Some important institutions got an awkward surprise last August when U.S. District Judge James Otero ruled that the Veterans Administration's sumptuous 387-acre West Los Angeles Campus was reserved for the provision of health care to U.S. military veterans, to the exclusion of several third-party lease agreements. His order sided with a group of chronically homeless veterans living with mental disabilities and/or brain injuries who argued that veterans like themselves had a priority right to receive care on the campus, including through supportive housing. Veterans are reportedly often seen sleeping outdoors near the campus gates.
Otero's rulings in the case of Valentini v. Shinseki included an August 29, 2013 order invalidating a list of "Enhanced Sharing Agreements" (ESAs) that, for many years, allowed third parties to use parts of the West L.A. Campus for purposes that may have been more welcomed by the neighboring communities of Brentwood, Westwood and Bel Air. The uses included gardens, UCLA's Jackie Robinson Stadium, athletic facilities for the Brentwood School, an industrial laundry, and a "butler building" for storing film sets.
Some of those third-party users are not going quietly. But the homeless plaintiffs' attorneys -- drawn from LA's major poverty law nonprofits plus a deep bench of pro bono counsel -- are intent on seeing them off. Most recently, they filed a weightily documented injunctive relief petition in the Ninth Circuit November 24.
The third-party users who held ESAs on the West L.A. Campus were on the sidelines during the initial two years of litigation leading to the August 2013 order. But when Otero rejected the VA's arguments and ended the ESAs, UCLA and the Brentwood School moved to intervene, then appealed to the Ninth Circuit alongside the original parties. In a much-quoted statement, UCLA's counsel wrote that the baseball team could be made "homeless". Mediation attempts in mid-2014 fizzled and the parties are scheduled to file briefs in early 2015.
Another third party that used land under an ESA agreement was the Veterans Parks Conservancy (VPC), which reportedly leases 16 acres on the West L.A. Campus for purposes including the Historic Women Veterans Rose Garden.
VPC has dug in more literally: as of late November the plaintiffs alleged it was continuing work building an amphitheater on VA land. According to the plaintiffs' court exhibits, VPC signed a new agreement with the VA that says it may continue work for 90 days, from mid-November until mid-February, on the "Hollywood Canteen Amphitheater". As noted in the L.A. Times, VPC's Web site implicitly justifies it as a veterans' health use by saying it "will be used exclusively for veterans and their families" and will be "a tranquil space for various alternative wellness therapies." But the plaintiffs argue that Otero's order made an agreement for any such construction improper.
In late November the plaintiffs asked Otero for a temporary restraining order against the amphitheater construction; he kicked it up to the Ninth Circuit, saying the appellate court had jurisdiction. The plaintiffs therefore took their request to the Ninth Circuit November 24, requesting emergency action within 21 days.
The dispute directly with the third parties is a recent development. For most of the litigation's history, the dispute was between the plaintiffs and the VA alone.
Plaintiffs argued that housing for veterans with disabilities was a specific purpose of the 1888 land gift that founded the West L.A. Campus as a veterans' service site, and they added disability rights claims to claims that the VA had failed to comply with governing statutes, especially regarding the meaning of a "health-care resource" under 38 U.S.C. Secs. 8151 to 8153.
The VA defended in part by arguing that general principles of deference to agency discretion applied, and that the ESA decisions were within administrators' discretion under Secs. 8151 to 8153. The VA also argued the administrative record was "replete with examples" of administrative determinations that "veterans will receive priority for services" and that ESAs would help services and the community. In some cases it said agreements had been reached with "Compensated Work Therapy" jobs in mind for veterans, and in the case of the sports facilities, "recreational opportunities for Veterans."
The L.A. Times reported arguments for preserving the baseball stadium included that veterans received free admission to games and could use the stadium in the off-season.
Both UCLA and the Brentwood School reportedly argue they have spent millions of dollars to create and maintain sports facilities on the land they have leased from the VA.
But the Los Angeles Times recently editorialized in favor of a settlement that would provide veterans with supportive housing, and in the meantime for stopping the Hollywood Canteen Amphitheater. The editorial said it might be all right to let baseball games continue at the existing stadium pending the appeal, but new construction was another matter.
Use of the West L.A. campus to house veterans would not be a break with the past. The plaintiffs' papers said the campus housed a "Soldier's Home" for disabled war veterans "for some 80 years". The L.A. Times reported last year that the site was used as veterans' housing into the 1980s.
Nor would it break with typical uses of VA hospital campuses. The VA has made available an "Enhanced Use Lease" mechanism nationwide for the specific purpose of enabling long-term ground leases to nonprofits to build subsidized veterans' housing on VA hospital campuses. A recent report on the mechanism by the National Housing Conference and Center for Housing Policy features a number of "best practices" examples, and one of them is in Los Angeles: the New Directions Sepulveda I and II project in North Hills.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs include Mark Rosenbaum of the Los Angeles ACLU and Gary Blasi, an elder statesman of LA-area poverty law who is a UCLA law professor emeritus. Among the pro bono counsel are several attorneys with Arnold & Porter, the same firm that also recently won a settlement in Fresno for 36 homeless people who lost property in a city sweep of encampments.
UCLA's attorneys include counsel from Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. Brentwood School is represented by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
The following resources have more on the West L.A. Campus case:
- The ACLU's page on the case.
- Rep. Henry Waxman's office.
- August 2014 GAO report on VA land use agreements that was included as an exhibit to the recent injunction petition.
- News features in The Nation in March and April 2013.
- Los Angeles Times profile of lead plaintiff Greg Valentini in 2011.