People By the Freeway Cook With Gas

Thin orange line behind Orion Street

Biking home from the gym yesterday, great plumes of black smoke near the 405 announced another homeless fire, or the launch of encampment fire season, as we now know it in the Valley.

Technically this isn’t true, the season got off to a running start on Friday with a one acre burn in the Sepulveda Basin that was doused by helicopter.

But the Basin is always burning. At any hour of the day, butane is igniting. Meth pipes are roasting like s’mores. Cigarettes and blunts are sucked down to the nubby entrails and tossed to the winds. Ramen noodles boil over campstoves.  Disputes and debts are settled flammably.  It’s only a question of how much brush gets involved.

In this case the unhoused have squeezed into the narrow no mans land between the sound abatement wall of the 405 and the back fences of the people who live on Orion Street.   They don’t get away with that in Midvale Estates, but in the sweaty flatlands of working class Latino North Hills with its own portion of unpermitted backyard structures people are less inclined to go to the authorities.

When the only thing separating the feral from the domesticated is a kindling line of sun-scorched lacquered wood the tragedy of the commons is waiting. The flames licked their way across the fictional divide of public and private space to what LAFD delicately referred to in the incident report as “outbuildings”, destroying several before being extinguished. All credit to the Fire Dept. for saving the houses proper.

Not half a mile from here sits the former Panorama Motel, recently purchased by the City for conversion to interim housing for people sleeping within 500 feet of a freeway.  It is one of ten motel purchases under Project Homekey.  Cost: $105 million. Total served: 536. At $195,895 per head, it is more expensive than the $130K/unit Tiny Home Villages, but a bargain next to the perpetually-in-the-near-future $700K homeless condos downtown.

My question is this: in the fall, after the Panorama Motel is retrofitted transitional housing, will there be more people living by the 405, or less? Will I no longer see people clustered on the off-ramp?  If the number remains unchanged or worse, wouldn’t that be a refutation of the “housing first” policy?  This will be our acid test.

Maybe it will work. I hope it does.

Four years after passing Props. H and HHH, the homeless population has increased by a third.  The fires however, are daily. That’s a new wrinkle.

For dollar value may I suggest the very un-flammable quonset hut? It was good enough for Gomer Pyle…

Favela Re-Development Agency, In Action

Darling, did you notice the homeless encampment by the freeway?  It’s gone.
I did.
Where do you think they went?
Not far.

That was last week.  Yesterday, flames of a suspicious origin erupted from the lower floor of 7101 Sepulveda Blvd, a mile or so north.   Vacant for 25 years, the building once housed a college for paralegals.  With wood framing, the flames reached the upper floors quickly.

Directly adjacent is an empty lot at 7111 Sepulveda, site of the former Farmer’s Ranch Market.   Permits were approved for 180 units almost two years ago, but ground was never broken on the project.  The eyesore vacancy at 7101, a plinth for cell phone towers and Van Nuys’ most unloved structure, was rumored to be a hindrance.

Guess where the 405 encampment moved to? Guess how long it took them to crack open the back door of 7101 and pilfer wiring and play with matches?  If you own the building, you get an insurance settlement. If you own the lot next door, you get south-facing light for your mixed-use development.  If you live in the neighborhood, you’re quietly gratified to see something, anything, done with the place.

Everybody wins.  Just how locked was that back door, anyway?

*photos courtesy LAFD