A quarter-century after a coalition of activists filed a class-action lawsuit forcing government agencies to replace low-income housing lost in the construction of the Century Freeway, the battle is still raging.
Never mind that the freeway, completed more than three years ago, is now a bustling thoroughfare and that thousands of affordable apartments have been built under a 1979 federal consent decree that ended the lawsuit.
Never mind that the federal government is no longer a defendant in the case, and that the state has faded into the background, turning over the job of providing housing to a private nonprofit corporation.
This fight, plain and simple, is over how and where the last of the public money allocated to settle the lawsuit--$100 million--should be spent.
Should it be used to continue building subsidized housing near the freeway until it runs out, as was originally planned? Or should the fund become permanent--an endowment with broader goals than just low-income housing? Should the size of the fund's development subsidies be cut? Should its projects be spread over a far wider area of Southern California?
The nonprofit Century Housing Corp. has angered plaintiffs from the 1972 lawsuit by proposing changes from the original housing-replacement mission.
Now that nearly 4,300 apartments and houses have been built within 12 miles of the freeway's route, Century Housing plans to fund developments as far away as the San Fernando Valley and Orange County. It also intends to severely cut back on deep housing subsidies and charge more competitive interest rates on its loans.
"The original goals have been met and exceeded," declared G. Allan Kingston, president and CEO of Century Housing.
Carlyle W. Hall Jr., whose law firm represents the plaintiffs, condemned the business strategy as "privatization run amok" and said it would gut the nonprofit's mission of providing grants that have been crucial in keeping subsidized apartment rents affordable.
"We don't need another bank that would take money out of the communities," Hall said.
Earlier this month, federal appeals court Judge Harry Pregerson, who has presided over the freeway litigation since 1972, agreed with Century Housing, granting it wider latitude to develop beyond the freeway corridor and exercise more financial freedom. Plaintiffs plan to appeal.
A New Deal-style liberal, Pregerson has long championed the notion of government's obligation to replace units demolished by freeway construction. He has taken judges, politicians and others on tours of housing developments funded under the consent decree.
Alluding to a notorious tendency for urban renewal programs to uproot poor families without concern for their fate, Pregerson once declared that the Century would be a freeway "that has a heart."
He was brought into the conflict in the early 1970s, when lawyers sued to win far broader compensation for residents who were losing their homes to freeway construction. The plaintiffs--a coalition that included the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, Freeway Fighters and the city of Hawthorne--were represented by the Center for Law in the Public Interest.
To settle the suit, the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration signed a consent decree in which they reduced the width of the freeway and set aside highway money to build about 4,000 units of affordable housing--less than half the 8,800 units destroyed by freeway construction. The Century Freeway Housing Program, a wing of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, was created to carry out the mission.
The consent decree was noticeable for numerous social provisions that attempted to assure women and minorities a share of jobs and contracts building both the freeway and replacement housing.
At first, the housing construction target area was confined to six-mile corridors on either side of the freeway from Norwalk to Los Angeles International Airport.
After shoddy construction and mismanagement plagued the early developments, the program shifted gears in 1989, putting less emphasis on building and more on subsidizing projects built with public and private partners. More was being accomplished with fewer dollars.
Meanwhile, the scope of the subsidized housing program moved beyond the original six-mile zones north and south of the freeway--past communities such as Lynwood, Compton, Inglewood and Norwalk--and into communities within 12 miles of the freeway, like West Hollywood and the Pico-Union district.
The move to privatize the housing program began as work on the freeway neared completion in the early 1990s. To end their participation, the federal and state governments contributed additional money to the housing fund. The $2.2-billion freeway opened in 1993; the nonprofit took over the housing program two years later.