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LA City Councilman Jose Huizar on why he opposes a homeless housing project in Boyle Heights

Los Angeles City Council member Jose Huizar leads a press conference about the Operation Healthy Streets initiative at the Volunteers of America building near Skid Row.
Los Angeles City Council member Jose Huizar leads a press conference about the Operation Healthy Streets initiative at the Volunteers of America building near Skid Row.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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Thanks to city and county voters, Los Angeles has a lot more funding in the pipeline to tackle homelessness. But money isn't the only barrier.

This week, a panel of the L.A. City Council disappointed homeless advocates when it approved a request for further review of a proposed housing development in Boyle Heights.

The facility is intended to provide 49 units of supportive housing, including for mentally ill homeless people. The site: an empty lot on 1st and Lorena Streets, between Evergreen Cemetery and El Mercado shopping center and restaurant, a spot where Metro once considered building a Gold Line Station.

The Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council signed off on the plan in July 2015, and the city's planning department approved it in 2016. 

But the owners of El Mercado oppose the development and appealed to the city. On Tuesday, the Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee granted the request to take another look at the environmental approval for the proposed building. The appeal still has to go before the full council for a vote.

The committee's decision means at least a delay, possibly a permanent roadblock for another homeless housing project in L.A.

In November, city voters approved Measure HHH, green-lighting $1.2 billion in bonds for building housing and facilities. County voters followed up by passing Measure H, a quarter-cent sales tax hike focused on homeless services. 

It seems business owners, officials, and community activists, however, have yet to get on the same page. 

In June, the non-profit Mercy Housing dropped its bid to convert the Golden Motel near Temple City into permanent supportive housing after the building's owner decided to go with a different buyer in the face of community pushback. Neighborhood protests over proposed housing and homeless storage lockers have slowed or scuttled projects in Venice and San Pedro.

L-A City Councilman Jose Huizar chairs the Planning & Land Use Management Committee, and the proposed building is in District 14, which he represents. He joined A Martinez on Thursday on Take Two.

What exactly happened on Tuesday? Homeless services groups like the United Way say they're very disappointed.

Yes. And I worked with United Way on a number of issues to support homelessness. In fact I, along with Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, are the co-authors of Measure HHH, which the voters approved to bring 10,000 new units of homeless housing to L.A., the most we've done in decades. And unfortunately this is an example of how not to go about proposing these types of projects in local neighborhoods.

What was wrong with it?

The environment 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 contaminated or not. So they need to do that extra work.

But didn't the city planning department say that isn't an issue?

Well, when you have two different opinions on that, you err on the side of caution. I've chaired the Planning and Land Use Management Committee for some time now, and we always ask for phase two.

But aside from the environmental issues, this is a project that's existed since 2004 when the MTA proposed to build retail on this site. And I agree with that. I think from a planning perspective you have El Mercado, which is a cultural center right next door with mariachis playing every weekend, and that whole block is commercial. From a planning perspective that would make sense.

In fact on Tuesday, what we saw is that a majority if not all the people opposing the project are the local residents. People who live around the neighborhood. And the people supporting it were affordable housing advocates [who] do not live in the community.

If you want to propose these types of projects in communities -- and through Measure HHH as we approve more projects to move forward to build more affordable housing and homeless housing -- we need to have community support in order for these projects to move forward.

Is this a project that potentially could benefit from HHH funding?

No. This project will not use any HHH funding. I don't believe they have any HHH funding.

In fact, our first round of approvals for HHH funding happened about a month ago, and it wasn't included.

Just yesterday, in our homeless committee, we approved the guidelines for HHH funding. And we asked for decentralization of services. That is, in the past, the city and the region has centralized its services in Skid Row and Hollywood and certain parts of the city. But we have seen that this policy doesn't work. For example in Skid Row, it's called the containment policy that started in the 1980s where you continued to move all services to one location. But it's not good for the people who go get those services and it's not good for the neighborhood. 

Now as we do that, we're going to face many more challenges as we try to locate these types of services in areas throughout the city that historically have not gotten the services. So we adopted a policy that states that we will now start to give more points to applications for HHH funding if you go into areas that have little to no services for homeless.

Is this project dead?

It's not dead. [We] just asked for additional environmental review. Now Community of Friends, the developer, has the choice to do the additional environmental review or not do the project.

They should do the appropriate environmental review. They have their choice to do that whether they want to proceed or not.

But aside from that, they have to do a lot more community outreach to get support. And I've always said, my own personal opinion is it's not the right location for planning principles.

Councilman, you don't believe that this is a case of NIMBY-ism in Boyle Heights. But we've seen protests in Venice and San Pedro [over homeless facilities]. Temple City neighbors recently succeeded in stopping the Golden Motel from being converted to homeless housing.

Where will housing projects like this go, if every neighborhood fights development?

And it's going to become a bigger issue.

Now we have thankfully $1.2 billion, which the voters approved for the city to sell bonds over a ten-year period and build 10,000 units. Along with that, we have guidelines they say we need to go to areas that historically have not had these types of services.

So these types of issues are going to become more prevalent in the future. We have proposed within measure HHH primarily permanent supportive housing. Now this will ask for us to build housing, and in those housing units to provide services to help individuals get back on their feet.

There's a lot of examples where these types of projects go into neighborhoods and they're just like any other apartment. You can't even tell or you can't tell that they are serving special needs people or homeless individuals if done right.

But to summarize, this is going to become more of an issue as we disperse HHH dollars, and we hope to go into neighborhoods that typically have not had these type of services, because it's good for the homeless who come from those neighborhoods. If they are in a neighborhood they know and understand, it's easier for them to get back on their feet.

And we should no longer continue to concentrate the services in certain neighborhoods. But as we do that, the neighborhood and the operators have to have the discussions. If it's a good operator, it should not pose any disruption or problems to the local neighborhood.