WEST LOS ANGELES — President Barack Obama signed a bill into law Wednesday that would release millions of dollars to retrofit and renovate several buildings on the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration campus.
The law, called the Veterans Health Care Facilities Capital Improvement Act, is a $1.2 billion measure spread out over the next four years for construction and leasing of VA medical facilities.
It also extends the timeline on a number of programs targeted to help homeless veterans, including one to reintegrate veterans into society and one to rehabilitate “seriously mentally ill and homeless” veterans.
The legislation frees up $35.5 million for seismic improvements at the West Los Angeles VA medical campus as well as the renovation of Building 209 into housing facilities for homeless veterans.
“Our veterans have made tremendous sacrifices for our country, and they deserve access to the best treatment available,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Santa Monica).
Waxman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), County Supervisor Zev Yarovslavsky and Sen. Barbara Boxer worked to get the bill through the House and the Senate.
Feinstein welcomed the bill after it made it through a critical vote at the Senate level.
“At long last, this renovation can begin,” Feinstein said in a press release. “One out of every 10 veterans without a roof over their head lives in Los Angeles, so there is a critical need for more housing at the West L.A. VA.”
The battle for the funds took five years to accomplish, the release stated.
It’s been longer than that, said David Sapp, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, when the measure first passed the House of Representatives.
“They’ve been talking about this since 2003, about rehabbing this one building,” Sapp said then. “They’ve put out numerous press releases to maybe, some day, possibly do something. There are still vets living and dying on the streets of Los Angeles, and press releases don’t solve that problem.”
There’s no guarantee about when the properties will be redeveloped, even though the money is officially granted.
The new Master Plan for the West L.A. campus calls to renovate the buildings, but doesn’t set forth a schedule nor commit funding for specific projects.
Most of the money, the $20 million to convert 209 into long-term therapeutic housing, was set aside in Obama’s 2012 budget.
It came from unspent major construction funds, which had been previously authorized by Congress, and skirted the rule that requires all new spending to be offset by equivalent cuts in other areas.
Buildings 207, 208 and 209 became the heart of controversy in June when the ACLU, in partnership with several private law firms and Santa Monica City Councilmember Bobby Shriver, sued the VA for abandoning homeless veterans with severe mental disabilities.
Instead of using the campus for the benefit of veterans, the complaint alleges that the VA profited off of leases to public and private interests, including gym facilities for UCLA, a hotel’s laundry facilities and an energy company.
The leases, euphemistically called “enhanced sharing agreements,” violate the agreement held with the original owner, who deeded the 387-acre property to the VA to provide housing for disabled war veterans, the suit claims.
Although the VA has denied any wrongdoing, three of the tenants were recently told that their leases would not be renewed, the Associated Press reported.
According to the Master Plan, existing leases will be renewed based on their direct benefit to veterans, fulfillment of the VA’s mission and compatibility with the community.
Although the money has been allocated for the renovations, the lawsuit is still progressing in federal court. Government lawyers must move to dismiss the lawsuit by Friday.