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Analysis

Something’s Rotten in Brentwood

The Brentwood Community Council, a private nonprofit, has influenced policy at the West LA VA for over a decade.

the extertior of the Donald Bruce Kaufman Brentwood Branch Library
The Donald Bruce Kaufman Brentwood Branch Library where the Brentwood Community Council Land Use Committee met before the pandemic. (Source: Brentwood Community Council Facebook)

At the center of much of the corruption at the West Los Angeles VA is a group called the Brentwood Community Council. The BCC is, by one of its former chairperson’s admission, not an officially recognized neighborhood council. However, the six officers and expansive board of the BCC claim to represent thousands of “stakeholders of the community,” and they regularly interact with powerful political figures. In the last year alone, the BCC has cozied up with US Congressmember Ted Lieu and done battle with the homelessness policies and proposals for temporary shelters of City Councilmember Mike Bonin.

Established in 1998, the BCC has consistently aligned itself with the interests of wealthy, white homeowners in the area — not just because the group is allied with 13 local homeowners associations, but because the BCC has only ever consisted of people matching that description. Now, ahead of a proposed mass eviction of the unhoused veterans who live outside the West LA VA by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department on November 1, the BCC’s 30-year-old hostiliity toward the unhoused in Brentwood is once again reaching a head. 

Outside the gates of the West LA VA is Veteran’s Row, an encampment of over 30 tents populated with unhoused veterans who have been refused consistent service at the VA, due to factors like lack of space, the state of their military service discharge, the VA using the land for outside commercial purposes, or frustration with VA restrictions. As we’ve seen throughout Los Angeles in 2021, most prominently at Echo Park Lake this past spring, the community faces mass displacement without a long-term plan for rehousing. Recent demands from the BCC could provoke similar action, in direct opposition to City Councilmember Mike Bonin’s proposals for services being provided to the unhoused at safe park, safe camp, and tiny home locations earlier this year

Knock LA has accessed records going back to the 1980s which reveal a consistent interest in policing and carceral solutions over interacting with unhoused residents among key players in the BCC. Often, these core interests are obscured by these same members founding nonprofits ostensibly to provide homelessness services. At present, the BCC purports to represent 35,000 residents, as well as “13 homeowner associations, three business districts, plus Land Use, Transportation, Environmental, Educational and Community Advocacy.”

While presenting as a neighborhood council (which, again, it is not), the BCC has wielded tremendous influence over policy and decision making with regards to the West LA VA. So, if it’s not the community, who does the BCC represent? 

Why is Brentwood?

The West Los Angeles neighborhood is associated with lavish homes, the UCLA campus, and notorious murders, but the area began its modern history as federal land to be used for American veterans beginning in the 1870s.

Today, it’s the neighborhood where the 400-acre campus of the West LA VA Hospital stands, and not without significant controversy. The plot of land, originally 300 acres, was donated by prominent society woman and “godmother of Santa Monica” Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker, and was intended as a development for Civil War veterans to live, receive medical treatment, and build independent lives. 

The development aspect was extraordinarily successful — the area thrived, and wealthy outsiders soon began to buy property in the Brentwood area, with demographics skewing heavily white (nearly 85%), wealthy, and well-educated. The land’s commitment to serving veterans has been somewhat less successful. One hundred and thirty-four years after its establishment, the West LA VA is home to a number of third-party contracts that do not provide any immediate utility to veterans, and an encampment of unhoused veterans not receiving VA services stands just outside the campus’s walls. A short list of those renting land from the campus while veterans are frequently refused services: 

  • Jackie Robinson Stadium 
  • A number of UCLA buildings
  • A parrot sanctuary 
  • The elite private Brentwood School and its athletic facilities

How did we get here? Not without a fair amount of corruption. 

Knock LA has covered the West LA VA’s sketchy land deals previously. In 2013, a federal judge ruled a large number of these leases, including Jackie Robinson Stadium, to be null and void after a protracted lawsuit spearheaded by unhoused veteran activists and the Southern California ACLU — only to have the win forfeited in 2015, leading to the illegal leases in question extending for another 10 years. High-ranking VA administrator Ralph Tillman was arrested for taking over $14 million in bribes over parking at the West LA VA back in 2018, and served jail time. 

Extending these leases plays directly to the interests of the BCC, whose interests hinge on personal convenience, removing visible homelessness, and retaining property values.

How Far Back do Brentwood Community Council Conflicts of Interest Go?

Documents leaked to Knock LA indicate that key players in the BCC held a longtime agenda to rid their community of visibly unhoused veterans — an attitude which preceded the existence of the organization itself. Before there was the BCC, there was the Veteran’s Memorial Park, and the Veteran’s Park Conservancy. 

Veteran’s Memorial Park, sometimes referred to as the Veterans Memorial Gardens Foundation, was first incorporated as a California nonprofit in 1988, noting that it was not intended for “carrying on propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation.” 

The nonprofit’s founding came on the heels of a 1988 proposal similar to Mike Bonin’s from early 2021 — introducing tiny homes for unhoused veterans’ use, this time on the grounds of the West LA VA. This suggestion came from then–VA administrator Thomas K. Turnage, who ordered that 15 city-owned trailers be placed on the West LA VA after an order from a federal judge. The organization moved swiftly, making the argument throughout early 1989 that this space would be better used as a park commemorating veterans than for housing living veterans, publishing a document titled “Why the 80 Acres of Veterans Administration Medical Center West Los Angeles Must Not Be Used for Temporary Homeless Shelters Program.”

Sue Young, who went on to be deeply involved in the BCC, became the president of the nonprofit in 1991, and published the following internal memo to Sara Hammond, then the VA Emergency Transitional Housing Task Force chairperson in 1989.

a memo regarding veteran's memorial meeting with bob lindsey
A memo describing influence leverage as a key point of strategy.

“Development of this area to provide utilities and grade to provide housing spaces would destroy the natural features of the property and destroy a major piece of Los Angeles land of historican [sic] and ecological significance,” it reads. “The VMG project, as well as any other type of conservation project, would be dead.”

The prospect of visible homelesness on the West LA VA caused a panic among homeowners associations and representatives from the VPC and local homeowners associations, in another document from the late 1980s.

“We must point out that we are under way, and that we have proceeded based on our participation in the Land Use Task Force and assurances that the projects are a part of the plan and only lack final design approval,” reads a memo to Sue Young, Sandy Brown, and Nancy Freedman from longtime Westwood resident and then–VA employee Susie Franklin. Young and Freedman would later serve on the BCC board, and Freedman has continued her involvement in the BCC as recently as October 2021. 

In the short term, the nonprofit that would become the Veteran’s Park Conservancy in 2001 was successful — the property intended for veterans’ use was instead repurposed as park space, leaving the area free of visible homelessness near the Brentwood School and UCLA while still claiming to use the land to benefit veterans. The Conservancy’s later actions began to show the cracks in its facade, most notably when Carolina Winston Barrie, a descendant of the de Stearns family who originally donated the land, resigned from the organization in 2011 over a belief that founding public parks on veterans’ land was “not what my great-aunt intended.” 

Incorporated as a nonprofit in 2001, the Veteran’s Park Conservancy was founded by the same Sue Young. According to the VPC, their purpose was to “preserve, protect, and enhance the 700 acres of public land at the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration campus in honor of our nation’s veterans — and for the enjoyment and education of the entire community,” according to records from later in its history. Others associated with the Conservancy who would later serve on the board or office of the Brentwood Community Council include Wendy-Sue Rosen and Flora Gil Krisiloff.

Tax records dating as late as 2015 indicate that the VPC’s expenses included five-figure lobbying fees, six-figure salaries, and legal services and continued tax-exempt status, bringing in close to half a million dollars a year. While the VPC was formally dissolved in 2021, its original mission is felt strongly in the interests of the BCC, in no small part because of Freedman’s involvement in the organization.

The Brentwood Community Council was founded in the late 1990s by then– 11th district City Councilmember Cindy Miscikowski. Records indicate that, at the time, her intent was to distribute seats equally between homeowners and other segments of the Brentwood population to ensure the group’s interests weren’t skewed in one direction. 

By the mid-2000s, the organization had already demonstrated severe overlap — Miscikowski endorsed then–BCC chair Flora Gil Krisiloff for her council seat, later losing to Bill Rosendahl. Later, the BCC began regularly poking its nose into big-title real estate deals, with then-chairwoman Wendy-Sue Rosen repeatedly advocating for using the West LA VA land for public and commercial use. In 2010, the BCC was granted 501 (c) (4) tax-exempt status, requiring that the organization “​​must not be organized for profit and must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare.” By 2017, the BCC opposed building additional housing on the land to offer supportive services to more veterans on the grounds of “changes to the campus and additional employees will have on traffic in Brentwood.” 

By 2020, the BCC attempted to bring their anti-unhoused rhetoric onto the national stage to contest the 2019 Martin V. Boise decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which ruled that unhoused people cannot be treated punitively for sleeping outside when no other alternatives are available. The BCC, by then chaired by Michelle Bisnoff, explained why they felt the decision to stop arresting the unhoused for being poor would negatively affect their neighborhood.

“It simply can’t be the underpinning of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment that the homeless are free to dictate the location of their campsites to the exclusion of the local governments that are charged with making those same public locations safe and accessible to all their citizens,” said the BCC’s 2020 appeal to the Ninth Court, which was denied. “If conduct such as camping, urinating in public, and the like, is not regulated, state and local agencies will lose the ‘stick’ that often ensures the ‘carrot’ of services is accepted.”

At present, the BCC is a California Benefit Corporation, defined as being “specifically designed for social enterprises to pursue both for-profit and non-profit objectives,” and elects its board as a traditional nonprofit would. That is to say, in order to be able to run for the board at all, candidates must be approved by a small “nominating committee” of people who are already board members who determine “suitable” options to join them. Again, this is the same board claims to represent 35,000 people. 

With this front-facing outlook on homelessness in Brentwood and a number of overlapping interests in the continued illegal use of land at the West LA VA, it may be surprising to hear that many members of the BCC have founded and operate nonprofits whose stated missions are to uplift and assist unhoused veterans being barred from permanent housing. Most notably, former BCC board member Marcie Swartz co-founded Village for Vets in 2016, both providing food and engaging in multiple high-profile promotions, including a tie-in with Amazon Prime’s right-leaning action movie Without Remorse in spring 2021. While still serving some community function, nonprofits like this fill a similar role to the Veteran’s Park Conservancy — organizations that advertise as being deeply invested in veterans’ well-being, while mainly sticking to superficial solutions that work in favor of homeowners.

From very early in the organization’s history, the BCC’s members’ cross-ties with local groups actively working to displace the unhoused were extensive, including a Nancy Freedman tenure as chair and a long line of upper-class, white, non-veterans to speak on behalf of land that was largely not intended for their input. Today, the BCC remains flooded with registered lobbyists, homeowners association higher-ups, and multiple members who have actively worked to displace Brentwood’s unhoused veterans.

What’s BCC’s Endgame?

Brentwood Community Council presents as many things — a legitimate neighborhood council organization, which it is not, and a group that is not inherently prejudiced against the unhoused, which it is not. Their concerns boil down to familiar talking points for homeowners associations — traffic and visible homelessness having the potential to affect the image the gentrified Brentwood presents to the community at large, particularly those using illegally leased land on the West LA VA campus. 

At present, the BCC officers include two corporate lawyers (Carolyn Jordan and Larry Watts) and a former tech executive (Michelle Bisnoff), whose most recent meeting focused almost entirely on an ordinance that would displace the residents of Veteran’s Row. Now in her second term as chair, Bisnoff’s leadership has culminated in actions like contesting Martin v. Boise, and a stance on homelessness that is aggressively carceral.

“Without full time law enforcement, there is little impetus to ‘accept help or move along,’” the BCC website states, with Bisnoff and BCC Vice Chair Carolyn Jordan, a land-use attorney known for representing corporate landlords and a partner at Glaser Weil, listed as the heads of the committee. 

Bisnoff’s leadership has long stirred frustration among residents — a Brentwood community member told local publication City Watch LA in 2019 that she “presents items as if they are done deals and BCC committees seem to represent special interests.”.

The forces that make unhoused veterans on Veteran’s Row vulnerable to a November 1 sweep extend far beyond the BCC. There is the Veteran Administration itself, which continues to use land for widespread leasing that does not benefit veterans; there is the LASD, the branch of enforcement tasked with violently displacing unhoused veterans and who have arrested them in the past; there are local housed residents who have hit-and-run residents of Veteran’s Row without consequence. But among these forces, the BCC stands out.

Knock LA writer Jon Peltz was in attendance at the last Brentwood Community Council meeting on October 13, which focused on the implementation of LAMC 41.48. This motion focuses on displacing larger encampments like Veteran’s Row by prohibiting “camping on City property that is within 500 feet of ‘sensitive use areas’, which includes pre-schools, K-12 schools, parks, libraries, and along highway ramps/underpasses, and/or within 1,000 feet from homeless service providers.”

These homeless service providers, of course, include the VA itself. Members at the meetings last week further confirmed the BCC’s commitment to displacing Veteran’s Row with the assistance of the LASD.

During this meeting, an unhoused Vietnam War veteran called in to make public comment immediately after LASD representative Lieutenant Bill Kitchen fielded questions on the impending November 1 sweep. A number of homeowners on the call expressed frustration that tents continued to appear on the sidewalk after previous sweeps, despite Kitchen pointing out that the VA still does not offer 24-hour shelter services, even to veterans who qualified for care.

The veteran on the call expressed his love for America and appreciation of law enforcement, but felt that his situation was not understood by the homeowners who wanted the unhoused to be swept from the streets without any sustainable permanent housing.

We have a big problem. I’ve listened in to these meetings before and you’re all wonderful people. Some of you are on point and some of you are not.”

The caller echoed the lack of sustainable housing options for the veterans the BCC hoped to displace from the sidewalk.

“We don’t want to be out on the street,” he said. “They’ve offered me housing, but it’s temporary housing. I’m gonna be the last shepherd on this, and I’m gonna stay here.”

Shortly after, the unhoused veteran was muted, and Bisnoff tossed to LAPD Senior Lead Officer Matt Kirk. For the next 10 minutes, he instructed BCC members on how to report the unhoused to the LAPD and, as he mentions at one point, we can put multiple crimes on one person if you have good video.”

From its conception through today, this scenario has played out time after time — a hollow gesture to make an unhoused veteran seem heard, only to plow back into a carceral, homeowner-driven agenda. The Brentwood Community Council has spent well over a decade determining who they consider their community to be, and building barriers to bar out the rest.

Those interested in participating in BCC meetings can sign up at this link for their next session on November 9.

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