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Obama Foundation Lauds Local Community Leader

After sorting through about 20,000 applications from around the world, the Obama Foundation awarded one of its first fellowships to the founder of a local nonprofit that mentors thousands of incarcerated, foster, and at-risk youth, helping them change their lives for the better.

“I am honored to be part of the inaugural Obama Foundation Fellows class and join this diverse group of passionate civic innovators,” New Earth founder Harry Grammer said. “Through the Obama Foundation Fellowship, I look forward to continuing to help more youth realize their dreams and become unstoppable.”

Grammer knows all too well the struggles that his students face. At age 16, he was arrested and sentenced to five years of probation, but he managed to turn his life around and began operating New Earth out of a coffee shop in 2004.

Now, New Earth offers free mentor-based education, counseling, job training and other services to about 500 youth per week in probation camps, juvenile halls, group homes and other placements throughout Los Angeles and Orange Counties. The youth are also given an opportunity to explore writing, music, poetry, performance and art in an environment of creativity and introspection, which are critical to fostering new perspectives while incarcerated.

Upon their release, the youth join the New Earth Arts and Leadership Center in Culver City, which offers career training, a fully accredited high school education program, mentorship, case management, nature expeditions, arts programming, and wrap-around services. New Earth also has a campus in Gardena that offers vocational education in the fields of construction, culinary arts and early childhood education, as well as other services.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas presented New Earth founder Harry Grammer with a scroll in 2017.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas honored Grammer at a Board of Supervisors meeting in late 2017, shortly after he was named a CNN Hero and after the California State Legislature recognized New Earth as Nonprofit of the Year.

“With their dedication and commitment, Harry Grammer and New Earth have helped 10,000 young people overcome tremendous obstacles and turn their lives around,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “They are making Los Angeles County safer by investing in youth and promoting second chances.”

New Earth has a 95 percent success rate in preventing its students from returning to the juvenile justice system, thanks to programs that help them reenter their communities with the support and nurturing they need to make a successful transition.

The Obama Foundation Fellowship will help Grammer and New Earth take their work to the next level. It is a two-year non-residential program that brings together the next generation of civil leaders creating transformational change on many of the world’s most pressing problems. The Fellowship offers hands-on training, leadership development, and a powerful network for participants to amplify the impact of their work and inspire a wave of civic innovation.

Out of the inaugural class of 20 Obama Foundation Fellows, Grammer is the only one chosen from Southern California, and one of only 10 working in the United States.

“The 2018 Obama Foundation Fellows come from diverse backgrounds but share a common desire to make positive change and create the world as it should be,” said Obama Foundation CEO David Simas. “By bringing these individuals together to work with the Obama Foundation, we hope to help amplify the work of our Fellows so it has a widespread impact. On behalf of President and Mrs. Obama and the Obama Foundation family, I congratulate our new Fellows and look forward to working with them.”

Creating a New Generation of Metro Riders and Workers

Rendering of proposed development for the Vermont Manchester site (Killefer Flammang Architects).

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors approved initiatives that would create a new generation of public transit workers and riders, and help homeless individuals staying in buses, trains and stations secure housing and services.

“It is important to ensure that our youth are deriving all of the benefits of Metro’s growing public transit system, whether as passengers or as future members of its workforce,” said Board Member and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who authored the initiatives.

The Board gave Metro the green light to partner with the County on developing a college-preparatory boarding academy as part of the County-driven project at the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Manchester Boulevard in South LA. Other components of the project include 180 units of affordable housing, 50,000 square feet of retail, and various transit amenities.

In his report to the Board, Metro CEO Phil Washington said the school would “specialize in inspiring and training youth to pursue careers in the transportation and infrastructure sectors,” particularly youth in the County’s safety net and others who have been educationally underserved. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said, “We want to put these students on a path to career fulfillment by building a school with state-of-the-art technology, support services and unparalleled connections with the transportation industry.”

Students boarding Metro at Cal State LA Station

The Board also approved making the Universal College Student Transit Pass (U-Pass) program permanent and available to undergrads currently enrolled in credit or noncredit courses.  Since Metro launched U-Pass as a pilot 21 months ago, based on a motion by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, the program has seen a 50 percent increase in students signing up for transit passes and $4 million in additional revenue.

“With the U-Pass program, students have access to safe, efficient and affordable transportation, and Metro has a great opportunity to grow ridership,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.

Metro works with universities and community colleges to encourage sign-ups through the academic registration process. Among those participating in the U-Pass program are Cal Tech, CSULA, CSUN, Compton College, El Camino College, LA City College, LA Trade Tech College, LMU, Mission College, Pasadena City College, Pierce College, Rio Hondo College, and USC (graduate students). UCLA is poised to join the list in July 2018.

A member of Metro’s homeless outreach team offers help to a man near a bus stop.

Another action taken by the Board was to quadruple the number of outreach teams helping homeless individuals aboard Metro’s buses and trains, and in and around its transit stations. It approved $4 million to fund those teams over the next fiscal year.

Under a pilot program launched by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, two outreach teams started operating on the Red Line in May 2017. In their first 10 months of operation, they engaged 1,539 individuals and linked 208 of them to interim housing resources. They also linked 237 individuals to permanent housing resources, and helped 19 to become permanently housed.

Seeing their success, the Board voted to increase the number of outreach teams from two to eight, operating seven days a week on Metro’s rail and bus system, as well as at Union Station. Each outreach team is composed of a nurse, a substance abuse counselor, a mental health clinician, an outreach worker, and a formerly homeless individual.

Metro CEO Phil Washingon and Supervisor and Metro Board member Mark Ridley-Thomas flank members of Metro’s homeless outreach teams.

$453 Million Vermont Corridor Transformation Moves Forward

Rendering by Gensler of 468,000-sq. ft. office tower that will be developed by the Trammell Crow Company to serve as the Vermont Corridor Administration Building.

The Board of Supervisors approved the $453-million Vermont Corridor Project that includes building new headquarters for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health; up to 4,100 sq. ft. of retail space topped with market-rate apartments; and up to 72 units of affordable housing for seniors, plus a community recreation center.

The Project spans three sites on and around South Vermont Avenue, between Fourth and Sixth Streets. It is expected to create 1,400 construction jobs and hundreds more permanent jobs.

“This is an innovative approach,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who championed the transformation of the aging and dilapidated County-owned buildings that currently occupy the three sites. “We are creating jobs while positively transforming once-neglected blight into modern and robust assets.”

The County plans to build a state-of-the-art 21-story, 468,000-sq. ft. office tower to be dubbed the Vermont Corridor County Administration building at 510, 526 and 532 S. Vermont Avenue, with a parking structure on 523 Shatto Place. The office tower will house both the Mental Health department and Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services. The new building will improve working conditions for County employees and allow the department to improve service delivery, from prevention to recovery. Its ground floor will include a peer resource center where people in recovery can be among those assisting the department’s clients, and a retail social enterprise that can provide clients with employment opportunities.

“This is a symbol of cutting edge and inclusive ways of delivering services in the County,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas.

Next door, the existing County building on 550 S. Vermont Avenue and 3175 West Sixth Street will be converted into a mixed-use development. It will have up to 4,100-sq ft. of retail and commercial space on the ground floor, and up to 172 market-rate apartments on the upper floors.

Greg Ames, managing director of the Trammell Crow Company, which will develop both sites, said, “We are truly excited about our partnership with the County on this project and look forward to bringing first class, sustainable office space to the County and its employees, and much needed housing, affordable housing and community space to our neighbors on the Vermont Corridor.”

The third site, on 433 S. Vermont Street, is envisioned to have 72 affordable housing units for seniors, to be developed by Meta Housing. It will also include a street-level community center and ample open space.

The Vermont Corridor is a bustling socioeconomically and culturally diverse neighborhood that includes bus and subway stations; retail and service establishments; markets; restaurants; schools; and the Korean American National Museum and Islamic Center of Southern California.

Supervisors Endorse $5B State Budget Proposal on Homelessness

Homeless encampment. Photo by Mayra Vasquez/Los Angeles County

Acting on a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Board of Supervisors expressed support for a California State Senate budget proposal that would allocate $5 billion over four years to increase the construction of affordable housing and fund immediate and long-term solutions to homelessness.

“While the Governor’s May Revise sets aside a portion of funds for emergency grants, bolder action and more systemic intervention are needed,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said in the motion. “A new Senate budget proposal is a step in the right direction.”

The 2018-2019 Senate Affordable Housing and Homelessness Proposal was approved on May 16th by a Senate Budget and Fiscal Review subcommittee, and is supported by Senate President Toni Atkins.

The Senate budget proposal includes roughly $2 billion for affordable housing construction, and another $2 billion in funding for programs and housing to address short- and long-term homelessness. It also includes $1 billion over four years for grants to applicant counties to fund interim housing options, rental assistance, capital and operating subsidies.

Even though California’s economy is now the fifth largest in the world, it has an estimated nightly homeless count of 134,278 people, or a quarter of the United States’ homeless population.

California’s crisis of homelessness is occurring against the backdrop of a worsening affordable housing crisis. Governor Jerry Brown’s elimination of redevelopment agencies in 2012 dealt a severe blow to the production of affordable housing statewide. According to the latest Housing Need Report by the California Housing Partnership, the state has a deficit of 1.5 million affordable rental homes – nearly 570,000 in Los Angeles County.

Los Angeles County confronted its local homeless crisis by implementing Measure H, a quarter-cent special sales tax over 10 years that voters approved in March 2017 to end and prevent homelessness. It is expected to generate approximately $355 million annually to help 45,000 families and individuals escape homelessness within five years and prevent homelessness for 30,000 others.

The County has also strived to address the housing shortfall by setting aside its own General Funds, and leveraging other public funds, to construct affordable and special needs housing through the County’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Clearing the Way for New Development at Vermont and Manchester

Rendering of the proposed development at the corner of Vermont Avenue and Manchester Boulevard (Killefer Flammang Architects).

Los Angeles County crews demolished the last remaining structure at the corner of Vermont Avenue and Manchester Boulevard to make way for new development projects on a site that sustained extensive damage in the 1992 Civil Unrest and remained mostly vacant ever since.

“We are sweeping away the vestiges of the past and creating a promising future at Vermont and Manchester,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said.

After a Superior Court judge approved its use of eminent domain, the County took possession of the four-acre property on May 7th and began the process of developing one of the largest tracts of vacant land in South LA to benefit the surrounding community.

On May 21st, the County started to demolish the burnt hulk of a building that used to be shopping center. Once that is completed, crews will clear weeds on the lot, and install new fencing around the property.

The County’s next step is to encourage robust community engagement in conceptualizing interim uses for the site, as well as the development projects.

In partnership with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the County is looking to build the first boarding academy in the state that will focus on preparing youth for careers in the transportation sector. It also has plans for 180 units of affordable housing, as well as 50,000 sq. ft. of retail and various transit-related amenities.

The County sued in December to condemn the property on the east side of the 8400 and 8500 blocks of South Vermont Avenue from longtime owner Eli Sasson. In his ruling, issued April 26th, LA Superior Court Judge Daniel Murphy wrote, “The Court finds that (the County’s) needs override any hardship suffered by (Sasson).” He added, “(Sasson) will not lose rents and (Sasson has) sat idly on the project without development for years.”

By law, the property owner will receive fair and just compensation for his land.