Last week, a federal appellate court overturned Judge David O. Carter’s system-shaking injunction that would have required the City of Los Angeles to offer housing to every homeless person living on the streets of Skid Row by fall. The ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals invalidates Carter’s order, which also called for spending audits and reports on finances to pay for fast-tracked shelter and housing, which supporters had applauded as the first real attempt to reverse the decades-long practice of using the four-square-mile swath of downtown as a dumping ground for the poor, mentally ill, and addicted. In spite of its flaws, Carter’s order had the strength to impose a sense of urgency on both the city and county as the proliferation of encampments causes public anger mount.
On Tuesday, construction begins on a residential tower that will rise 19 stories above the tarps and tents of Skid Row. The $160-million Weingart Tower will add 278 new furnished apartments to L.A.’s stock of permanent supportive housing for the homeless, making it the largest single addition of its kind in L.A.’s history.
The high-rise is one of several permanent housing developments for the homeless to break ground or open this year. The spate comes after the notoriously slow rollout of Proposition HHH, which city voters passed in 2016 to pay for 10,000 housing units for the homeless. It took more than three years for the first unit to open; fewer than 500 units opened in the first five years and only 7,300 units are anticipated to be built under the $1.2 billion initiative.
Weingart Center Association president and CEO Kevin Murray was the chairman of the California Senate Appropriations Committee before taking on a role at the almost 40-year-old homeless services nonprofit in 2011. He says that it takes a long time to build a permanent unit, and that more permanent temporary housing will be needed to assuage public anger at encampments.
“There is this fallacy that we don’t need interim housing if we can build 50,000 units of permanent housing,” Murray tells Los Angeles. “This whole idea that building permanent supportive housing is the singular solution to the homeless problem was just wrong from the start.”
Though not a panacea, the future Weingart Tower’s 278 studio and one-bedroom apartments represent an exponential improvement over the average size of permanent supportive housing projects, which typically comprise about 75 units. In fact, RAND Corporation researchers found that a rule put in place 18 months after Prop HHH passed, one that required projects with more than 65 units to be subject to agreements with labor unions, may have ultimately led to smaller projects being built.
“If the average project is roughly 75 units, we are essentially building four of those projects all at once,” Murray says of the 19-story Weingart Tower. “It’s a big and important leg of the table, of the solution. But I am a believer that we should have permanent structures for interim and temporary housing as well. That is kind of what [Judge] Carter’s model was based on.”
He adds, “Let’s worry about whether we can house these 200 people in Echo Park, for instance, or a couple hundred people in Venice.”
Skid Row, which is essentially the city’s largest encampment, has existed for at least a century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that it became the sprawling enclave of tents and tarps it is today. The eco-friendly Weingart Tower offers a hint of what Skid Row could look like in years to come.
To head off complaints from neighbors, the high-rise is designed with extra amenities like a roof deck, a pet relief area, and a fenced-in courtyard to reduce the temptation for residents to congregate on the street outside the entrance. “This is a first-class building which could be in Westwood or Century City, it could be anywhere,” Murray says. “It’s designed such that without knowing the people in it, you would never know that we were housing formerly homeless people.”
The 50-block area in which an estimated 2,800 people bed down in the street at night is already ringed by miles of new condos and skyscrapers. The ceremony for Weingart Tower caps a recent flurry of groundbreakings and grand openings for ambitious and affordable apartment complexes in Skid Row, suggesting how quickly the area is changing. A second phase of the Weingart project that’s slated to get underway next year at the same site, on the northwest corner of East Sixth and Crocker streets, will add an additional 300 units in Skid Row for a total of nearly 600.
Facing a housing crunch and public fury over tents in public spaces, Mayor Eric Garcetti allotted $32 million in Proposition HHH funding to the Weingart Tower proposal, part of an overall bump of $362 million in Prop HHH funding from the city’s budget for 2021-’22. Garcetti is one of several VIPs expected to turn up for the groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
The nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust will open three projects in the downtown neighborhood this year. The Boston-based Suffolk Construction Co. is putting up a six-story building with 94 permanent units of supportive housing just a block away from the Weingart Center.
Does the spate of new projects vindicate the city and county from the public goodwill around HHH that was squandered? “I think it is vindication for HHH that all these projects are going online,” Murray says. “It is not vindication for the overall policy direction. We are still not utilizing a multi-modal approach except when absolutely necessary.”
The Weingart Tower development was financed by Pacific Western Bank, the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, the Los Angeles County Development Authority, and the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
Weingart is pairing with San Diego real estate developer Chelsea Investment Corp., whose experience building affordable-housing development projects is extensive and includes one high-rise chosen as “San Diego’s Best Affordable Project of 2015” by the Building Industry Association of San Diego County.
“What I hope is that Skid Row is not the place where people are sleeping on the street,” Murray says. “It shouldn’t be the only place, but it should be one of many places in this city where people who have fallen into the safety net can go and get inside help and not be sleeping on the street.”
Regarding the appeals court’s decision to overturn Judge Carter’s injunction, Murray says he’s encouraged that the “underlying lawsuit lives on and will continue on its path.”
He adds, “I expect The City and County to continue to prioritize homelessness on behalf of their constituents whom polls show believe homelessness to be their top issue.”
Weingart Tower is projected to open to residents in December 2023.
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