'Illegal Leases' On VA's West L.A. Campus Called Out By Watchdog -- Including Brentwood School, Red Cross And A City Park
A scathing watchdog report says after a years-long legal battle and settlement, the VA is still misusing large chunks of its 388-acre campus in West Los Angeles and falling behind in its goal to build housing for homeless veterans.
The report found 11 illegal leases and another 14 organizations operating on the Brentwood campus without valid agreements. The problem leases include a City of L.A. park with a popular dog run, the Red Cross, an oil drilling operation, a parrot sanctuary and the Shakespeare Center of L.A., which produced a Henry IV show starring Tom Hanks this summer in the VA's Japanese Garden.
The VA is also failing to meet a key benchmark for building 1,200 units of permanent supportive housing on the land by 2026.
"Although WLA is making progress...VA is not on track to meet the revised milestone to provide 484 permanent supportive housing units by September 2020," the report said.
The VA blames extensive environmental reviews for the delay in meeting housing goals.
Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General released its report on Friday. In all, 25 of the 40 land-use agreements examined were "improper."
BRENTWOOD SCHOOL LEASE CRITICIZED
The largest lease at issue is an agreement with the private Brentwood School for the use of 22 acres for athletic facilities on the north side of the VA campus.
To use the space, the school pays $850,000 per year and an additional "non-monetary, in-kind consideration" valued at $918,000.
But there's a problem. In 2016, Congress passed legislation setting new ground rules for how the VA could use the campus.
Both Congress and the VA's own master plan stipulate that any prime real estate wedged between some of West L.A.'s ritziest neighborhoods must be used to "principally benefit veterans and their families."
The OIG found that Brentwood School's high school athletic facilities are not a veteran-focused use of land, and the in-kind payment the school is providing is mostly the physical upkeep of the school's own landscaping and facilities on the VA campus.
Additionally, the report calls out the agreement to allow construction trucks heading for the Brentwood School's campus the right to access VA land, a potential disruption for veterans services on the campus.
Brentwood School officials did not immediately return calls for comment.
The VA disputes some of the OIG findings. In an appendix of the report, the agency notes that Brentwood school has agreed to give veterans access to tennis, volleyball, basketball and other sports facilities, to hold special events for veterans, and is giving scholarships to veterans children to attend summer programs at Brentwood School.
Another organization named in the OIG report was taken by surprise by the watchdog's findings. The 1887 Fund, a non-profit dedicated to restoring five historic buildings on the VA campus, was criticized for soliciting donations on VA property.
The group is working to raise money to refurbish buildings like the Wadsworth Chapel, built in 1890, believed to be the oldest surviving building on Wilshire Boulevard. After they're restored, 1887 Fund plans to donate the buildings back to the VA.
"We were a little taken aback that our presence on the campus would be seen as not compliant or viewed as something that doesn't benefit veterans," said spokesperson Leah Wang, adding there was a lack of clarity from the agency about what activities were allowed on campus.
"We would have appreciated knowing that fundraising on federal property is not permitted," Wang said. "We'll be happy to move our headquarters elsewhere. It's important for all of us to come together right now to help create a community for veterans."
LONG BATTLE FOR HOUSING AT THE VA
Originally gifted to the federal government as a home for aging Civil War soldiers, housing started disappearing from the West L.A. VA campus in the 1970s. Homeless and disabled veterans sued the VA in 2011, when agency land in West L.A. was being used for things like TV set storage and a hotel laundry facility.
A 2015 legal settlement requires the VA to refurbish the campus, lease only to organizations that help veterans, and build housing.
But the housing plan has been slow to get off the ground, and so far, just 54 veterans have moved into apartments in the VA's Building 209. Another 110 units are supposed to open in early 2020, but the start of construction -- initially planned for this summer -- has been pushed back, possibly to early 2019.
"There's no sense of urgency from the VA," said Bobby Shriver, the former mayor of Santa Monica and a board member for the watchdog group Vets Advocacy. "As everyone in L.A. knows, folks are living on the street across from empty buildings that were originally built to house veterans. We need to build the apartments, now."
In a statement, the VA said it is already implementing recommendations from the OIG, and taking additional steps including improving the way leases are managed, tracked, and overseen.
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READ THE FULL OIG REPORT