When Mayor Richard Riordan offered a plan last month to divvy up the coming budget year's pool of federal human services grants, he said he wanted to make sure to get the most bang for each buck.
To that end, he proposed using parts of the $151 million in federal Community Development Block Grant and supplemental program funds on carefully targeted projects to help improve 11 neighborhoods, build child-care facilities and aid specific economic development efforts--for example, a parking structure for Capitol Records in Hollywood.
But advocates of adding affordable housing to Los Angeles' perennially short supply did the math--and realized that the mayor's plan would subtract nearly $14 million from the programs aimed at providing homes for some of the city's neediest residents.
"Any reduction in the funds available for the production and preservation of housing . . . should be absolutely rejected," developer Lou Bernardy told a City Council committee at a hearing Wednesday on the mayor's plans for the grants.
Bernardy joined other members of the Southern California Assn. of Nonprofit Housing, who packed the small City Hall hearing room to urge the Housing and Community Redevelopment Committee to change Riordan's plan.
Among the statistics that they cited: At least 40,000 Angelenos live in illegally converted garages or other unsafe dwellings, and a large majority of families whose working members earn minimum wage are forced to pay 80% of their income for rent.
Nothing dramatized the group's point quite as strongly as the two grieving figures at the front of the room--Sabrina Burnett, who recently lost five children when fire roared through the converted garage where they lived, and her surviving son, Maurice Burnett.
"We should help the children" by making safe, affordable housing a top priority, Maurice Bennett told the committee. "It won't bring back my brothers and sisters, but we can try to prevent this from happening again.
"Shelter is a must--food, water, shelter, that's mandatory. . . . If you have no shelter, you have nothing," Burnett said.
Committee Chairman Rudy Svorinich Jr., who had applauded the mayor's plan as a bold innovation when it was proposed last month, thanked the Burnetts profusely "for being here in the memory of your children." The council members also asked city officials whether at least some of the housing funds could be restored by shaving some of the $6 million proposed by the mayor for child-care centers.
With such questions still on the table, Svorinich's committee delayed action on the plan until March 14. The full council must act by March 21 to meet a federal deadline to submit a spending plan for the grants, which will be disbursed April 1.
The tug of war over the grant funds provided yet another example of competing priorities in an era of tight city resources and growing needs.
Like any elected official's spending considerations, Riordan's plan reflects his priorities and his views on how best to get things done. The $6 million that he earmarked for building child-care facilities was in response to one of the most pressing social issues of the day. One of the members of the recently established city Commission on Children, Youth and Their Families testified Wednesday that in some parts of town, there are 131 children for each day-care slot.
Similarly, helping residents improve their neighborhoods has been a goal of Riordan's since he took office four years ago. Neighborhood revitalization is a prominent plank in the mayor's reelection campaign platform this spring.
Riordan also has often talked of the need to "leverage" funds by combining them with other funds in targeted areas.
His Targeted Neighborhoods Initiative is an illustration of this concept. He wants to funnel about $3 million over a three-year period to 11 city neighborhoods. The idea is to provide residents and merchants with resources to do what they believe is needed, then move those resources to other communities once the turnaround efforts are underway.