West LA: Veteran Safe Haven

West LA: Veteran Safe Haven
The Veterans Collective and partners are building the nation’s largest supportive housing community for vets and their families on the West Los Angeles VA Campus. (Photo by David Sprague)

The housing being developed at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Campus, which will deliver a minimum of 1,200 homes for formerly homeless veterans and house upwards of 3,000 veterans and families across multiple housing types, recently reached its halfway mark.

Valued at more than $1.4 billion, the current project is part of the much larger $3 billion modernization of the entire 400-acre Westwood campus, which dates back to the late 1800’s.

It represents the largest-ever supportive housing community for veterans, based on total number of units, as well as the first co-located with a VA Medical Center. In building new housing, the hope is to create a cohesive community for veterans, a population that has historically been considered more at risk of becoming homeless. 

“Obviously, there’s traumas that happen in war, but even in peacetime service there are exposures veterans have that can be traumatic – military, sexual trauma certainly being one for women. Sometimes veterans who come into service are used to a certain lifestyle, and then they come out and they’re not prepared for the transition to civilian life,” John Kuhn, deputy medical center director for VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare, said. “And that transition can be, if you’re living on the margin, enough to undermine your ability to stay in housing.”

Members of the Veterans Collective, from left, John Kuhn, Tyler Monroe, Brian D’Andrea and Tess Banko at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Campus.

Back in November 2018, the VA selected Culver City-based Century Housing, Brentwood-based Thomas Safran & Associates and downtown-based U.S.VETS, the nation’s largest veteran services nonprofit, with the goal of changing that. The three came together, forming The West Los Angeles Veterans Collective, a nonprofit joint venture that has assumed ownership and responsibility for the housing portion of the campus’ upgrade. 

And after spending $140 million on infrastructure and plumbing upgrades with funding from the PACT Act, the largest health care and benefit expansion in VA history, the VA successfully turned over its 80-acre North Campus site for redevelopment, after which the Veterans Collective signed 99-year principal developer enhanced-use leases on parcels to carry out individual developments. 

Flexible housing arrangements

Utilizing a combination of adaptive reuse and new-construction buildings, The Veterans Collective is developing a series of flexible unit arrangements to accommodate varying types of veteran households, ranging from singles to couples and even young families.

Studios average 450 square feet in size, while two-bedrooms average 800 square feet. Each property has a building manager and multiple community engagement centers.

While eligibility requirements differ per building – with some buildings reserved for specific populations such as senior veterans only – in general, veterans qualify so long as their income is 30% or lower than the area’s median income. They can apply directly through the VA, and veterans subsidized with a Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher (HUD-VASH) pay 30% of their adjusted income in rent, whatever that might be.

“Within the supportive housing world, there’s this growing movement of understanding housing as health, housing being one of the fundamental social determinants of health, in addition to medical care and things like healthy eating that contribute to one’s health holistically,” said Brian D’Andrea, senior vice president at Century Housing. “And so, to have this amount of housing co-located with a state-of-the-art, five-star medical center is just an amazing opportunity.”

A worker on the upper floor of a former tuberculosis ward at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Campus.

To date, 237 units are occupied and 504 units are under construction, bringing the project to its halfway mark in terms of total number of units that have broken ground. The entire project is expected to be operational by 2030, and if demand exceeds supply, under the current master plan, the project has the capacity to house as many as 1,700 units total.

“I think there’s the underlying hope if we can demonstrate a pathway to end homelessness among veterans, it’s a pathway that can be replicated for all people experiencing homelessness,” Kuhn said.

Bridging the military-civilian divide

Beyond adding a roof over the heads of many individuals, The Veterans Collective intends to restore 16 of the campus’ historic structures, build 12 high-quality mixed-use buildings, develop 10 new or restored community open spaces and add more than 100,000 square feet of new amenities and services – with the greater goal of creating an all-encompassing haven for veterans.

“We want to create things that are sensitive to the local population, addressing the needs of the veterans who will live here,” Kuhn said. “Building a sustainable community means supporting a good quality of life to veterans living on the campus.”

Plans call for a veteran’s plaza, including a civic center, chapel, food bank and culinary kitchen, while extended services such as a barber shop and beauty salon are currently being discussed.

“I think what’s really important here is deliberate design,” Tess Banko, project and community development director at U.S.VETS, said. “And not just for the sake of design, but for what veterans are saying that they want and that they need, and tracking that overtime and incorporating additional feedback as it comes. But really, always keeping in mind that a community will function as it is formed.”

In addition, through the HUD-VASH program, all veteran residents will be offered case management and supportive services care, an aspect some experts regard as critical to ensuring the thoughtful transition of tenants when it comes to housing the formerly unhoused.

“It’s going to take a very holistic approach in providing (homeless veterans) the services, the care and the ability to transition their lives,” said Deborah La Franchi, founder and chief executive of SDS Capital Group, a Westwood-based investment firm dedicated to launching and managing impact funds for affordable living. “That’s going to be key to the success of this.”

She noted that substantial health care needs are of utmost importance – both in terms of mental health support and any medical treatment that may be necessary.

“The programs that are most proactive in providing these services tend to have tenant populations that thrive more, compared to if they’re very non-intense case management services,” La Franchi said. “I think that one of the biggest determinants of success is providing those support services to the tenants.”

Amalgamation of funding

Securing the financing needed to create a permanent supportive development of this scale wasn’t easy, according to the project’s developers. 

“Finding the resources to develop a community of this scale is unprecedented. There is tremendous interest at every level of government: city, county, state and federal, and in our community, to ensure the success of this project,” said Tyler Monroe, senior vice president of development at Thomas Safran & Associates. “Coordinating amongst all of these stakeholders is our challenge and opportunity.”

To raise $1.4 billion, The Veterans Collective has taken advantage of a multitude of funding pools, both public capital and private investment, including permanent loans, philanthropic donations and grants from foundations, and has utilized a variety of supportive housing measures such as Proposition HHH, VHHP, AHSC, No Place Like Home, LIHTC tax credits, tax exempt bonds, the HUD-VASH program and others to make its development come true.

“The capital is always a challenge,” D’Andrea said. “There are a lot of eyes on the VA. There’re questions about why it isn’t moving faster, and I think from our perspective this is actually moving a lot faster than any other affordable projects out there, especially one of this scale, with the number of hurdles and barriers that we had when we were selected.”

“We will pursue every available source that’s out there,” D’Andrea added. “That’s the one thing we are is creative in terms of trying to find out where the capital is and figuring out a way to make it work here.”

Proposition 1 aims to make things easier

And another bill that passed just last month might make finding future funding that much easier.

Proposition 1, enacted by Gov. Gavin Newsom during California’s 2024 primary election ballot, will fund housing and treatment facilities for those experiencing severe mental illnesses and addiction challenges – an effort he characterizes as critical to addressing the state’s homelessness crisis.

The two-part ballot measure – which passed by the narrowest of margins, 50.2% to 49.8% – is targeted to get people off the streets and into stable housing arrangements. It includes a $6.4 billion general obligation bond to build 11,150 new treatments beds and supportive housing units, as well as outpatient capacity, with $1 billion set aside specifically for veteran housing. 

“As a lifelong advocate of mental health services and practical solutions to address our unhoused Veteran population, I am thrilled to see my fellow Californians make their voices heard and vote in favor of the passage of Proposition 1,” said Stephen Peck, president and chief executive of U.S.VETS. “So much work remains to encourage recovery, prioritize wellness, and build a more secure and hopeful future for our nation’s heroes across Los Angeles and throughout California. The more than $6 billion in new funding that this new legislation provides is critical and will help The Veterans Collective project at the West LA VA and many other Veteran-serving organizations develop and build affordable housing and provide essential support services for veterans experiencing homelessness.”

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