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California officials say affordable housing near freeways is a health risk, but they fund it anyway

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Gary Aggas, 70, from left, Mike O’Gara, 78, and Garry Fordyce, 70, walk past a vacant lot where a homeless veterans housing complex may be built along Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Sun Valley on Oct. 5, 2017. They oppose the homeless veterans housing complex project because it will sit next to the 5 Freeway. All three are veterans themselves. They say senior veterans should not be placed next to a corridor with a high level of freeway emissions. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
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It’s the type of project Los Angeles desperately needs in a housing crisis: low-cost apartments for seniors, all of them veterans, many of them homeless.

There’s just one downside. Wedged next to an offramp, the four-story building will stand 200 feet from the 5 Freeway.

State officials have for years warned against building homes within 500 feet of freeways, where people show higher rates of asthma, heart disease, cancer and other health problems linked to car and truck pollution. Yet they’re helping to build the 96-unit complex, providing $11.1 million in climate-change funds from California’s cap-and-trade program.

The Sun Valley Senior Veterans Apartments is one of at least 10 affordable-housing projects within 500 feet of freeways awarded a total of $65 million in cap-and-trade money since 2015. Those developments will put hundreds of apartments for homeless people, veterans and families near freeways in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and the Central Valley, some less than 100 feet from traffic.

California’s support for the projects shows how policies created to cut greenhouse gases and ease the housing crunch are also putting some of the state’s neediest residents at risk from traffic pollution. It’s one way public money is helping finance a surge in residential development near freeways, where Los Angeles and other California cities have permitted thousands of new homes in recent years.

State officials acknowledge that some cap-and-trade money, collected from companies that buy permits to emit greenhouse gases, will put residents near elevated levels of pollution. But they say dense housing near bus and rail lines is crucial to meeting California’s climate goals, by getting cars off the road.

With climate change a top priority, California has embraced policies to cut carbon emissions by packing dense housing near jobs and transit. State leaders have set aside nearly $700 million from the cap-and-trade program to finance transit-oriented developments and infrastructure.

Even in places with poor air quality, they argue, residents’ health will improve from walking and biking more. And they say the dangers from living near freeways can be reduced with anti-pollution design features recommended this year by state air regulators, including sound walls, vegetation barriers and high-efficiency air filters that remove some of the harmful particles from vehicle exhaust.

“When those strategies are employed, the environmental and public health benefits of these projects far outweigh the negatives,” said Ken Alex, a senior adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown who chairs the Strategic Growth Council, the agency that distributes cap-and-trade money to affordable-housing developers.

California’s decision to subsidize low-income housing near freeways alarms some health scientists, who point to years of studies that link roadway pollution with a growing list of illnesses — and billions of dollars in health care costs. They say air filters and other mitigation measures are not enough to protect residents, especially children, whose lungs could be damaged for life, and seniors, who could die early from heart attacks.

“I see the economic incentives for doing this,” said Beate Ritz, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied the health effects of traffic pollution for more than two decades. “But it’s kind of stupid, because we all know we will pay for it with long-term health effects. Somebody has to pay for the costs of diabetes, of cognitive decline or strokes. This is just creating a huge amount of costs for society in the long run.”

Construction is expected to start within weeks on the Sun Valley project, capping a decade of debate that pitted the need for more housing against the health of people who would live there. Proponents say the apartments will be far superior to life on the street, with higher-rated air filters and a buffer — dozens of trees, a sound wall and a parking lot — separating residents from pollution.

Despite those measures, some argue that the freeway is simply too close.

“These vets are going to be sucking in these diesel fumes. It’s going to shorten their lives,” said Mike O’Gara, who lives eight blocks away and is a veteran of the U.S. Naval Air Forces. “What a hell of a great reward for serving their country.”

The Sun Valley project offers a window into the unpleasant choices faced by politicians, real estate developers and nonprofit groups as they struggle to counter rising rents and a surge in homelessness, which grew 23 percent this year across Los Angeles County, to nearly 58,000 people.

Los Angeles, a city crisscrossed by freeways, is embarking on a $1.2 billion plan to finance 10,000 homes for homeless people. Land next to those corridors — often cheaper and less likely to attract opposition from neighborhood groups — will be tempting to build on.

If policymakers put low-cost housing next to freeways, they will put some of their poorest constituents in locations where pollution can be 5 to 10 times higher, saddling them with the health consequences. But if they prohibit new construction in those areas, they could make things tougher for people trying to get off, or stay off, the streets. If policymakers put low-cost housing next to freeways, they will put some of their poorest constituents in locations where pollution can be 5 to 10 times higher, saddling them with the health consequences. But if they prohibit new construction in those areas, they could make things tougher for people trying to get off, or stay off, the streets.

Of the roughly 2,000 affordable-housing units approved in Los Angeles in 2016, a quarter were within 1,000 feet of a freeway, according to figures from the Department of City Planning. Officials are considering whether to build homeless housing on at least nine city-owned properties within 500 feet of freeways — including one that’s less than 200 feet from the 110-105 freeway interchange.

Housing advocates point to studies that link homelessness to early deaths from drug use, respiratory disorders and other health problems. Homeless people are also less likely to obtain access to health care, mental health services and substance-abuse counseling than those who have shelter, said Mike Alvidrez, chief executive of Skid Row Housing Trust, which has built 1,800 units of housing since 1989 — including one complex next to the 10 Freeway.

“We know that people die sooner if they don’t get off the street and into housing. We just know that,” he said. “So if you have a solution that going to prolong someone’s life — irrespective of whether it’s the worst place you could put it, next to a freeway or next to two freeways — if you don’t have another option, that’s what you do.”

Across the region, homeless people are already living near freeways — in tents along sound walls, in campsites obscured by shrubbery.

Jason McKenney said he has spent some nights in North Hollywood Park, which runs along the 170 Freeway.

Sitting under a tree nursing an injured leg, the former construction worker said he would have no qualms about moving into a building next to a freeway, if it had cheap rent and counseling for substance abuse.

“I would jump at that chance,” he said.

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