L.A. councilman takes aim at money for Valley homeless housing project

Written by MLHA Team

May 2, 2021

Los Angeles City Councilman John Lee is again battling plans for a homeless housing project along Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Chatsworth, more than a year after the council voted to approve funding for the development.

Lee recently put forward a proposal to yank money being allocated for the Chatsworth project under Proposition HHH, a $1.2-billion bond measure approved by voters. The rescinded funds should instead be earmarked for “an innovative project proposal” in his district that could be built more quickly and at a lower cost, Lee stated.

As it stands, more than $7 million is slated to be allocated from the HHH program for the Topanga Canyon Boulevard development, according to the housing department. The city attorney’s office declined to comment on whether there would be any legal barrier to rescinding the HHH funds for the project.

The developer Affirmed Housing said the 55-unit development, now dubbed Lumina, was “well on its way to completion,” with the property purchased, permits being processed, other funding lined up and a groundbreaking expected later this year.

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Dozens of new apartments for homeless people could rise in Chatsworth after the Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to fund a rare proposal to build such housing in the northwest San Fernando Valley.

The Chatsworth development is the only HHH project approved so far in Lee’s San Fernando Valley district. When the proposal first emerged at City Hall, the rarity of such a plan in the northwestern stretches of the Valley spurred intense interest well beyond the neighborhood, with homeless advocates arguing that officials needed to ensure that such units were built across Los Angeles and not segregated in its poorer districts.

The planned project in Chatsworth has been sharply opposed by some residents who argue it is too tall for the neighborhood and too close to a school. A new group, Chatsworth Community Preservation, has also raised safety concerns tied to its construction, including traffic disruptions that could put children at risk from detouring commuters.

Lee came out against the proposal, but eventually voted with the rest of the council to award HHH funding for that and other planned projects. In a statement last week, his spokeswoman Grace Yao said the councilman had voted for the slate of HHH projects because “he had no intention of opposing or delaying critical services for the rest of the city.”

“In the spirit of supporting the project, and not the location, he made numerous attempts with the developer to find a better location,” Yao said. “The developer in question was unwilling to work with the community on a better location and he was left with no other choice than to introduce this motion.”

Affirmed Housing said it had carefully picked the site and held community meetings. The company said that it didn’t expect “significant disruption” in nearby traffic during construction. And it argued that the costs of the project — like many developments across Los Angeles — were affected by a number of factors, including the wages it was required to pay and a reduction in the number of units, which it decided on after community outreach.

“Lumina will accomplish the community’s many goals, including providing safe housing to veterans and beautifying an important stretch” of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, the developer said in a statement.

In addition, the project “provides quality affordable housing in a high-resource area that helps equitably disperse supportive housing in the City of Los Angeles.”

The push to rescind funding from the Chatsworth project has again drawn interest beyond the immediate neighborhood: Alan Greenlee, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Nonprofit Housing, said the bid to rescind money from the Topanga Canyon Boulevard project “endangers all the other HHH deals, calls into question the city’s ‘commitments’ and will erode public and private investors’ confidence in doing business with the city in the future.”

In his motion, Lee asked the housing department to set aside the money for an alternative proposal that would develop units at a lower cost and with a shorter timeline in his district, citing one such proposal that had arisen in Chatsworth.

That proposed project, which has yet to get council approval, would bring 100 units to Devonshire Street using more than $10 million in HHH funding, according to a city report. The councilman said it was “an example of a project that can better serve both people and the community at a significantly reduced cost.”

Chatsworth resident Jeff Hammond applauded the move by Lee. He said the Topanga Canyon Boulevard project was unacceptable because of its scale and site, but “we are not opposed to homeless housing in Chatsworth.”

“We believe it’s extremely simple to find a much better location with a much higher capacity and much less cost,” said Hammond, who serves as president of the Chatsworth Neighborhood Council but was not speaking on its behalf.

Chatsworth resident Kim Olsen, a board member with the group West Valley Homes Yes, said she understood the concerns with the high cost of HHH projects but that yanking money from the Topanga Canyon Boulevard development would be counterproductive when the project is getting ready to start construction.

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“You’re setting us back. We can’t wait for an idea to come to fruition later,” Olsen said, arguing that one HHH project shouldn’t be traded for another.

Although Lumina is the only HHH project approved in the council district so far, the area now has a Project Homekey site — a Travelodge hotel converted into housing — and will soon have a shelter in Northridge at the former Skateland roller rink, along with the existing San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission for families and a safe parking site, Yao said.

Bruce Paul, president of Chatsworth Community Preservation, argued that between that and the proposed project Lee mentioned, the area was already doing its part.

“And we’re doing it for substantially less cost — and providing reasonable and decent housing,” Paul said.

Olsen countered that “we need all the beds we can get,” especially permanent supportive housing. The last homeless count tallied more than 700 unhoused people in the district, the vast majority of them unsheltered.

“Our district is not carrying its weight,” she said.

The proposal, which was seconded by Councilman Kevin de León, now heads to a council committee for discussion.

It remains to be seen whether L.A. council members will back the idea. Lawmakers typically defer to the council member who represents an area on development decisions in their district, but the Chatsworth project has been a focal point for broader concerns about uneven distribution of HHH units across the city.

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