Los Angeles City Council votes to streamline homeless supportive housing construction

The Los Angeles City Council approved a pair of ordinances Wednesday aimed at speeding the creation of housing for the homeless and encouraging the conversion of motels into supportive housing.

The ordinances are the latest in a series of moves designed to combat homelessness, which rose by 20 percent in the city last year to more than 34,000 people.

In 2016, city voters approved Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure to construct permanent supportive housing, but authorities have said the units would take years to build due to the difficulties in finding available space and securing permits and other required approvals.

Councilman Mike Bonin said the ordinances approved Wednesday "finally remove some of the annoying and frustrating roadblocks to progress -- the laws that have been in place, the restrictions that have been in place -- that have made urgent action difficult, if not impossible.''

Bonin delivered his comment while speaking at a news conference outside Los Angeles City Hall with several dozen supporters of the ordinance, council members Jose Huizar and Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and City Attorney Mike Feuer.

One ordinance is aimed at converting some of the city's hotels or motels into temporary or supportive housing for the homeless by easing zoning requirements and speeding the approval process, as long as all the units are affordable and at least half of them are available for homeless people.

"We need to have immediate solutions to compliment the long-term solutions everyone standing here believes is essential to the future of Los Angeles,'' City Attorney Mike Feuer said at a City Hall news conference. "The motel conversion ordinance offers one such tool along the way.''

The second ordinance cuts parking requirements and streamlines the approval process for permanent supportive housing projects with 120 units or more in much of the city and 200 or more in the downtown area. The ordinance allows such projects to skip the normal review and hearing process if they meet certain requirements, among them that all of the units be affordable and at least half be set aside for homeless people.

Both of the ordinances were approved on 13-0 votes but still require the signature of Mayor Eric Garcetti. The mayor said he intends to sign them both on Thursday.

"This crisis demands that we look at using every available resource -- and cut as much time as we can out of the construction timeline -- for housing that we need now,'' Garcetti said. "I am proud to stand with my council colleagues, and look forward to signing these ordinances into law so we can get to work.''

According a report from the City Planning Department, which crafted both proposals, the standard parking requirements are not needed for many permanent supportive housing projects because their residents are "transit dependent, and do not have access to a personal vehicle.'' The ordinances also allows projects to be built higher or more densely than is typically allowed.

In order to qualify for the streamlined approval process, projects must be located in a High Quality Transit Area, which is defined as areas within a half-mile of a transit stop or transit corridor where buses pick up passengers at a frequency of every 15 minutes or less during peak commuting hours. According to the Planning Department report, the ordinance will cover the majority of the city.

The housing ordinance would not supersede the Coastal Act, and any proposed projects would be required to comply with existing regulations governing projects in the Coastal Zone, including the requirement to obtain a Coastal Development Permit, according to the report.

The city has had a goal of building at least 1,000 units per year for the homeless since city voters in November 2016 approved Measure HHH. In the past few years, the city has been averaging a production rate of approximately 300 units per year, according to the Planning Department report. Between 2008 and 2016, approximately 41 permanent supportive housing projects were completed, resulting in a total of 2,398 units.

The housing ordinance also aims to cut down on the cost of development. Officials in Councilman Jose Huizar's office said a 60-unit building could save nearly $1 million thanks to the expedited processes the ordinance offers.

Some groups have opposed the supportive housing ordinance, arguing it could prevent neighborhoods from controlling what kind of development is permitted. During the council hearing, Planning Department officials said the agency received more than 670 public letters, and only about one-fifth were supportive of the ordinance as proposed, with different concerns expressed, including the projects' impact on nearby property values.

The Planning Department report pointed to a recent study by New York University's Furman Center which analyzed the impacts of 7,500 units of permanent supportive housing in New York City over a period of 20 years and found that the projects did not have any negative impact on the value of nearby properties.

Jamie Hall, an attorney for the organization Venice Vision, raised concerns in February that the ordinance would cut the public out of the approval process.

"We can achieve our goal of providing supportive services and housing for the homeless without completely removing the public participation process,'' Hall said.

For the permanent supportive housing ordinance and the motel conversion ordinance, owners of any participating property would be required to provide evidence demonstrating that supportive services for the residents will be provided.

According to the Planning Department, there are about 10,259 guest rooms in at least 382 motels in Los Angeles, and some could be converted to temporary or supportive housing for the homeless at a low cost. Motels would be the most likely to take advantage of the program, the report said.

Councilman Mitch O'Farrell introduced two amendments that were both approved. He said one will help protect culturally significant tribal resources at project sites, while the other ensures the proposed modifications to motels are consistent with city standards on eligible historic sites.

"These two amendments today will help guide future development of housing where we need it the most, while keeping the city in compliance with local and state standards,'' O'Farrell said.

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