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It's a Shanda

By Frank Gruber

When I was on the Planning Commission I voted yes on the Menorah Housing Foundation's senior affordable housing project on Fourth, just north of Wilshire. It's a great project. In land-starved Santa Monica, the developer and the City utilized the air rights over a city parking garage to create 65 units for low-income seniors, conveniently located near downtown.

Great project, but now I am feeling a little bit had.

Menorah assured the Planning Commission that the project would be open to all, without regard to race, ethnicity or religion, notwithstanding that the developer is an offshoot of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, a private, religious-based organization.

Legally, of course, the apartments had to be open to all, because the funding for the $9.5 million, 65 unit project came mostly from public sources: $7 million from federal Housing and Urban Development funds and $2.37 million from the City of Santa Monica.

As recounted in The Lookout's recent two-article series, however, not one of the Fourth Street tenants is Hispanic or African-American. Nearly all of the tenants are white. Specifically, Russian immigrants who likely occupy most of the 65 units.

According to the 2000 census, more than half the population of Los Angeles County is Hispanic or African-American. According to a recent RAND survey, the population of Santa Monica is twenty percent Hispanic and African-American. But the population north of Wilshire, where the Menorah development is located, is less than seven percent Hispanic and African-American.

We need housing. We do not need housing that perpetuates racial and ethnic segregation.

Although much has been made of the City's inability to require affordable housing developers who receive federal funds from giving preference to Santa Monica residents, because of federal regulations that proscribe local preferences, giving local preferences is not the answer.

The federal regulations make sense, not only because the lack of housing is typically a regional problem, but also because if localities could give preference to locals, given that most localities in America are segregated, federal housing money would end up reinforcing segregation.

However, in the case of the Fourth Street project, manipulation of the federal rules resulted in the very outcome the rules are supposed to prevent: more segregation.

It would be easy to point fingers, but I am willing to accept at face value Menorah's claim that it aims for its application process to be non-sectarian, and it does appear that Steve Wagner, Menorah's director of operations, did try to encourage non-whites to participate in the lottery for apartments in the project.

I also have nothing against Russian immigrants, and I don't blame them for trying to improve their living conditions. My great-grandparents were immigrants from what was then Russia, or at least ruled by Russia, and as a regular customer of the Ukraina Deli at 12th and Wilshire, I consider myself a direct beneficiary of the cultural diversity more recent Russian immigrants have added to Santa Monica.

Nor can I blame whatever group it was that organized the mini-vans of white applicants who swamped Menorah's lottery with 2,854 applications, more than 80 percent of the total. Presumably, based on the results, these were nearly all Russian immigrants, but no one says that everyone has to be responsible for everyone else.

So who is to blame?

When public money is involved, both public authorities and private developers need to take a proactive stance to insure that each housing development responds to the needs of the entire community. Certainly the federal rules should have an "emergency brake" procedure available, so that special outreach can take place when it appears that normal operation of the rules will result in an outcome that contradicts the purpose of the regulations.

But perhaps the question should not be "who" is to blame, but "what," and that what refers to ingrained attitudes we have. My guess is that no matter how much outreach Steve Wagner would do, many non-Jews are not going to apply to live in a development built by an organization called "Menorah."

At the same time, Joan Ling, of Community Corporation of Santa Monica, which has an admirable record in fostering diversity in its developments, told The Lookout that CCSM has a hard time getting whites to live in the Pico Neighborhood -- a neighborhood, by the way, that has a substantial white population.

Attitudes. Perceptions. Tribalism. Fear.

Blame whom or whatever, my grandmother would have said, "It's a shanda."

For those whose grandmothers would not have said that, shanda means disgrace.

* * *

Last week in my column on the Civic Center I suggested that it might have been good if the City had investigated the planning issues and costs associated with preserving the low-rise RAND buildings along Main Street and adapting them for new uses.

My (unstated) assumption was that the provision in the contract with RAND that required the think tank to demolish all its buildings before delivering the cleared property to the City was a requirement that the City wanted.

Council member Ken Genser, however, informed me that RAND, not the City, wanted this provision in the contract. Genser could not tell me RAND's reasons, so I contacted Iao Katagiri, at RAND. She recalled that there were several reasons, including the fact that the physical proximity of the old building to the new RAND building would have required the demolition of part of it in any case.

According to Katagiri, RAND was also concerned that if the old buildings were not demolished, then RAND, for purposes of the Environmental Impact Report for its new building, would be "charged" for generating more traffic because the square footage of the old buildings would be included in the computation, even though RAND's intent was to replace the old buildings with a new building of approximately the same size that would generate approximately the same amount of traffic.

Katagiri also said that RAND had made its own survey of the cost of renovating the old buildings and had determined that these costs were prohibitive. RAND feared that if the City expected to pay these costs of renovation, as opposed to building new housing and parks as provided for in the old Civic Center plan, then the value of the land RAND was selling to the City would be less.

As it happens, or happened, any possibility for adaptive reuse of the old RAND buildings would have had to have been considered at the time of the negotiations with RAND, and was in fact foreclosed by the time the current planning process began.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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