Court Says West Los Angeles VA Rental Deals Were Illegal

A federal judge has stepped in to push the Veterans Administration to do more to help homeless veterans at its massive West Los Angeles campus.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Just about a year ago, we reported on the controversy over the sprawling campus of the Veterans Health Care center in West Los Angeles. Documents obtained by NPR showed that the VA made tens of millions of dollars renting out parts of the property, property that had originally been donated to house disabled veterans. Meanwhile, they provided no long-term housing for the thousands of homeless veterans in L.A. Well, a federal court has now ruled that those rental deals were illegal.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reported this story and she joins me now for an update. And, Ina, talk first about the lawsuit that led to the ruling.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Well, the lawsuit was brought by the ACLU on behalf of homeless veterans who also had severe mental illnesses. Their claim was that their disabilities made it too hard for them to get to the VA health care center in West L.A., where they could get treatment, and so they should get housing on the campus. They also claimed that the commercial rentals on the VA campus had nothing to do with helping veterans and that's the claim that the judge agreed with.

BLOCK: So if their rentals weren't being given to veterans, who was renting the property? What was it being used for?

JAFFE: A lot of things, I mean you've got to picture this place. It's a giant health care center but it's situated on 400 acres, with a lot of open space and old buildings that aren't being used anymore. Movies and TV shows used to shoot there. There was a parking lot for school buses. Fox Studios rented a space to store sets. Sodexo has a commercial laundry there that's washed linens for Marriott Hotels and, more recently, for hospitals. There's an expensive private school called the Brentwood School, which has been renting 20 acres where they put in ball fields, tennis courts, a swimming pool and a track. And the UCLA baseball team plays in a stadium there.

BLOCK: And why were these rentals illegal?

JAFFE: Well, Congress has actually prevented the VA from selling or leasing this particular property. That was to protect it from developers who'd been drooling over the location for years. And so, the West Los Angeles VA didn't call these agreements leases. They made the deals under a law that allows them to share health care resources. But the judge said these have nothing to do with veterans health care and he voided the agreements.

BLOCK: So what does that mean for the tenants? What do they do now?

JAFFE: Oh, for the time being, nothing. The judge stayed his ruling for six months to give the government an opportunity to appeal. And that's why the VA hasn't commented because they still consider the case in litigation.

BLOCK: And in the meantime, has there been any reactions from the tenants themselves?

JAFFE: Well, some of them are affected more than others. When the lawsuit was filed a couple of years ago, it brought a lot of scrutiny to these deals. So the VA has terminated some others are winding down. But the Brentwood School's 20 acre athletic facility is still being used, as is the UCLA baseball stadium. The Brentwood School didn't respond to several requests for comment.

But UCLA has said that their baseball program does have a role to play on the campus, by providing jobs for veterans and giving them free admission to the games. They've been there for 50 years and they're hoping to find a way to stay.

BLOCK: Well, Ina, I understand there have been some other developments at the West Los Angeles VA, since you originally covered this story last year.

JAFFE: That's right. A few months after our story aired, the VA broke ground on a project to provide long-term housing with supportive services for chronically homeless veterans on the West L.A. campus. The project had been on the books since 2007 but nothing had been done. And last month, the VA announced a bunch of new programs to get homeless vets into housing, both on the campus of the West L.A. health care center and around the city.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Ina Jaffe at NPR West, Ina, thanks so much.

JAFFE: Thanks, Melissa.

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