HAWTHORNE — The city may appeal a ruling by a federal judge that in effect ordered it to approve two apartment projects as replacement housing for predominantly minority and low-income residents who will lose their homes to the Century Freeway.
Judge Harry Pregerson ruled Tuesday that the city violated federal and state laws prohibiting housing discrimination against minorities and poor people when it used zoning regulations to block one project and restrict another.
In one instance, the City Council denied a lot split and zone change for a proposed 96-unit complex on Kornblum Avenue near El Segundo Boulevard. In another, it imposed a 35% limit on the number of apartments that may be rented to low-income people at a 32-unit building approved for construction on Cerise Avenue near Rosecrans Avenue. The limit made the building ineligible for the state housing replacement program, which provides funds to build housing for people displaced by freeway construction and gives them rental assistance.
Pregerson ordered the city not to impose the low-income condition on the Cerise property and not to deny the lot split and zone change for the Kornblum project.
No Direct Order
"The court order does not directly say issue the permits, but I think that's what it means," said attorney Richard R. Terzian, who represented the city.
Mayor Guy Hocker Jr. said discrimination "was not what the city had in mind at all. What the city had in mind was that there already was an overburden of buildings" in the Moneta Gardens area. Hocker said the council will discuss Pregerson's ruling Monday and may appeal it to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Pregerson, one of more than two dozen judges on the appeals court, was a federal district judge when he was assigned the Century Freeway case in 1972 and has continued to hear litigation pertaining to the project.
Hawthorne was sued in February by the Center for Law in the Public Interest in Los Angeles, which accused the city of discriminating against its own residents in four predominantly minority census tracts who will lose their homes to the freeway by next May.
Center attorney Bill Lann Lee hailed Pregerson's decision as a total victory for Hawthorne residents displaced by the freeway "who will now have replacement housing." He also said it is a clear message to other cities along the freeway route that "efforts to block freeway housing will not be tolerated."
A 1981 agreement approved by Pregerson, which ended nine years of litigation that blocked freeway construction, requires that at least 3,700 units--55% for low-income people--be provided to replace housing lost along the freeway route from Los Angeles International Airport to Norwalk. Hawthorne's share is 275 units, but the court said only 128 units are under construction in the city.
Lee said that if the city appeals, the center will oppose any attempt to obtain a delay of Pregerson's order while the appeal is considered.
Taking issue with Pregerson's ruling, Terzian said "there was not enough evidence for the court to make the decision it did. As the court pointed out, we offered a number of alternative parcels for housing fairly close to where they wanted to put it. There was no intent to keep out minority people." He called the 75-page ruling an inappropriate evaluation of two specific zoning cases.
Pregerson said the ultimate effect of the council's action has been "to prevent low-income, minority displacees from continuing to reside in Hawthorne. If affordable housing is not made available in Hawthorne to the displacees by the time they are displaced, they will have to move out of Hawthorne altogether" and the city "will succeed in depopulating itself of a large number of its current minority residents."
In arguments before the court, the city said the 96-unit Kornblum project was rejected because of possible school overcrowding and traffic problems. The low-income limit was placed on the Cerise building to avoid creating what Terzian called a ghetto.
The law center asserted that the council bowed to racist neighborhood opposition in turning down the Kornblum project. The center cited transcripts of lengthy council hearings containing residents' references to "hoodlums" and a comparison of the project to Nickerson Gardens, a housing project in South Los Angeles with a reputation for violence and drugs.
Responding to city arguments on the Kornblum building, Pregerson said no evidence was presented to show that it will "unduly increase the traffic flow." He also said the city "cannot convincingly argue it is concerned with overcrowding schools" because it has approved other developments in the Moneta Gardens area.