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Black Lung Lofts 

Many children being raised in L.A.'s hip, new freeway-adjacent housing are damaged for life

Saturday, Mar 6 2010
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Lyles witnessed Itanza suffer horrific asthma attacks, which can kill victims via suffocation, and she remains haunted by the fear that her daughter could die at anytime. A friend at church tragically lost a child during a severe asthma attack, devastating her and shocking the Lyles family. "Your kid can't get air," Lyles says. "You have as many inhalers as possible around, but you never know. As a parent, you're never free of the idea that your child could succumb."

Lyles' oldest daughter doesn't have asthma. The first five years of her life, when her tiny lungs were undergoing a critical stage of development, the Lyles family lived far from a major Los Angeles freeway, in the Hollywood Hills near Griffith Park. "It's probably why she has better lung health," Lyles says. Many scientists today would probably agree.

Percy Vaz, developer of the Lincoln Heights master-planned community where Fay Green and Aura Sanabria clean up thick "dust" in the Tesoro del Valle apartments, opposes a buffer zone between housing and freeway lanes. "I think there are apartment buildings just as susceptible on a major thoroughfare," says Vaz, a prominent local developer and founder of AMCAL Housing, which specializes in for-sale and rental affordable housing. "Would we have a buffer zone on Wilshire Boulevard? On a gut level, 500 feet is far overreaching."

click to flip through (6) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Planning Commissioner Michael Woo asked scientists to warn City Hall.
  • PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
  • Planning Commissioner Michael Woo asked scientists to warn City Hall.
 

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But even crowded Wilshire Boulevard doesn't carry anything approaching 285,000 cars per day, nor does any L.A. surface street. The sheer volume on the city's freeways is a key reason why people are getting sick.

Yet Vaz doesn't think a health-hazard warning for renters or buyers is necessary. In fact, his tenant Sanabria, the mother of three young children, is more concerned about homeless people sleeping nearby, and neighbor Jesse Flores worries about gang activity in the area. "They're killing each other like fools," Flores says.

Vaz reports that no one — not the city Planning Department nor Ed Reyes, chairman of the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee, who represents Lincoln Heights — has spoken to him about enacting buffer zones or requiring a disclosure statement for housing placed within 500 feet of freeways. (Through a spokeswoman, Reyes tells the Weekly he's "unavailable" to talk about the health impacts caused when City Hall approves housing that abuts freeways.)

"If you're buying a home near a freeway, you know it's there," Vaz says. "The freeway is hitting you in the face. Most people are buying and renting because there is a freeway." Moreover, he is seeing more and more units erected near the freeways, in part, because "there's a shortage of land and people will build where they can," even on often-expensive freeway-adjacent land.

With city officials now focused on preventing the city government of Los Angeles from sliding into a deeper fiscal crisis, a debate over the health of tens of thousands of local children is unlikely to be welcomed by the City Council or Villaraigosa.

According to Woo, neither the City Council, led by electric car–driving Council President Eric Garcetti, nor Villaraigosa, who wants Los Angeles to be "the cleanest and greenest city" in America, has shown an interest in the 500-foot buffers or hazard-disclosure regulations suggested by the scientists. Inside City Hall, where real estate developers have enjoyed outsized influence for the past 100 years or so, such restrictions, Woo says, would "probably be very controversial."

But neither is the issue being pushed by the environmental community in Southern California, which has been much more focused on lobbying the California Legislature on state environmental laws and global warming.

"I can't think of an [environmental] group that's fighting development near freeways," says Martha Arguello, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit, public-health advocacy group. "I'm hard-pressed."

The nonprofit organization Breathe L.A. — which promotes itself as a 107-year-old public-benefit group dedicated to "clean air and healthy lungs in Los Angeles County" — is giving its 2010 Breath of Life Award to District 9 City Councilwoman Jan Perry. The strongly pro-development Perry has pushed for lofts, condos and apartments next to and near downtown's jammed freeways. She has not pushed any plan to warn Angelenos about the serious health effects on children who move into that housing.

According to Breathe L.A.'s announcement, sent to the media a few days ago, Jan Perry promotes "clean air and healthy lungs ... each and every day."

Environmentalists, says Bahram Fazeli of Communities for a Better Environment, have perhaps missed an opportunity by focusing on other issues, such as cleaning up the ports and working with the Mayor's Office to sign off on a "cumulative-impacts" directive.

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