhood that they should shell out money, hire lobbyists and fight is because there is some possibility of success.”

City Attorney Mike Feuer has offered to provide legal aid to A Community of Friends to save the project.

It is understandable that elected officials don’t want to stand up to angry constituents. But experience has made it clear that while voters will back money to get the homeless off the streets and into housing, they don’t want the housing in their neighborhoods. In Venice and San Pedro, outraged residents blocked plans to open even storage facilities for homeless people’s belongings. Just in May of this year angry neighbors forced the halt of a plan to convert the Golden Motel into a housing project for the homeless and veterans. Caving in when we are at the very beginning of a ten-year effort to build permanent supportive housing for the homeless bodes ill for the city’s chances of finding enough locations to spend the $1.2 billion from Proposition HHH.

The LA Times ran a lead editorial August 22 criticizing the PLUM Committee’s action. It read in part:

“It is disappointing that Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar wants a long-delayed housing development in Boyle Heights for poor and homeless people to be delayed even further while an extensive environmental report is prepared. This looks less like an attempt to ensure that the site is safe than an attempt to slow down — and derail — a well-designed project that could offer housing to Angelenos who desperately need it. . . .

“If these are the hurdles that face a viable, reasonable project to create a mere two dozen units of housing for the homeless, how in the world is this city going to get 10,000 units built? There will always be neighbors who oppose a project, there will always be officials annoyed at someone who disrespected them, there will always be an environmental concern of one sort or another that can be exploited.”

The Times called on a full City Council meeting to reject the PLUM Committee recommendation and approve the Lorena Plaza project. That meeting is currently scheduled for September 19.

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