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Freeway Housing Needs Argued in Court

April 21, 1985|GERALD FARIS | Times Staff Writer

A public-interest law firm contended in court last week that the city of Hawthorne must permit immediate construction of two housing projects if residents who will lose their homes to Century Freeway construction within a year are to have places to live.

"Alternative sites will not meet this time requirement," said Bill Lann Lee, an attorney with the Center for Law in the Public Interest.

The city, however, insisted that the larger of the two projects pushed by the law firm, containing 96 units, is unacceptable. It said it would permit a proposed 32-unit building as housing for residents displaced by the freeway and would allow such housing on 52 other sites in the city.

"The city offered this plan and it was rejected" by the center for law, said Richard R. Terzian, special counsel for Hawthorne.

As both sides held their positions during nearly a day of arguments in U.S. District Court, Judge Harry Pregerson's attempts to draw them into a compromise failed.

Pregerson asked that written arguments be submitted by Wednesday, and he is expected to rule later on a suit that the law center filed against the city in February.

Crux of Lawsuit

The lawsuit hinges on whether Hawthorne violated housing provisions of a freeway agreement, approved by Pregerson in 1981, and illegally discriminated against its own minority and poor residents when it rejected the 96-unit project on Kornblum Avenue and placed a limit on low-income occupancy of a 32-unit building on Cerise Avenue, thus disqualifying the building as part of the replacement program. According to the law center, the freeway in Hawthorne passes through a community that is 75% minority.

The 1981 agreement, which paved the way for Century Freeway construction after nine years of litigation, requires that at least 3,700 units--55% of them for low-income people--be provided to replace housing lost to the freeway, which is to link Los Angeles International Airport and Norwalk. Hawthorne's share of the required number of units is 275 units.

With most of the attention in the case focused on the Kornblum Avenue property, Lee told the court there is "no merit" to the city's contention that it rejected the project because of possible school overcrowding or other problems, including traffic.

Lee said that in the last 15 months, the city has issued permits for about 800 units in Moneta Gardens--where the Kornblum land is located--without such objections being raised, and he cited a 49-unit development that required a zone change. But Terzian countered by saying the development has not yet receive approval from the City Council, "which could reject it."

Opposition by Neighbors

"The council voted no because of vocal opposition to the low-income status of people who would live there," Lee said of the Kornblum project. In documents filed with the court, the law center cited transcripts of lengthy council hearings in which neighbors of the Kornblum project made references to "hoodlums" and to Nickerson Gardens, a troubled housing project in South-Central Los Angeles. One councilman is quoted as referring to "an adamant referendum" from the neighbors.

Lee asserted that the city has not approved any low-income housing since 1972.

Speaking for the city, Terzian said the key to the case is the 1981 agreement, known as a consent decree.

"There is an element of speed needed to get people into housing, but the need to avoid adverse impact on schools and services also is recognized," Terzian said. He said the fate of two apartment buildings is "too small a sample" to show that Hawthorne is thwarting the decree. (According to the city, 88 freeway replacement condominium units are nearing completion and a 28-unit low-income apartment has been approved.)

"The (Kornblum Avenue) building was denied because it was not a good project where it was located," said Terzian. He said there was division on the council and some people "vacillated" before voting. "This was not a preordained, racially based decision," he said.

Law Violation Claimed

Turning to the Cerise Avenue property, Lee argued that by placing a 35% limit on low-income occupancy, the council violated a state statute that prohibits housing discrimination based on income. He also said that the council knew the limit would make the project ineligible for freeway replacement funding from the state Housing and Community Development Department. "It kills the project," he said.

Terzian countered by saying that the 35% limit--which Hawthorne is now willing to lift--is a planning tool intended to disperse low-income housing throughout the city to avoid "creating a ghetto."

An attorney for Goldrich, Kest & Associates, which was to have developed the Kornblum Avenue site and has intervened in the federal suit on the side of the law center, said the 52 alternative freeway housing sites offered by the city "can't work." Attorney Stephen Seideman said the three best sites--two of them plant nurseries, as is the Kornblum property--are not for sale.

The Century Freeway is expected to be completed by 1993 at an approximate total cost of $1.6 billion.

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