LA Has a Homeless Housing Crisis but Short-Circuiting the Law isn’t the Answer

LOS ANGELES

AFFORDABLE HOUSING BATTLE-Nobody can argue that LA doesn't need Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). (Photo above:  Star Apartments, PSH in Skid Row) The number of homeless people on the streets has skyrocketed and we have to address this crisis. The city's voters approved ballot measures H and HHH to fund the construction of PSH units, and United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) agrees that it's time to take action. 

So, the next question is, “How do we get these units built?” The City is currently considering a Draft Permanent Supportive Housing Ordinance (PSHO). In order to expedite the construction of PSH units, the Ordinance would eliminate many of the steps that are ordinarily part of the development process. UN4LA is concerned that, in its rush to prioritize the construction of PSH, the City risks creating other potentially serious problems. While we agree the need is urgent, allowing some of the shortcuts currently included in the draft Ordinance could result in severe negative impacts to the individuals who desperately need safe, healthy housing. 

The proposed ordinance would allow the Director of Planning to approve PSH projects without any environmental review. It's true that project review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) can be time-consuming, but it also prevents developers and planners from making mistakes that could have serious consequences for future residents of the project. In a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) released with the Draft PSHO, the City states it will consolidate planning approvals to speed up the development timeline, while "incorporating new standards intended to reflect the unique characteristics of PSH and enhance the overall design of the project." But really, the City doesn't seem to be creating any new standards here. The Ordinance actually seems designed to bypass existing standards. 

By eliminating CEQA review, the Draft PSHO removes public comment from the process entirely. While there is a requirement to post notice at the site and at abutting properties 30 days prior to approval, there's no provision for community input. Apparently, the posting is for information only. Again, we understand that public comment can slow the process down, and that the need for PSH is urgent, but shutting the community out of the process could mean excluding input which may have a bearing on the success (or failure) of the project. 

We question the wisdom of rushing through project approvals without even completing a CEQA Initial Study, which requires answers to the following questions: 

Is the project site above an earthquake fault, or is the soil otherwise unstable? 

Is the site within a fire or flood hazard area? 

Will police protection and fire response be adequate, especially during emergencies?  

City Hall will argue that the Department of City Planning would never allow discretionary approvals of PSH construction without considering these issues. But the City's record in this regard is marred by many cases where due diligence has fallen by the wayside. To name just two examples: 

  • In the 90s a State of California audit revealed that LAUSD, with the acquiescence of City Planning, had built 13 schools, including Belmont High School, on or near hazardous waste sites. 
  • The LA Department of Building & Safety approved the Millennium Hollywood skyscrapers even though state geological maps clearly showed that an earthquake fault ran under the project site.  

There are other aspects of the PSHO that are troubling. Under "Request for Additional Waivers", the Ordinance states: 

"The City may not apply a development standard that will physically preclude the construction of the Qualified Permanent Supportive Housing Project." 

Does this mean that the project wouldn't be required to adhere to standards which would protect the health and safety of the project's potential residents? Language like this, which appears to broadly prohibit adherence to reasonable standards to protect project inhabitants, could pose substantial risks to the very population the City seeks to serve. And in the same paragraph it goes on to say that applicants may request additional waivers, "...except that the application shall not be required to provide a pro forma or other documentation to show that the waiver or modification of any development standard(s) are needed in order to make the Qualified Permanent Supportive Housing Project economically feasible." 

We don't understand why zoning waivers should be granted without any supporting evidence showing that they're required to make the project feasible. To allow developers to skirt development standards without demonstrating a clear financial need is merely opening the doors to abuse. 

In addition to the concerns we have about the PSHO's current form, we also wonder why it doesn't include a requirement to monitor these projects? We believe the PSHO must provide proper oversight to ensure that individuals in need of supportive housing truly benefit from the construction of these projects. This means the periodic on-site inspection of PSH projects that are typical in other municipalities. 

And then there's environmental justice. The individuals to be served by this program are members of a vulnerable population that already faces significant health challenges. In the rush to build PSH units, we shouldn't be exposing them to unreasonable health risks. One concern arises out of the City's current practice of permitting the construction of housing within 500 feet of freeways. Decades of research have shown that this poses substantial health risks for the tenants in these units, and yet the City routinely approves projects along freeway corridors. Unbelievably, the City Council has failed to even require developers to inform residents of the risks of living in freeway-adjacent buildings. Even more astonishing is that the City routinely approves the inclusion of balconies and rooftop decks which allow residents to be directly exposed to some of the most toxic air in the nation. 

In approving H and HHH, voters sent a clear message that Los Angeles needs to take action to provide housing for the homeless. But the current language of the PSHO allows the City and developers to cut a number of crucial corners, and it also raises the possibility that PSH units built will be substandard, and could expose residents to unacceptable health risks. This could open the door to lawsuits, potentially blocking the program's progress and wasting taxpayer dollars. 

To be clear, UN4LA absolutely believes that we need to build Permanent Supportive Housing in Los Angeles. We are glad that voters have shown that they're willing to make a substantial investment in this program. However, to guarantee the program's success, we must hold developers to standards that will ensure that the projects built do not place an already vulnerable population at further risk. The City must: 

  • Subject these projects subject to environmental review under CEQA. 
  • Grant waivers only when there is a proven need. 
  • Avoid siting projects within 500 feet of freeways to protect the health of future residents. 
  • Create a mechanism for oversight, including on-site inspections.  

We need to take action to help the homeless, but we need to do the job right. Otherwise, instead of helping these folks out, we're just throwing them under the bus one more time.

 

(Casey Maddren is President of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (www.un4la.com), a grass-roots group that believes in empowering communities to plan for their future. Questions and comments can be directed to: cmaddren@un4la.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

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