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March/April 2024 -   -  

The Future of the West LA VA: 'Keeping Them True to Their Word'

Ten years ago, The Veteran reported on a dispute between the VA and veterans’ advocates that centered on land use improprieties at the VA’s vast West Los Angeles campus. Headlined “A Situation on Knife’s Edge,” the article described distrust among stakeholders after claims of mismanagement of the West LA property were upheld in a 2011 lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of homeless veterans. Vietnam Veterans of American was a plaintiff in this lawsuit.

The primary issues of the complaint centered on the complete absence of permanent veterans housing on the property. Added to this, outside parties unrelated to veterans’ welfare were leasing sizable portions of the campus.

118 units
118 new supportive housing units under construction in the former Parking Lot 38 on the West LA VA campus. (Courtesy VA)

Five years ago, we revisited the topic and found improved communication and unity of vision among the previously sparring parties. This followed the 2016 publication of a Draft Master Plan intended to help the VA determine and implement the most effective use of the West LA property for veterans.

Last month, we toured the campus to get a look at the on-the-ground realities of the Master Plan. We saw widespread new construction and renovation underway throughout an otherwise largely deserted campus. Of 1,200 supportive housing units proposed by the Master Plan, just 233 have been completed, and the construction is well behind schedule.


In 1888, landowners bestowed the 388 acres that form today’s West LA VA to the U.S. government “to be permanently maintained as a National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.” A thriving veterans’ town soon blossomed on the property, peaking at a population of some 5,000 just after the Korean War. That, in turn, spurred development of the upscale neighboring communities of Brentwood and Westwood, which have contributed to making the West LA VA property extremely valuable and desirable. How valuable? A half-acre lot in Brentwood was listed for sale for $13 million last year.

But by the time the Vietnam War ended, WLA VA administrators no longer were accepting veterans as permanent residents. The last group of 1,460 patients were evacuated following a 1971 earthquake that killed 49 people at the nearby Sepulveda VA. By the early 1990s, when the city of Los Angeles’ unhoused veteran population peaked in the tens of thousands, huge encampments of homeless veterans appeared on the edge of the property.

While the campus continued to host the VA’s West Los Angeles Medical Center and veteran-related research, service, and housing services, homeless veterans saw many vacant buildings crumbling on the sprawling northern part of the campus. Meanwhile, the VA started leasing chunks of the property to outside parties, with little transparency about where the resulting revenue was going.

More than half of these controversial leases were declared illegal or improper in a federal audit released in 2018, and many were terminated. Yet the most significant leassees have remained, notably UCLA (which added a baseball practice field next to its existing Jackie Robinson Stadium in 2022), the exclusive Brentwood School (which rents 21 acres for sports facilities), and an oil well operated by BreitBurn Energy Partners, a private company.

“There’s a tension between the veterans advocacy groups and the locals because the locals have an interest in maintaining some of the leases on the land,” said Logan Lecates, VVA’s Healthcare Regulatory and Legislative Analyst. “That’s land that could be developed for [veterans’] housing that’s not available to us.”

One of the old buildings under renovation on the West LA VA campus. (Courtesy Paul Rogers)

The sluggish development of supportive housing on the campus and the continuing opacity of related accounting continue to alarm some observers.

“The VA is not what I would call transparent. It’s very difficult to drill down on line-items,” Lecates said. “Tracking the revenue and expenses for them is, in some instances, next to impossible.”


VVA has consistently supported the construction of permanent, supportive housing for veterans at the WLA VA, and reconfirmed its position with the passing of Resolution GA-17 at the 2023 National Convention in Orlando. The resolution states that VVA opposes the use of undeveloped property on the campus “for purposes other than those consistent with the intentions of the original donor.”

GA-17 does not oppose the UCLA land use agreement because “the university provides a multitude of services to veterans.” UCLA’s long partnership with the VA includes a Veteran Family Wellness Center and a Veterans Legal Clinic. VVA also does not oppose an LA Metro Rail extension, which includes an under-construction station on the southern portion of the West LA property that would be a convenience for veterans. Nor does VVA oppose the development of a planned Community Town Hall Center, including a welcome center, meeting space, business center, and more on a site currently housing just a Veterans Canteen Service store/café.

The wooden, circa 1900, Trolley Station, once the Los Angeles Pacific Railroad's terminus of its Soldiers' Home Line. (Courtesy Paul Rogers)

GA-17 does make clear VVA’s opposition to the continuation of Brentwood School’s lease.

“We don’t feel that they’re living up to what’s expected for them to be doing in support of veterans on the campus,” said Jerry Orlemann, first vice president of the VVA California State Council, who co-drafted GA-17. “They are doing things, but they’re little things.”

Beyond this caveat, VVA supports the Master Plan. Furthermore, as dictated by the 2021 West Los Angeles VA Campus Improvement Act, money from leases that previously went to the U.S. Treasury now goes directly toward building housing and providing other services for veterans on the campus.

“Our role is to ensure that whatever the VA says they’re going to do, we keep them true to their word,” said Gumersindo Gomez, the chair of VVA’s Minority Affairs Committee. “When they are not, we either visit the [VA] secretary or the Board sends letters to the secretary reminding him that they’re not accomplishing their mission.”


The VA argues that it lacks authority to build housing. In place of building housing itself, the VA selected the West LA Veterans Collective as the principal developer to implement much of the Master Plan. The Collective is made up of the nonprofit VSO, US Vets, which focuses on veterans’ homelessness, the for-profit developer Thomas Safran & Associates, and nonprofit lenders Century Housing.

The Community Plan outlined by the Collective includes veteran housing, the Town Center project, career and mental health programs, and wellness and community initiatives. The VA turned over related assets on the West LA campus to WLAVC under 99-year enhanced-use leases.

According to the Collective, funding all of this comes from federal, state, county, city, and VA grants and contributions; along with project-based VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) vouchers; low-income housing tax credits and tax-exempt debt; private investment; and community support. WLAVC says that of $832 million raised to date, $85 million has come from “investments from community, corporate, and foundation supporters.”

The Brentwood Mental Health Administration building on the West LA VA campus. (Courtesy Paul Rogers)

The labor-intensive complexity and bureaucracy of restoring designated historic structures like those on the West LA property, along with replacing miles of lead plumbing, upgrading sewage and drainage systems campus wide, and complying with strict California seismic building codes has slowed progress to a crawl. For comparison, the 70,000-seat SoFi Stadium in nearby Inglewood and the adjacent YouTube Theater were built in considerably less time than it took the VA to complete a single supportive housing unit. Yet the scale of investment and political will is impressive.

“I’m flabbergasted at how many resources they throw out there,” said VVA President Jack McManus. “Having had some experience working on homeless veterans’ projects where we had to fight for every nickel and dime, just the magnitude of the dollars they’re allocating and the amount of bipartisan political support that they’ve had—I don’t think that’s the issue.”

Nonetheless, in November 2022 fourteen veterans filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding that the VA finish building 3,700 units of housing within six months, and demanded that third-party leases on the property be rewritten or suspended. In December, a federal judge ruled that the suit could move forward.

“I would like to see the leases go away entirely if that land can be used for the development of housing and for other veterans benefits,” Lecates said.

There’s been more disgruntlement because veterans who receive the highest service-related disability ratings are excluded from permanent supportive housing at WLA VA due to the 30 percent area median income cap.


On our tour of West LA VA, active construction was visible along large swathes of the campus.

We saw a veteran working on his car in a parking space. A group chatted in the courtyard of a supportive housing building. Construction workers hurried home and an occasional jogger trotted by. The barber shop and store/café were closed.

We saw a greater level of activity at the cluster of some fifty 8-by-8-foot tiny shelters on the property’s Grand Lawn that offer temporary berths for homeless veterans, but we were not permitted to approach them. There are nearly 4,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles, more than any other U.S. city, according to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

Other than that activity, on a fine weekday afternoon, the northern portion of the West LA campus was largely a ghost town – a far cry from its former self, its intended purpose, or the Master Plan’s vision. According to the VA and WLAVC, this will soon change, with projections for 500 units becoming operational by the end of this year and 730 by the end of 2025.

“They’re not trying to build a homeless ghetto,” McManus said. “They’re trying to build a community and that takes a lot more than just going in and knocking down something and building something.”

“I’m sure there will still be bumps on the road,” Jerry Orlemann said. “However, I think it is progressing very well. We’re accomplishing the intentions of what this campus was originally proposed to be.”

If plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit prevail, aspects of the Master Plan may become reality sooner than expected, but the sheer amount of work required on such a long-neglected property will still make it a long, hard row to hoe.

“The only thing that moves this machine is the political field,” Gomez said. “We need to start talking to our congressmen and our senators, letting them know that they need to move on this.”




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