Land Use Associates Lend Expertise to Fight Homelessness

Latham lawyers help a nonprofit navigate complicated approval processes in order to build and operate their facilities.

January 31, 2013

What does it take to open a homeless services center in the Venice area of Los Angeles? A whole lot of hard work on many fronts, one of them, as associate David Amerikaner and former associate John Chibbaro found out, being land use.

Chibbaro and Amerikaner provided pro bono support to the St. Joseph Center, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide working poor families and the homeless with the resources and tools to become stable and self-supporting members of society.

George Mihlsten, a Los Angeles-based partner, first began working with St. Joseph when they were in the process of building their main center on the border of Santa Monica and Los Angeles’ Venice neighborhood. As he was wrapping up a laborious and complicated approvals process for that building, Mihlsten enlisted Chibbaro to take the reins.

A Home for a Homeless Services Center

At that time, St. Joseph was looking to move another of their facilities, a homeless services center, into a space in Venice where they had been running a thrift store. The homeless services center offers showers, laundry facilities, PO boxes and counseling to chronically homeless individuals.

Chibbaro stepped in to help with the land use approvals process and soon found himself embroiled in a conflict with area residents who did not want the facility close to their homes. “It was a three year battle,” he said. “We waged it politically, we waged it legally and we waged it from a public relations standpoint.”

Though neighbors worried the center might be a magnet for homelessness in their community, Chibbaro says that it is quite the opposite. “It’s not just a give someone and meal and put them back on the street operation,” he said. “They have a comprehensive treatment philosophy. They are completely dedicated and they have amazing results.” Indeed, 80 percent of those who receive help through St. Joseph are able to qualify for permanent housing.

Chibbaro had to take the matter all the way to the city planning commission in order get approval, something he says was quite an exceptional opportunity for a land use associate early in his career. “The city planning commission is a hugely influential body in Los Angeles planning,” he said. “It was just incredible client contact and an incredible sense of responsibility.”

The project was eventually approved but is re-reviewed periodically in order to ensure it is complying with the regulations put in place by the city. Chibbaro recruited Amerikaner to help with this process.

“We've been doing a lot of work, basically to keep them open and keep them in compliance with city requirements,” said Amerikaner. “That involves working with neighbors and the center itself to make sure that they are in compliance so that they can continue to operate and serve their clients.”

A Unique Attorney/Client Relationship

In October 2012, Chibbaro, Amerikaner and Mihlsten were recognized for their work with St. Joseph at the annual Westside Shelter and Hunger Coalition’s Success Breakfast. For Chibbaro and Amerikaner, the event drove home just how unique and gratifying the opportunity to do this sort of work has been.

"It's incredibly rewarding to work with a client where you feel completely invested in everything that they do,” said Amerikaner. Hearing the success stories of the St. Joseph clients who spoke at the breakfast was, “payment beyond which I could ever imagine,” added Chibbaro.