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Schools' extra land may get housing

Low-cost units could allow teachers to live close to their work, district says. Foes of Measure Q are critical.

November 01, 2008|David Zahniser | Zahniser is a Times staff writer.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is looking to develop low-cost apartments on as many as 12 campuses in an effort to help teachers find less expensive housing and live closer to their jobs.

District officials have begun asking real estate developers to submit housing proposals on school campuses in Hollywood and Harbor Gateway and are reviewing other campuses where apartments could be built on surplus land.

But the development plan is drawing fire from opponents of Measure Q, the district's $7-billion construction and repair bond issue on Tuesday's ballot. Critics contend that the district should not seek to increase property taxes to pay for new facilities if it has enough real estate to start housing its employees.

"They're complaining that they have a lack of revenue and yet they don't do the obvious thing with surplus property, which is to sell it to the highest bidder in a way that wouldn't conflict with . . . a school," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

Coupal said the district should stick to educating children. But L.A. Unified officials say the housing initiative will meet a critical need by creating apartments for school employees who are having trouble finding reasonably priced homes near their jobs.

District officials said they could save $20,000 each year in training costs by reducing the teacher attrition rate at three campuses. And they argue that Measure Q voters should be encouraged by the district's efforts to maximize its land holdings in a way that generates long-term rental income.

"We're always trying to utilize our assets better," said John Creer, district director of planning and development. "But we're not doing it to the detriment of our core mission, which is to provide education."

Measure Q is the district's fifth bond issue in 11 years. The measure includes at least $400 million for new schools and at least $450 million for the construction and expansion of charter schools.

The campaign has coincided with efforts by the district to lure real estate developers to its school sites, particularly those with parking lots that can be converted into school parking garages with housing on the upper levels.

In Glassell Park, the district is finalizing an agreement with the Los Angeles Community Design Center, a nonprofit group that plans to build 45 units on district-owned land next to Glassell Park Elementary School.

Although the rental terms have not been finalized, Creer said the project would provide parking for school employees and rental income under a 66-year lease.

In the Harbor Gateway neighborhood, L.A. Unified has requested proposals for a district-owned site next to Gardena High School. And in Hollywood, the district hopes to attract a developer who will build four levels of underground parking and at least five levels of housing on district land across from Selma Elementary School.

District officials informed school board members last month that the Selma project could grow considerably taller, given the high density of new developments in Hollywood. And they argued that in addition to housing teachers, the new residences could be used to bring children back to Selma, which has lost 43% of its students in four years, largely because of rising rents.

"With enrollment declining, we're hoping to create workforce housing and maybe repopulate the school there," senior facilities project manager Sam Mistrano told the school board's Facilities Committee.

That argument infuriates a representative of the California Charter Schools Assn., which has been pressing the district to free up some of its available space -- including vacant land -- to help open and expand charter schools, which are public schools but are not bound by as many state education rules.

"The district would rather pursue this than get their own kids the charter space that they need," said Gary Larson, a spokesman for the group.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has been raising money for the bond measure, endorsed the district's housing initiative in May. So did Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who sent the district a letter favoring the concept earlier this year.

Hahn now says that she was wrong about the housing plan, which was presented to her before the district placed the measure for $7 billion in bonds -- twice the original amount -- on the ballot. Hahn said she is perplexed by the school system's desire to build homes in Harbor Gateway when, as part of its construction program, it is destroying homes in nearby Wilmington, also part of her district.

"There are certainly a lot of hurt feelings because the district has taken people's homes," she said. "So for them to be in the business now of building housing is a cruel twist."

L.A. Unified officials compare their effort to one in the Silicon Valley, where 40 apartments were built by the Santa Clara Unified School District for its teachers. That district charged rents that were well below the market rate in that expensive housing market.

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