Why Do We Keep Building in Areas with High Fire Risk?

Last week was a brutal one for California. Fires have been blazing up and down the State. In Southern California the Woolsey Fire hit Los Angeles and Ventura counties, forcing evacuations in Malibu, Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks. Lives have been lost. Homes have been burned.

In recent years these blazes have become more frequent and more destructive. And while climate change is certainly a factor, there’s another issue that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.

We keep building in fire-prone areas. On November 14 the LA Times ran a piece by Bettina Boxall highlighting the fact that cities continue to approve projects in places that are at high risk for fires. Boxall quotes Char Miller, Director of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College.

“Why is it that at the county, city, town level, we have repeatedly green-lit development in areas that we know are fire zones?”

Good question.

Earlier this week, when everyone was wondering how long the fires would burn and what communities were at risk, I recalled a hearing I attended a couple years ago. In 2016 the City Planning Commission greenlighted a project called The Vineyards in Porter Ranch which was comprised of a shopping center, a hotel, office space and over 200 residential units. I wondered what had happened since, and did a search on the net. I found this story on Curbed saying that they’d broken ground in June 2017.

Huge Development Under Way in Porter Ranch

It seemed to me I’d heard about blazes threatening the Porter Ranch area. I wondered if the project site was at risk for fire, so I went to ZIMAS, the City’s zoning information site. Clicking on the parcel, I found that the City of LA recognizes it as a “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone”.

PR Vineyard SCREENSHOT from ZIMAS CROPPED

So what does this actually mean? Does it mean development is prohibited? No. When you click on the words “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone”, a text box pops up containing this paragraph.

Lands designated by the City of Los Angeles Fire Department pursuant to Government Code 51178 that were identified and recommended to local agencies by the Director of Forestry and Fire Protection based on criteria that includes fuel loading, slope, fire weather, and other relevant factors. These areas must comply with the Brush Clearance Requirements of the Fire Code. The Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone (VHFHSZ) was first established in the City of Los Angeles in 1999 and replaced the older “Mountain Fire District” and “Buffer Zone.”

In other words, the only requirement is compliance with LAFC regulations regarding brush clearance. So is there really any danger from fires in Porter Ranch?

Actually, yeah, there is.

A search using the words “Porter Ranch Fire” turned up a lot of results. In August of this year there was a small fire that the LAFD quickly snuffed out.

PR Fire Brush from LAFD 180809 CROPPED

Porter Ranch Brush Fire Quickly Stopped from LAFD, August 9, 2018

Another small blaze broke out last December.

PR Fire Image from Patch 171205

Porter Ranch Blaze Knocked Down from Patch, December 5, 2017

NBC reported that 15 acres burned in 2016.

PR Fire from NBC 161018 CROPPED

Brush Fire Burns in Porter Ranch

And back in 2008 the Sesnon Fire, AKA the Porter Ranch Fire, burned over 22 square miles.

Sesnon Fire from Wikipedia

As the Woolsey Fire burned this last week, ABC reported that area residents were worried about their safety.

Strong Winds Put Surrounding Communities near Porter Ranch on Edge

I’d be worried, too. In spite of the fact that the City of LA recognizes this as an area at high risk for fires, the Department of City Planning (DCP) doesn’t seem to have had any problem with approving new construction there. In addition to 266 apartments, The Vineyards includes a hotel with 100 rooms and a Kaiser medical office building. And this is one of the last open tracts in an area that has seen rapid growth since the 90s. In 2008 the DCP estimated the population was around 30,000. I wonder how quickly they’ll be able to evacuate all those people if the area is threatened by fire? Might be especially difficult at rush hour. I’ve heard traffic on Rinaldi gets pretty bad.

As California’s changing climate leads to hotter temperatures and drier vegetation, experts predict fires will become more frequent and more destructive. Why do we keep building in areas that are at risk of burning? Why do we keep putting people in harm’s way?


PS

After putting up this post, I ran across an excellent article by Emily Guerin on the same subject. She asks a lot of good questions, and gets some disturbing answers. Check it out.

Why do we keep building houses in places that burn down?

Dear Mr. Krugman: You’re Wrong About Rent Control

RC 01 Apts

An open letter to economist Paul Krugman.

Dear Mr. Krugman,

I want to start off by saying that I’ve followed your column in the New York Times over the years, and I have tremendous respect for you. Since I have no background in economics, I appreciate your clear, straightforward approach to breaking down the issues. And more important, I appreciate the fact that you speak out against the dishonesty and fraud that are all too common in this country. There have been times when I really needed to hear the voice of reason, and you have been that voice.

But as much as I respect you, I have to say I think you’re dead wrong about rent control. In fact, I think most economists are wrong about rent control. Not that I have anything in my background to give me any credibility. You went to Yale and MIT. I went to LACC. But in spite of my utter lack of any credentials that would give me the right to talk about this issue, I hope you’ll read on at least a little further. Because when it comes to rent control, I think you, like the vast majority of economists, have failed to do your homework.

Just to give you an idea of the sloppy thinking that characterizes most discussions about rent control, let’s talk about Los Angeles. I live in LA, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that rents are high in LA because of rent control. I’ve been repeatedly told it constrains new construction, which means we have low supply, which means we can’t meet the demand for new housing, and that drives prices up.

But there are a number of problems with this argument.

First, most of the people who talk about LA don’t even understand the difference between the City of Los Angeles and the 87 other cities that make up the County of Los Angeles. Some of these are embedded within the City’s boundaries. While the City of LA does have a Rent Stabilization Ordinance, there are only four other cities (Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Thousand Oaks) that have any kind of rent control. Median rents in Culver City, Burbank and Pasadena are as high or higher than the City of Los Angeles, despite the fact that these cities have no rent control ordinance on their books. And within the City of LA you’ll find considerable variation in housing costs. Rents in the corridor between Santa Monica and Downtown tend to be the highest. Rents in parts of the Valley (Arleta, Pacoima, Sylmar) and in the Harbor Area (Wilmington, San Pedro) are usually considerably lower. By itself, this seems to suggest that there are other factors besides rent control which may have a larger impact on rental costs.

Second, those who oppose rent control generally point to coastal cities like LA, San Francisco or New York, all of which have outrageously high housing prices. But absolute dollar amounts aren’t the best gauge of affordability. Really we have to look at prices relative to income, in other words we have to look at rent burden. According to a 2016 report by Abodo , the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area was at that time the most cost-burdened rental market in the US. A report from HUD the following year came to the same conclusion. While prices in the Miami area are well below those in New York or San Francisco, wages are also much lower, and renters are getting hammered. This is in spite of the fact that Miami has no rent control. Another report from Abodo that breaks down rent burden by generation finds that a number of urban areas in Florida appear high in the rankings, including Daytona Beach, Lakeland-Winter Haven, Cape Coral-Fort Myers, and Orlando. No Florida cities have enacted rent control, because state law prohibits them from doing so. Supply siders tell us that if landlords are allowed to charge whatever the market will bear, this will incentivize new construction which will generate more supply and bring prices down. That hasn’t happened in Florida. Renters there have been struggling for years, and somehow market forces have failed to bring relief. And while the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim area does appear on Abodo’s 2016 rent burden ranking, it’s interesting to note that it comes in at number five. None of the first four urban areas on the list have rent control.  (I should also point out that Long Beach and Anaheim do not have rent control.)

All the economists opposed to rent control insist that endless reams of research back their stance. Again, I’m not an economist, and I certainly haven’t spent as much time with the research as they have, but what I’ve seen doesn’t impress me. For all the talk of irrefutable data, the studies I’ve looked at seem very limited. They generally focus on a narrow selection of markets, sometimes just one market. They often base their conclusions on data that has a questionable relationship to rent control. They generally look at the housing market in isolation, without any effort to see rental prices as part of the larger picture. And they generally don’t acknowledge that there are a lot of different ways you can structure rent control.

No question, the forms of rent control used in the first half of the 20th century were a failure. I agree that setting absolute caps on housing prices stifles new construction and only encourages black market housing arrangements. But the forms of rent control adopted in some cities over the past 50 years are much different from their predecessors. For instance, in LA the Rent Stabilization Ordinance passed in 1978 only applies to apartments built before that year, so it doesn’t discourage new construction. It allows annual rent increases of 3%. Because the ordinance includes vacancy decontrol, rents are reset when a tenant moves out. It also has a mechanism that allows landlords to charge additional amounts to pay for capital improvements and major repairs. I have to laugh when I hear that rent control inevitably leads to poor maintenance of residential units, creating unsightly and unsafe slums. I often pass through Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, all of which have a form of rent control, and I haven’t noticed any festering swaths of urban decay.

RC 10 ELA Bandana

Residents protesting gentrification in East LA.

While I can’t claim to have read every research paper on rent control published in the last 50 years, I have read a sampling, and as I said before, I’m not impressed. To go into specifics, I’d like to talk about a couple of papers that have been widely cited, and then another more recent study….

First let’s take a look at Gyourko and Linneman’s study from 1987, which analyses the allocation of benefits under rent control. They focus on New York City, and they use a lot of impressive formulas to compare the distribution of family income with the distribution of benefit-adjusted income under rent control. I don’t pretend to understand the math. I’ll just assume that all the numbers they come up with are absolutely correct. Their conclusion is that, “[I]f the primary social benefits of rent control are distributional impacts, they were not successful in New York.” They go on to say, “Economists have long predicted that racial discrimination could result in markets where nonprice rationing occurred. Blacks and Puerto Ricans in the controlled sector received lower benefits than their white counterparts.”

I’m sure they’re right when they say that calculating the dollar amounts shows an uneven distribution of monetary benefits. Unfortunately, they’re missing the whole point of rent control. It was never intended to ensure the equal distribution of monetary benefits. The purpose of rent control is to provide housing stability and to minimize the considerable economic and social costs of displacement. It does offer equal protection to all those who live in rent-controlled apartments, regardless of their race, which is why it blows my mind that the authors have the nerve to state, “Economists have long predicted that racial discrimination could result in markets where nonprice rationing occurred.” Are they kidding?! They’re saying rent control results in racial discrimination? Like discrimination never happens when we let the free market rule? This statement is so absurd it really calls the authors’ judgment into question. How clueless do you have to be to blame rent control for a social evil that’s woven into the very fabric of this country?

Another issue that comes up, not just in Gyourko and Linneman’s paper but in others, is the idea of a “rent subsidy”. This is the difference between the rent controlled price for a unit and what someone would pay on the free market. As an example, the authors say “…. if the monthly rent for a controlled apartment was $500 and this unit would have rented over $700 in the uncontrolled sector, the monthly rent control subsidy would be $200.” This is interesting, because it assumes that the free market price is the result of some kind of rational process. But is it?

Let’s look at a recent incident at an apartment complex in City Terrace. The building was sold to Manhattan Manor, a real estate investment group, and because it wasn’t covered by rent control, they decided to jack up the rents. One tenant had their rent go from $1,250 to $2,000 overnight, a 60% increase. Since the building wasn’t covered by rent control, and the tenants couldn’t afford the increase, the new owners started eviction proceedings. But the tenants fought back, and the case went to court. Far from siding with Manhattan Manor, the jury found that the unit had significant habitability issues and that the new owners had failed to make basic repairs. In fact, not only did the jury reject the owners’ bid to evict the tenants, they determined that the unit was only worth $1,050 per month in its current condition.

Now, in Gyourko and Linneman’s view, the new landlords were just exercising their right to reset the rent to what they believed they could get on the free market. And from the economists’ perspective, if the building had been rent controlled, the tenants would have been receiving a “subsidy” of $750 a month. But a jury, after looking at basic habitability issues, decided that the unit wasn’t even worth the $1,250 that the tenants had originally been paying. So the idea that the free market somehow sets fair prices through a rational process seems suspect. And this isn’t an isolated incident. Scenes like this are playing out all over LA, and I suspect, throughout the country. Real estate brokers routinely advertise “underperforming” properties, and in the current environment, with speculation running rampant, investors are happy to snap these buildings up. For many of these investors, the condition of the apartment isn’t a primary consideration in determining what to charge. All they care about is getting the highest possible return on their investment. Unfortunately, in many cases, deciding an apartment’s “fair market value” is just a matter of picking the highest number they think they can get away with.

But let’s move on to Glaeser, Luttmer, 2003. I give them credit. Their paper is one of the few I’ve seen that actually compares cities with rent control to cities without. They look at rental data in New York, Chicago and Hartford, and also create a baseline by taking a sample of Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) across the US. They even break the demographics down by income, household size and education. They’re certainly making an effort to take variables into account. And you could make the argument that the three cities they focus on are similar in a number of ways

Still, there are significant differences that could have an impact on Glaeser and Luttmer’s calculations. To start with, New York is unique. It’s by far the most populous city in the U.S., as well as a financial, educational and cultural center. It’s the point of entry for thousands of immigrants annually and its port is a global shipping hub. The authors use census data from 1990, when New York’s population was 7.322 million, Chicago’s was 2.786 million, and Hartford’s was 137,296. You could still make the case that New York and Chicago are major urban centers and roughly similar when it comes to income and demographics. But the comparison to Hartford, with a population roughly one fiftieth of New York’s, is really questionable.

And while I respect Glaeser and Luttmer for taking the trouble to look at MSAs all over the US to set a baseline, the vast majority of these urban areas have little or nothing in common with New York in terms of population, demographics, employment, income, housing stock, and climate. The idea that we can use the numbers for these areas to set some kind of “normal” to use as a comparison with New York just doesn’t make sense. If your main interest is in working out intricate math problems, the authors’ approach probably sounds great. But if you’re actually looking for answers to complex questions about housing affordability, it just doesn’t make it.

But the biggest problem when it comes to comparisons, even if we’re just talking about New York and Chicago, is density. In New York in 1990 there were 24,165 people per square mile. In Chicago in 1990 there were 11,905 per square mile. In other words, New York is over twice as dense in terms of population as Chicago. Even though the two cities are roughly comparable in terms of housing units per capita, the cost of real estate in New York is way higher, which means the cost of housing is going to be way higher. So while the median income for the two cities is in the same ballpark, you’re going to get less apartment for your buck in New York. Because of this, even if New York didn’t have rent control, you’d expect to see a difference in the kind of housing that New Yorkers could afford compared to the rest of the country.

There are other problems with Glaeser and Luttmer’s paper. On the first page, in talking about mechanisms for rationing goods, they say, “If the allocation mechanisms are not perfectly efficient, then the analysis illustrated by Figure 1, which implicitly assumes that the rationing under rent control ensures that apartments go to the consumers who value them most, is wrong.” The authors seem to be saying that rent control is failure because it’s not “perfectly efficient”. This is an interesting way to define failure when it comes to the housing market. Is the free market “perfectly efficient” when it comes to allocating housing resources? Of course not. When it comes to housing, perfect efficiency is nothing more than an abstract concept. Glaeser and Luttmer base their argument on their own false assumption. They make a claim for rent control that its supporters never have. I’ve never heard anyone claim that rent control is perfectly efficient. Let me repeat, the point of rent control is to provide stable housing and to prevent displacement.

But let’s get to the crux of Glaeser and Luttmer’s argument. For these two academics, the efficient allocation of assets is their Holy Grail. How do they define that in the housing market? “The baseline apartment characteristic used to estimate misallocation is the number of rooms in the apartment.” Huh. Interesting. So they look at the data for New York, Chicago and Hartford, and what do they find? “Our methodology suggests that 21 percent of New York apartment renters live in apartments with more or fewer rooms than they would if they were living in a free-market city.”

Really? That’s the criterion they use? Whether New Yorkers are living in “apartments with more or fewer rooms than they would if they were living in a free-market city.” Honestly, this seems pretty arbitrary. If the outcome was that a lot of New Yorkers were living in apartments with too few rooms, that would fit in with the standard argument that rent control decreases supply. But in their minds, having too many rooms is just as bad as having too few rooms. They say that, according to their calculations, “…the overall percentage of New York renters that are living in apartments that are the wrong size is 25.8%….” And what’s the right size? It’s a ratio they came up with by crunching data for a selection of U.S. cities, most of which are completely different from New York when it comes to employment, income, housing stock, and demographics.

Glaeser and Luttmer seem to believe there’s some kind of ideal that will result from the “perfect allocation” of housing resources, and that the free market will achieve that ideal. But even though all of us want to live in a place where there’s enough room to be comfortable, the key issue for renters is affordability. While Glaeser and Luttmer worry about the right number of rooms, you can see increasing numbers of tenants worried about just making rent in cities like Miami, Portland, and Austin, none of which have rent control. And the free market doesn’t seem to have helped tenants in Clark County, Nevada, where official data says that there were 30,000 evictions in 2016 alone. Interestingly, most housing experts in the area agree that the actual number is much higher, since many tenants who fall behind on rent just leave to avoid having an eviction on their record.

Ultimately, I have to say that Glaeser and Luttmer’s work isn’t very convincing. I give them credit for crunching a lot of numbers, but their conclusions seem pretty arbitrary. Like many economists who tackle rent control, they’re more focussed on the numbers than they are on reality. Rather than looking at the pressures the economy brings to bear on renters, rather than examining the impacts of speculative real estate investment, rather than measuring the social impacts of displacement, they spend their time counting the number of rooms a household has. And because in New York they find that those numbers don’t add up according to an an ideal ratio they’ve decided on, their verdict is that rent control is a failure.

RC 05 Now Lsg

Downtown LA now offers “boutique apartment lofts”.

The most recent study I looked at was the 2017 paper from Diamond, McQuade and Qian, a trio of academics at Stanford. Their work was just as disappointing as the others. Like Gyourko and Linneman, these folks have decided they can analyze the impacts of rent control by looking at a single city. They feel perfectly comfortable making sweeping statements about the negative effects of rent control without considering what tenants are dealing with in other cities governed by the free market.

The folks from Stanford study decades of data from San Francisco and find that rent-controlled units are more likely to be removed from the market through legal conversions than units not covered by rent control. They argue that because of these conversions the supply of rental units shrinks and therefore rental prices rise. “We conclude that this led to a city-wide rent increase of 7% and caused $5 billion of welfare losses to all renters.” Well, that may sound logical on the face of it, but without comparing their data with rent increases in free market cities, it’s pretty meaningless. To claim any certainty about the actual rate of rent increases due to conversions you’d need to do more than study a single city. You’d have to compare your results to other cities without rent control to see if rents rose even without such conversions. Like, maybe Orlando, where Apartment List reports that rents rose 5.3% from August 2017 to August 2018. Or how about Denver, where a June 2018 report from Zumper says that in a single year the rent for a one-bedroom rose 16%.

This isn’t the only questionable conclusion that the folks from Stanford come to. Check this out….

“Taken together, we see rent controlled [sic?] increased property investment, demolition and reconstruction of new buildings, conversion to owner occupied housing and a decline of the number of renters per building. All of these responses lead to a housing stock which caters to higher income individuals. Rent control has actually fueled the gentrification of San Francisco, the exact opposite of the policy’s intended goal.”

This is fascinating. Because the authors see an increase in high-cost housing, they come to the conclusion that rent control accelerates gentrification. But this is based on the assumption that San Francisco housing prices only increased due to conversions, which is ridiculous. The fact is, real estate investors looking for the highest rate of return will do whatever’s required to squeeze more money out of a building. Sure, in San Francisco they resort to conversions to free themselves from rent control. But in markets without rent control they’d just jack up the rent as high as they pleased, and the end result would would still be the displacement of low-income residents by high-income residents. Free market cities like Portland, Austin and Denver have gentrified rapidly over the past 15 years.

Seriously, the authors are totally clueless on this point. They’re so busy fondling their data that they completely ignore the reality of what’s been happening in San Francisco. As the Bay Area has become a tech hub, wave after wave of high-paid employees have flocked to the city. Seeing this, real estate investors have bought up all the units they can in order to capture some of that cash. Even if San Francisco had never enacted any kind of rent control, prices would still be rising like crazy. Low- and middle-income tenants would still be getting hit with exorbitant rent increases as housing speculators swarmed over the city to cash in on the tech boom. These conversions aren’t the cause of higher prices, they’re just a tool. Given the rise of the tech sector in San Francisco and the flow of global real estate investment into the city, prices would be shooting up with or without rent control, and the end result would still be massive displacement of low-income residents.

Mr. Krugman, you seem pretty cool, so I hate to make sweeping generalizations about economists. But after looking at these three papers, and others on rent control, I have to say their authors all have one thing in common. They’re so focussed on crunching numbers they seem completely out of touch with reality. These academics have certainly spent a lot of time compiling data and working out complex equations, but did they even spend five minutes talking to renters in the cities they were studying? They analyze rental markets in terms of dollar amounts and the number of rooms, but did they spend any time looking at how renters are struggling in the current housing market? Did they even consider looking at displacement in free market cities like Miami, Portland and Austin? Did they ever consider that speculative investment could cause rapid distortions in the housing market that would leave renters out in the cold?

No. They look at isolated datasets and after adding up the numbers they come to the conclusion that rent control is incontestably bad. But their work is narrow and shallow. Of the three studies cited here, only one of them actually compares rent controlled cities to free market cities. And in that case the authors state that rent control should be perfectly efficient, without ever asking if the free market is perfectly efficient when it comes to housing. They claim that rent control distorts the housing market without considering whether other factors could distort the market as well.

But I want to be clear. I’m not saying you should come out in favor of rent control. I’m saying that, based on the research I’ve looked at, no economist should come out against it. It’s entirely possible that there are other, better papers I missed, and if that’s the case, you can dismiss me as an ignorant fool. But the studies by Gyourko, Linneman and Glaeser, Luttmer have been widely cited, which seems to indicate that economists give them credence. Honestly, I can’t understand why. While I’m sure these academics worked hard to produce their papers, the results are a meaningless exercise in crunching numbers. These people need to spend less time on their laptops and more time in the real world.

I admit I’m biased. I live in a rent-controlled apartment, and if it wasn’t for LA’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance I would have had to move out a long time ago. But I still say that the economists who argue against rent control haven’t done the research necessary to support their arguments. If you’re still with me at this point, you might be saying, Okay, so what kind of research should we be doing?

I’m glad you asked.

First, a credible study on the impacts of rent control shouldn’t be focussed just on rent control. It should look at housing accessibility in both controlled and free markets. It should cover a range of major US cities. It should include data covering at least a 20 year period, and 30 or 40 years would be even better.

Second, it should look at various measures of accessibility. I think the level of rent burden is the best indicator for tenants, but it would probably also be good to look at homeowners and gather data on their level of mortgage debt. A thorough study would also examine data on evictions and foreclosures, but the first category could be tricky. In LA we have data on evictions under the Ellis Act, but Ellis is only invoked for rent-controlled units. If tenants leave because the rent rises sharply, or because the landlord offered them $3,000 to get out, or because the owner threatened to call ICE on a family of undocumented immigrants, there won’t be any record of their departure. And while most cities would have records of cases where tenants are evicted through a legal process, I bet those cases rarely reflect the real rate of displacement.

And third, how about actually going out into the world and talking to the people who are struggling to keep a roof over their head? How about making this an interdisciplinary study that ties housing accessibility to income, education, location, race and culture? How about looking at housing in the context of the real world, instead of looking at it as a set of numbers on a spreadsheet. The thing that makes me angriest about the papers these economists have produced is that they seem completely cut off from the world around them. When I read that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median annual wage for economists was $102,490 in May 2017, can you blame me if the words “ivory tower” come to mind?

I realize a study like the one I’m talking about would cost a lot of money and take years to produce. But it’s time for economists to get out of libraries and conference rooms and spend some time in the world the rest of us live in. The rising cost of keeping a roof over your head is dragging millions of people down across the country. We’re in the middle of a nationwide housing crisis. While the majority of economists feel comfortable slagging LA and New York for having rent control, they don’t seem to want to ask why the free market is failing renters in cities across the nation. If the free market is supposed to naturally produce affordable housing, then why are tenants in cities like Portland and Chicago pushing for legislation to limit rent increases?

Mr. Krugman, if you’ve read this far, I want to thank you for hearing me out. The reason I decided to direct this letter to you is that, of the economists I’m aware of, you seem to realize that economics isn’t just about graphs and algorithms. It’s about people. It’s about whether people can find a job, whether they can put food on the table, and whether they can keep a roof over their head. As you know, in spite of the fact that unemployment is nearing historic lows, there are millions of tenants across the US who are struggling to make rent. Over the last fifteen years, real estate investment has become a global force, with investors targeting cities around the planet looking for the highest possible rate of return. This has caused housing costs to soar in cities as diverse as Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, London, and Hong Kong. The argument that we can build our way out of this crisis doesn’t seem credible, since the vast majority of new units built in these cities are far too expensive for the average citizen.

It’s time for economists to stop asking whether or not rent control works. They need to start asking whether the housing market, regulated or not, is working for the millions of Americans who are living a paycheck away from the street. They need to step outside the university campuses and the think tanks and take a good hard look at how difficult it is for average citizens to keep a roof over their head these days. Economists need to look beyond individual cities. They need to start asking bigger questions. They need to make an effort to see human beings as something more than numbers on a spreadsheet.

Until these economists open their eyes wide enough to look at the big picture, their research won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on.

RC 20 VC

Angelenos 4 Trees: Get Involved in Preserving LA’s Urban Forest

A4T Contrast 3

Are you concerned about LA’s urban forest? You’re not alone. More and more people are learning about the importance of preserving and enhancing our tree canopy, which cleans our air, captures stormwater, and keeps the city cool. Our urban forest is threatened by the increasingly dry climate, insect infestations, and new development. But we can take action to protect it.

A4T Sabrina

Attorney Sabrina Venskus

Angelenos 4 Trees is a group of concerned citizens who have come together with the goal of preserving and expanding LA’s urban forest. They held a kick-off event on Saturday, September 15, where a room full of attendees heard from a range of speakers. The day began with an introduction by sustainable landscape designer Jacky Surber, who talked about the challenges that lie ahead. Attorney Sabrina Venskus explained how the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) can be used to protect LA’s trees. Activists Jill Stewart and Ileana Wachtel compared LA to other cities with robust plans for their urban forest and made it clear that we have a long way to go. And Joanne D’Antonio, of the Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance (NCSA), demonstrated how citizens can use the internet to monitor tree removals in their neighborhood and beyond.

A4T Joanne

Joanne D’Antonio, Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance

Would you like to get involved? You can. Just send an e-mail to Angelenos 4 Trees and ask to be put on their mailing list. You’ll receive info on issues related to LA’s urban forest and notices about future events. Here’s the address.

angelenos4trees@gmail.com

A4T White Flowers

Don’t Let Sacramento Steal Your District. Tell Gov. Brown to Veto SB-1250.

CA Senate Floor

The California Legislature has sunk to a new low. At the end of this year’s legislative session they voted to approve SB-1250, which removes the requirement that California legislators live in the district they represent. Basically the bill says that anyone could be elected to represent a district as long as they maintain a residence there. In other words, a politician could live in Beverly Hills, but run to represent San Joaquin County as long as they rented an apartment there. And according to the text of SB-1250, this applies for both “The domicile of a Member of the Legislature or a Representative in the Congress of the United States….”

The implications of this are staggering. This means that any corporate-backed flunky could represent a California district even if they only flew in to campaign there. This means that stooges with enough PAC money behind them could buy themselves a seat in the legislature. And what’s even more scary is the fact that only a handful of legislators voted against this sleazy scam.

The Governor has not signed this bill yet. We need to flood Brown’s office with calls telling him to veto this assault on democracy.

On Monday, September 10, first thing in the morning, please call Governor Brown and tell him to veto SB-1250.

Phone: (916) 445-2841

If you can’t call, be sure to send an e-mail.

E-Mail Gov. Brown

And the second thing you should do is find out if your reps in the State Senate and Assembly voted for or against. Here’s the voting record.

SB-1250 Voting Record

If you don’t know who your reps are, use this link to find out.

Find Your Rep

If your reps voted to oppose this bill, call them and thank them. If they voted to approve it, don’t be shy about letting them know how you feel.

Here’s an editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle that lays it all out.

We Can Live without Legislators Who Don’t Live in their Districts

 

An Unexpected Garden

Gar 01 Walk

Today I went down to the Department of City Planning to file an appeal. It didn’t take as long as I expected, so after I was through I decided to wander around and check the place out.

The building itself is a pretty drab example of institutional architecture. I walked across the lobby to the little cafe and thought about getting some coffee. Decided against it. Then I thought I’d check out the patio at the back of the building. The most interesting thing about that space is it’s just a couple hundred feet from the Harbor Freeway. I wondered if the few people scattered around were bothered by the traffic noise. But I guess you can get used to anything.

I decided to move on, so I walked around the side of the building, on my way back to the plaza. And I came across a beautiful little garden.

When I was younger I paid no attention to gardens. The older I get, the more I love them. This was so unexpected I had to stop and take some photos. This little garden, tucked away on one side of a couple of drab office towers, made the whole trip worthwhile.

 

Hotel Developer Keeps Asking, and City Planning Keeps Giving

Dream 2 Construction Site

Construction site in the foreground, and Dream Hotel in the background.

If you need any more proof that City Hall is ready to give developers whatever they ask for, there’s a block in the heart of Hollywood you should take a good look at. Hollywood International Regional Center (HIRC), a developer that specializes in hotels funded with EB 5 money, has spent years remaking the stretch of Selma between Cahuenga and Wilcox, and they’re not done yet. Richard Heyman, HIRC Managing Partner, filed his first application for this site about ten years ago, and since then he and his associates have come back asking for numerous changes to their project/s. A review of the associated documents seems to show that the Department of City Planning (DCP) has been more than willing to accommodate the developers’ requests. Construction has been going on almost continuously since 2014, and it looks like it’ll be going on a while longer.

Because tourism is thriving these days, there’s a push to build party hotels in Hollywood. HIRC has already finished one and has a few more in the works. In addition to the completed Dream hotel, there are two other HIRC projects under construction, and the City Planning Commission (CPC) just approved a fourth one. All four of these projects are within a one block radius of Selma and Wilcox. Actually, it almost seems like these four hotels could be considered one big project. But more on that later….

HIRC’s latest effort was on the agenda at the CPC hearing on July 12. This is an eight-story hotel to be built at the corner of Selma and Wilcox. Of course, since this hotel is being built in Hollywood, it has to have a rooftop deck with a pool and a bar/lounge, and even though it wasn’t mentioned in the hearing notice, live entertainment is also part of the package. Given the fact that Hollywood is already jammed with bars, and that crime is rising by double digits, and that area residents are complaining about noise from the party scene, you might ask if we really need another party hotel in Hollywood.

But the folks at the DCP don’t seem bothered by the problems Hollywood residents are facing. They apparently weren’t bothered by the fact that this project was already under construction. Yeah, that’s right. The developer had already started to build this hotel, even though it hadn’t yet been approved. How did that happen? It’s complicated. First we have to ask what the project actually is, and there’s no simple answer. Many Hollywood residents feel HIRC has not been honest about what they’re doing, and that the DCP has been too willing to look the other way. The closer you examine it, the more it appears that this new hotel at Selma and Wilcox is actually part of a complex that’s been in the works for years. But to tell this story, we have to go back to the previous decade….

Heyman’s first hotel on Selma was the Dream 1, which was approved back in 2008. According to the original determination letter, the hotel was going to have a total of 120 rooms, and the project would consist of about 73, 814 square feet with two levels of parking. But then the recession hit, and the project got delayed. In 2011 it was back on again, but this time with a few changes. Now it was going to have 136 guest rooms, but the size held about steady at 73,607 square feet. And while the project was originally required to have 107 parking spaces, now the number was reduced to 90.

So far this doesn’t seem like a big deal. A few more rooms, a little less square footage, and 17 less parking spaces. Who cares? But keep your eye on the parking, because it’s about to disappear.

A Zoning Administrator’s letter dated April 2014 shows further changes. “There will be 182 hotel rooms, 77 on-site parking spaces, 14 off-site parking spaces….” And now, while the height is the same, they’ve added another floor, meaning it’s now a ten story hotel with 79,376 square feet of floor area. Obviously the folks at HIRC are prone to changing their minds, and the folks at the DCP are ready to accommodate them.

But you’re probably saying, “What do you mean the parking disappeared? It’s still there. The ZA approved 77 on-site spaces and 14 off-site spaces. They’ve still got plenty of parking.” And that’s the great thing about misdirection. You were busy looking at the ZA’s letter, instead of keeping your eye on the hotel. Next time you’re in Hollywood, take a stroll down Selma past the Dream.

It has no on-site parking at all.

If you didn’t catch on to that trick, don’t worry. The people at the DCP don’t seem to have noticed either. Strangely enough, the Department of Building & Safety (DBS) granted a permit for the change, and apparently the DCP signed off on it, even though they hadn’t approved the change. I tried asking the folks at the DCP how they approved the permit even though they hadn’t approved the project revision. In response they sent a document that had no relation to the question.

Of course eliminating the on-site parking is completely illegal. But there’s another problem. You see, parking isn’t counted in calculating a project’s square footage. This means that the conversion of that space to other uses has boosted the hotel’s square footage significantly. You might think that the DCP would be upset over a developer unilaterally adding several thousand square feet to a project, but you’d be wrong. They’ve taken no action to enforce the terms of the Department’s determination letter.

Some people speculate that maybe HIRC has friends at City Hall. The developer seems to get pretty much everything they ask for. But they’ve made a lot of enemies in Hollywood. The developer’s aggressive push to build party hotels has angered a lot of folks in the community, and these days people are watching their moves much more closely.

In 2015 HIRC applied to build another, more modest project, next to the Dream 1. This was going to be a one-story restaurant, with 6,000 square-feet of retail space, and three levels of underground parking. Who could object to that? But then people who live in the neighborhood took a look at the application and saw that the name of the LLC that HIRC was using for this project was “6421 Selma Wilcox Hotel”. Seemed like an odd choice of names for a project that was supposed to be just a restaurant with some retail. It also seemed odd that a developer who specialized in building hotels was asking City Planning to approve something so much smaller. The DCP, of course, ignored the community’s concerns and signed off on the project.

It was no surprise to area residents when HIRC came back in 2016, now asking the DCP to approve an eight-story hotel on the same site. Again, since the legal entity being used to build the original project was “6421 Selma Wilcox Hotel”, it’s hard to believe that this was an unexpected evolution of HIRC’s plans. And the fact that the papers for this LLC were filed with the State of California in October 2014, well before HIRC applied to build the restaurant/retail project makes it appear that their goal was to build the hotel all along.

And if you spend a little time surfing the web, you’ll find documents indicating that not only was this project conceived as a hotel from the beginning, it was always intended to be the second phase of a complex that began with Dream 1. If you take a look at the web site for Space Global, a firm HIRC partnered with in raising EB 5 money from Chinese investors, the project is repeatedly referred to as Dream 2. In fact, information for investors posted on-line specifically refers to it as an extension of Dream 1, saying construction is expected to begin by the end of 2014. The text not only mentions Tao Restaurant & Lounge, but another restaurant, Beauty & Essex, which is on the far side of the project site. The web site features renderings of the completed project showing both hotels stretched across the length of the block, with Tao sandwiched in the middle.

This seems to be pretty strong evidence that back in 2014, around the time the DCP gave its final approvals for Dream 1, that HIRC already saw the two hotels, the restaurant and the renovated bar as one project. Now, ordinarily if you were going to build a hotel complex with just under 300 rooms, multiple locations selling alcohol, and live entertainment, it would seem reasonable to assume that it could have significant impacts on the neighborhood. HIRC could have revised their original application to reflect the project they apparently intended to build, but that might have meant submitting to a higher level of environmental review. Instead, in 2015 HIRC submitted an application for the property at Selma and Wilcox, directly adjacent to Dream 1, saying they just wanted to build a restaurant, some retail, and three levels of parking. Then in 2016, with the restaurant taking shape and heavy machinery digging a huge hole right next door, they came back and filed the application for the eight-story hotel that their promotional materials refer to as Dream 2.

So let’s get back to the July hearing held by the City Planning Commission (CPC) where they considered the Dream 2. It was actually more entertaining than most CPC hearings. Developer Grant King gave a stirring speech, hypnotizing the crowd with an account of his dramatic effort to rescue Dream 1 in 2012. “I took the last $75,000 I had in the world and bought a one-way ticket to China….” The union workers who attended to protest the failure of King and his partners to hire union labor may not have been moved by his story. I guess it never occurred to the intrepid developer that these union workers had probably never had anything near $75,000 in their bank account. I don’t doubt the Commissioners were enthralled by King’s story, but a number of them had serious reservations about the project. Commissioner Renee Dake-Wilson had some especially harsh words. While she emphasized that she didn’t believe the developer was engaged in “piecemealing” (seeking approvals in pieces, rather than all at once), she stated forcefully that she thought the original restaurant/retail project was “a sham in order to get this hotel going.”

But the last Commissioner to comment was President David Ambroz, who offered a ringing defense of the project. Responding to criticism of the developer’s first structure on Selma, he said, “I think the Dream is a well run hotel.” In response to another Commissioner’s suggestion that the rooftop bar/lounge be restricted just to hotel guests, Ambroz said, “I like going to these rooftops. I would not be in agreement with prohibiting public access.” The Commission President was apparently not impressed with Hollywood when he first arrived years ago, but he feels it’s come a long way because of projects like this. “The renaissance that has occurred there is a testament not just to Grant and his company, but others as well.” Ambroz was definitely sold on the project, and he seemed to be doing his best to sell it to everyone else.

However, there were concerns about parking, and that discussion was really interesting. The project would require a certain amount of off-site parking, and the Commissioners weren’t certain where that would end up. You see, parking is at a premium in Hollywood, and some of the Commissioners wanted to know where the developer would find those off-site spaces within the required 750 feet. Fortunately, HIRC’s rep stepped forward to explain that the developers had two other hotels under construction nearby, and he was certain that one of them could handle the overload. Which is actually really odd, because the CPC approved both those projects and they’re strongly opposed to providing excess parking. There’s also the bizarre idea of creating a covenant to provide parking at a building that doesn’t exist yet. And lastly, if the developer has already made plans to provide additional parking for the Dream 2 at one of these other locations, it makes it sound like these projects were conceived together. That really these hotels, all proposed by the same developer, all within a one block radius of Wilcox and Selma, all approved within the last ten years, should be seen as one project.

In the end, the CPC approved the Dream 2 by a 6-2 vote, with Commissioners Vahid Khorsand and Dana Perlman voting no. We’ll see what actually happens with the parking down the road. But I doubt Grant King is worried. For all the talk during the hearing about how enforcement is key, the Dream 1 was built with none of the required on-site parking, and the City hasn’t taken any action at all. Even if the off-site parking for the Dream 2 never materializes, King knows that the City of LA won’t do a damn thing about it.

Garcetti Talks about Sustainability, While City Keeps Cutting Down Trees

CH Cars Trees 1 EDITED

LA’s sidewalks are in really bad shape, and this poses safety risks for anyone who uses them.

LA’s urban forest is shrinking rapidly, and this poses health risks for anyone who relies on air and water to survive.

We need to address both of these problems, but it’s going to be a real challenge.

The City’s sidewalks have been in such bad shape for so long that in 2010 a class action lawsuit was filed, Willits vs. City of Los Angeles.  In 2016 the City finalized a settlement which will require it to spend about $1.37 billion over the next 30 years to remove barriers to access for pedestrians.  One of the items high on the list is repairing sidewalks that have been ruptured by tree roots.

At the same time, LA’s urban forest has been declining for years, and unless things change, it will continue to decline for years to come.  There are a number of reasons for this, including new residential development, a drier climate, and insect infestations. 

The City could also potentially remove thousands of trees in its efforts to repair sidewalks, and this will only hasten the decline of our urban forest.  This is a serious threat, because the tree canopy is crucial to the City’s ecosystems.  Trees clean our air, help capture stormwater, and keep neighborhoods cool.  If you think the heat is intense now, remember that climate scientists project that LA is only going to get hotter over the next few decades.  Our tree canopy will play a major role in keeping the city cool.

As part of the Sidewalk Repair Program (SRP), the City is preparing to cut down 18 mature trees on the 1200 block of North Cherokee.  It could happen any day.  And the problem with this is that the City hasn’t completed the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the SRP.  The EIR will outline alternatives to removal, impose standards for tree replacement if removal is necessary, and define the requirements for maintenance and watering to insure new trees survive.

The City acknowledges that they have to do an EIR, and they’ve already started to work on it.  But now, without even having released a draft version, they’re going ahead and cutting down trees.  In other words, they’re rushing forward with the removal of trees, even though they know full well the damage it will do to our environment.

Why is Eric Garcetti allowing this?  How many times has the Mayor claimed that he’s championing sustainability?  How many times has he talked about the importance of expanding our urban forest?  Now the City is ready to start cutting down trees under the SRP, without even completing the EIR, and the Mayor’s Office is dead silent on the issue.

We can repair our sidewalks and we can grow our urban forest, but we need to plan to make sure we do the job right.  We need to finish the EIR.  We need to protect our tree canopy.  The stakes are high.  We can’t afford to blow it.

Does the Mayor really care about creating a sustainable LA?  Or are his promises just more empty words?  Maybe we should ask his Chief Sustainability Officer, Lauren Faber O’ Connor?  Why not give Ms. Faber O’ Connor a call and ask why the City is cutting down trees for sidewalk repair without even completing the EIR.

Lauren Faber O’ Connor, Chief Sustainability Officer

213 473-7078

And you can show your support for LA’s urban forest by attending a vigil/protest on Wednesday night.  Here are the details….

1200 Block of North Cherokee, Hollywood

Three blocks east of Highland, between Fountain and Lexington

Wednesday, August 1 at 8:00 pm

CH Cars Trees 3