The most disappointing part of the complex, $2.5-billion Century Freeway project has been the failure to produce thousands of units of affordable housing that were promised along the freeway's 17.3-mile route.
When construction of the combined freeway and light rail line began in 1981, there were plans to build about 3,700 apartments and houses--about half the number of structures destroyed to make way for the project that runs between Norwalk and Los Angeles International Airport.
But only about 1,300 units have been made available so far. A Times investigation last year found that the Century Freeway Housing Program was plagued by high costs, shoddy construction, high vacancy rates and strong opposition from some of the communities along the route.
Now the Center for Law in the Public Interest, representing plaintiffs in the lengthy Century Freeway litigation, has proposed that most of the remaining housing units be built by a new nonprofit corporation, not by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
In papers presented to federal Judge Harry Pregerson, who is overseeing a consent decree that governs the freeway construction, the center's lawyers argue that the nonprofit group, to be called Century Community Housing Corp., would be able to build at least 2,500 new dwelling units in the next three years.
Center attorneys contend that the new housing corporation could double the $126 million in federal funds available for Century Freeway housing by taking advantage of tax credits, tax-exempt bonds, both private and federal mortgages and other financial resources.
Double the Money
"There is the capacity to double the money," said John Phillips, co-director of the Center for Law in the Public Interest. "If you can double the money, you can double the number of units."
Much of the money would be used for "gap loans" of up to $45,000 each, to allow developers to option land or pay pre-development costs.
Century Community Housing Corp. would be run by an eight-member board of directors, including Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Democratic Assemblywoman Maxine Waters and Daniel Garcia, chairman of the city Planning Commission.
According to the center, the nonprofit corporation could produce this housing with a staff of 15, at a cost of about $550,000 a year. The present Century Freeway Housing Program employs about 85 people and has an annual budget of more than $4 million.
Good Record Elsewhere
Public-private "partnerships" of this kind have built thousands of units of low- and moderate-income housing in Boston, Chicago, New York and other cities, center lawyers contend in the papers they filed with Pregerson.
Don Terner, president of Bridge Housing Corp. in San Francisco and former director of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said a nonprofit corporation like Bridge is able to produce more units at a lower cost than the state.
"The state is bound in many ways by bureaucratic regulations," Terner said in a telephone interview, "but housing is a very entrepreneurial, somewhat swashbuckling kind of activity."
He said Bridge has produced more than 3,000 housing units--80% of them for low- and moderate-income families--in the San Francisco Bay Area in the last five years, more than the state housing agency built during the four years Terner was its director.
"The only two questions we ask are, 'Does it make sense?' and 'Is it legal?' And if the answer to those two questions is yes, then we do it," Terner said.
In contrast, building low-income housing while trying to follow the regulations of the Federal Highway Administration, Caltrans and the state housing agency is like "death by molasses," Terner said.
The Center for Law in the Public Interest plan has been opposed by the other two parties to the 1981 consent decree under which the freeway project is being built--the California Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
Lawyers for Caltrans argued that the state could reorganize the Century Freeway Housing Program and "produce the same number of housing units in less time" than the Center for Law proposal.
"There's no question criticism is deserved" about the way the state has run the program in the past, Caltrans attorney Nicholas G. Tinling said in a telephone interview from Sacramento, "but we're changing all that."
Considered a Joke
"That's laughable," said Phillips of the Center for Law. "The housing program has been a failed and disappointing experience. Costs are outrageously high, construction is substandard and there have been many tenant complaints. What is there in the record to suggest that (the Housing and Community Development Department) can do a better job if they are allowed to try again?"
Caltrans attorneys also objected that the nonprofit corporation proposal "would discourage participation by minority and female-owned firms" because it would depend heavily on "owner-builders" to supply the housing and most of these owner-builders would be large firms not owned by minorities.
"That is simply not correct," said Helene V. Smookler, the Center for Law in the Public Interest attorney who developed the nonprofit housing plan. "This proposal will enhance minority participation. We anticipate that many of the housing developers will be nonprofit organizations, and nonprofits are much more likely to use minority and female contractors." Pregerson is expected to decide the matter in the next few weeks.