City aims to ease hous­ing cri­sis

Of­fi­cials begin draft­ing rules that would help le­gal­ize apart­ments cre­ated with­out per­mits.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Emily Alpert Reyes

Los An­ge­les has long suf­fered a hous­ing cri­sis that prices many An­ge­lenos out of de­cent, af­ford­able homes.

Yet even as lo­cal lead­ers be­moan that prob­lem, city of­fi­cials say hun­dreds of apart­ments — many of them safe and hab­it­able — have been shut­tered an­nu­ally in the wake of in­spec­tions that re­vealed they never got city ap­proval.

Loath to lose more hous­ing, Los An­ge­les law­mak­ers are now tak­ing steps to help le­gal­ize “boot­legged” apart­ments that have long ex­isted with­out mu­nic­i­pal bless­ing.

The pro­posed amnesty was born out of an un­usual al­liance of land­lords and ten­ant ad­vo­cates trou­bled by the elim­i­na­tion of qual­ity, af­ford­able units cre­ated with­out city per­mits. A City Coun­cil com­mit­tee moved Wed­nes­day to start ham­mer­ing out rules that would give many of those apart­ments a smoother path to le­gal­iza­tion.

The goal, City Coun­cil­man Felipe Fuentes said, is to “main­tain af­ford­abil­ity and try to get folks into sta­ble, dig­ni­fied hous­ing.”

Both ten­ant and land­lord groups praised the bud­ding plan as a “win-win” — a way to pre­serve hous­ing and pre­vent renters from be­ing ejected from liv­able units. But the idea has al­ready raised con­cerns among some res­i­dents who see it as a re­ward for flout­ing the law.

Hous­ing in­spec­tors say that boot­legged units are of­ten much like sanc­tioned apart­ments be­cause they were carved out of other units or build­ing space that was legally per­mit­ted. In many cases, the main bar­ri­ers to le­gal­iz­ing them are not con­struc­tion or safety prob­lems but city codes that man­date a min­i­mum num­ber of park­ing spots and limit the num­ber of units on a lot.

Yet city of­fi­cials say many land­lords are dis­cour­aged from even try­ing to le­gal­ize safe, de­cent boot­legged units. Plan­ning as­so­ciate Matt Glesne said the ex­ist­ing process to seek re­lief from zon­ing re­quire­ments is “not cheap and not quick,” cost­ing land­lords up­ward of $10,000 and tak­ing six to nine months.

In­stead, many land­lords sim­ply shut­ter the unit. Be­tween 2010 and 2015, the vast ma­jor­ity of il­le­gal units found by city in­spec­tors were ul­ti­mately re­moved, elim­i­nat­ing more than 1,700 apart­ments. In the face of ris­ing rents, city law­mak­ers are try­ing to ease the way to le­gal­ize such units.

Un­der the pro­posed new rules, land­lords would have a limited time to seek to le­gal­ize boot­legged units that

al­ready ex­ist. “We’re not talk­ing about cre­at­ing any­thing new,” said Larry Gross, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Coali­tion for Eco­nomic Sur­vival, a ten­ant ad­vo­cacy group that helped de­velop the idea. “Th­ese ten­ants are al­ready there.”

City plan­ners would vet il­le­gal units against a check­list to make sure they did not cre­ate a nui­sance in their neigh­bor­hoods. Land­lords would have to pro­vide some af­ford­able hous­ing in ex­change for the le­gal­ized unit. Park­ing rules could be re­laxed if the apart­ments were close enough to a ma­jor tran­sit stop, Fuentes sug­gested.

If a unit fell short on that check­list, how­ever, it would still have a chance at le­gal­iza­tion through a longer, more ex­ten­sive city process. In that case, neigh­bors would be no­ti­fied and have a chance to ap­peal the de­ci­sion, and the city could im­pose con­di­tions to ease any neg­a­tive ef­fects on the neigh­bor­hood.

Un­der ei­ther process, land­lords would not be able to pass on the costs of le­gal­iz­ing a unit to their ten­ants. And they couldn’t get any apart­ment ap­proved if it vi­o­lated health and safety codes. The city would put a pause on fines and other penal­ties while a land­lord was go­ing through the le­gal­iza­tion process, and would cre­ate a method to help es­ti­mate the costs of bring­ing the unit in line with build­ing codes be­fore­hand.

The pro­posal still leaves some key de­tails to be de­cided: It re­mains un­clear ex­actly how park­ing rules might be al­tered to le­gal­ize ex­ist­ing units, for ex­am­ple. Land­lords urged city of­fi­cials now tasked with draft­ing the rules to make the process as sim­ple as pos­si­ble.

“The less red tape the city puts in front of it, the bet­ter,” said Earle Vaughan, a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Apart­ment Assn. of Greater Los An­ge­les, which helped de­velop the plan. “L.A. is be­hind the curve on this. San Fran­cisco has al­ready passed this. Santa Mon­ica passed some­thing like this a long time ago.”

City law­mak­ers will still have to ap­prove the rules once they’re drafted. No neigh­bor­hood coun­cils have of­fi­cially weighed in on the plan, but some res­i­dents are wary of the idea. Last year, be­fore de­tails of the plan had been spelled out, the Del Rey Res­i­dents Assn. sent a let­ter to law­mak­ers say­ing that it “ve­he­mently” op­posed an amnesty plan for il­le­gal apart­ments, say­ing it would re­ward peo­ple for break­ing the law. The group was also leery of loos­en­ing park­ing re­quire­ments, say­ing its area al­ready faced “vo­cif­er­ous park­ing dis­putes.”

Steve Sann, chair­man of the West­wood Com­mu­nity Coun­cil, said he wants to know whether the city would still im­pose some kind of penalty for boot­legged units. “Th­ese own­ers have been mak­ing all this ex­tra money for years — what are the con­se­quences?” Sann asked.

City of­fi­cials be­lieve that most of L.A.’s boot­legged units are on sin­gle-fam­ily lots, such as il­le­gally con­verted garages, but the pro­posal only tar­gets il­le­gal units in apart­ment build­ings. Fuentes said it was eas­ier to start with boot­legged units in apart­ment build­ings be­cause the city al­ready has a sys­tem­atic pro­gram for in­spect­ing them ev­ery four years.

How­ever, “the next round will be to try to de­ter­mine what it is that we do with those il­le­gal garage con­ver­sions,” Fuentes said at the com­mit­tee meet­ing Wed­nes­day.

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