Every room has its own bathroom and a little kitchen area. Downstairs there’s a common room with a TV, a pool table and a baby grand piano. And every resident is a previously homeless veteran.
This once crumbling building on a vast Department of Veterans Affairs campus in a lovely, leafy suburb of Los Angeles is now a home for veterans who did not have one, in a city that has more homeless veterans than any other in the country.
“I want to acknowledge that this has been a long time coming,” said Dr. Steven Braverman, the VA official in charge, just before Tuesday’s ribbon cutting. “I want to acknowledge that the original plan put forth in 2016 said that this would be done a few years ago.”
This is the first newly refurbished building to open as part of that plan, which calls for 1,200 housing units on this land that was gifted in the 1880s by a local businesswoman named Arcadia Bandini Stearns de Baker with one concrete condition.
“It wasn’t given to anybody but veterans. For a home,” one of her relatives, Christine Barrie, told CNN.
But, over the years, the veterans were moved out, the VA focused its attention on the medical facilities on campus, and land was leased to, among others, an oil drilling company, a car rental firm, UCLA for a baseball field, and the exclusive Brentwood School for athletic facilities.
Among the crowd sipping coffee and nibbling sandwiches while Braverman and others spoke at Tuesday’s opening ceremony: veterans and their advocates who have fought for years to make this happen.
“We normally don’t have an opening until the building is full,” said Thomas Safran, the lead developer of the project. “But we’re doing it here because the VA particularly wanted us to emphasize that things are happening. We are making progress. It takes a while.”
The renovation cost $32 million. The building has 59 units for veterans, ranging in size from about 450 square feet to 600 square feet. Nine residents have moved in already. Another 47 are, we’re told, getting ready to call this home and moving through the paperwork process.
“This is not a place where someone lives here for a couple of months and moves on,” said Tyler Monroe, showing CNN around the newly, beautifully renovated building. Monroe is one of the developer Safran’s key people on the ground. “This is a forever home. This is a permanent home.”
This is building No. 1. Around 19 more are planned – all of them renovated barrack-style buildings that have been left to rot on this land for decades.
“Any veteran who wants to come in out of the cold, there’ll be a place for him or her,” said Steve Peck, founder and CEO of US Vets, a partner in this process that will provide services to residents. “For many of them, they will live out their life here, and it’s a dignified place to live among other veterans.”
“A half-step in the right direction,” is how one veteran described Tuesday’s grand opening to CNN. “It’s great that they’re opening one building,” said another, Rob Reynolds, who has campaigned for years to move unhoused veterans onto this land. “But they still owe us over 1,000 units of housing for all these veterans.”
In 2016, as part of a lawsuit settlement, the VA agreed to build housing for 1,200 veterans on this land. By the most optimistic timeline attached to that plan, all of them should be completed by now. Today, just 113 are ready for veterans to move in, including 54 units that opened in 2015, before the plan was published.
“A lot of the groundwork had to happen before the housing can start to come up,” explained Monroe. “And this is a really good example of all that pre-work coming to fruition.”
Two more buildings are expected to open soon. Ground has been broken on three more. But reaching that 1,200 promise will take time. “We’re on track to be able to do this in 10 to 12 years,” Monroe said.
“That’s completely unacceptable to reach that 1,200 marker,” said Reynolds, the veterans’ advocate. “Go around LA – high rise apartments go up all the time. Does not take 10 years to build 1,200 units of housing.”
One reason why this process takes a long time is that the developers lease the land, and then they have to raise the money for building.
The federal government does not pay for construction. “They gave us the available buildings and land but didn’t give us money,” said Safran, the developer, at the grand opening. “So, sometime in the future we would like Congress and the VA to help.”
The VA pays only for the installation of utilities. Those utility projects are now, finally, funded through 2036.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs has failed miserably in its promise to house homeless veterans on the sprawling grounds of its West L.A. campus,” read a Los Angeles Times editorial published in December, shortly after another lawsuit was filed demanding the VA house 3,500 within six months on or around this crumbling campus. The lawsuit also demanded that the VA end all leases for entities that do not principally benefit veterans.
“Get the f*** off our land! Or build us housing,” Joshua Pettit, one of the plaintiffs, told CNN in November. He is an Iraq War veteran and suffers with post-traumatic stress disorder. “They don’t want us here bro. I mean, I get it. But I don’t care. They can send us to war, we can get these problems, and you’re not gonna deal with us?”
Pettit is not moving into the newly opened Building 207. Why? “Age and money,” he told CNN this week. “I make too much money from the VA to live at the VA.” Pettit is on 100% disability benefits due to his PTSD, and that income is above the threshold for this building. He is also younger than 62, the age cutoff for this particular development.
“We noticed that one of the fastest growing subsets of the homeless veteran population was senior veterans,” Monroe explained. “Senior veterans are also particularly vulnerable as well.” And, added Peck, “There’s camaraderie, shared experience, shared generation.”
But that means many veterans in need, who have been waiting months or years for housing, still do not have that housing. While rooms here lie empty.
“It pains me a little bit to acknowledge that there are disabled veterans … who are experiencing homelessness who don’t currently qualify to come into this building,” said Braverman, the local VA chief. “It’s a little incongruent that our veterans who are the most disabled and will most benefit by being on this land close to the hospital, can’t get into these buildings and we’re gonna change that.”
Braverman hopes that the income threshold for some of the units in this now open building will be relaxed next month, pending city approval. And Pettit hopes to be housed in one of two buildings without those age or income restrictions, which are supposed to be open already.
“Nobody’s telling us nothing except another delay and another delay,” he said.
The VA has until March 6 to respond to the suit filed by Pettit and others. “While we cannot comment on ongoing litigation, there is nothing more important to VA than ending Veteran homelessness,” Terrence Hayes, press secretary for the department, told CNN. “During 2022, VA provided 1,301 permanent housing placements to formerly homeless Veterans in Los Angeles … Despite that progress, there is still work to do.”
There is. Leaseholders deemed illegal under a 2016 act of Congress are still on the land. And there are thousands of veterans still living homeless on the streets of Los Angeles.