Who’s Really Standing Up for Artists?

Tensions running high at the Villa Carlotta on Sunday night.

Tensions running high at the Villa Carlotta on Sunday night.

In case you haven’t been following recent events at the Villa Carlotta, I’ll give it to you real quick. It’s a piece of Hollywood history, built in the 20s, and home for many years to musicians, artists, writers and other creative folk. But it was rent-controlled, and not too long ago the owner decided he wasn’t making enough money off it, so he sold the property to a developer who planned to turn it into an extended-stay hotel. As part of the process, it was deemed necessary to get rid of the existing tenants. Many of them were forced out using the Ellis Act.

Windows boarded up at the Villa Carlotta.

Windows boarded up at the Villa Carlotta.

Of the 50 apartments in the Carlotta, four are still occupied. Some of the tenants decided to fight the evictions, and not just because they wanted to hang on to their homes. There are a number of reasons to object to what the developer is doing here. First, the Carlotta is a historic building, and as such it’s protected by state law. In order to turn it into a hotel, the current owner planned extensive alterations to the structure. The remaining tenants, worried that the modifications would do irreparable damage, took their case to the Cultural Heritage Commission, which sided with them. Second, Ellis Act evictions have caused the loss of thousands of rent-controlled units in LA. A recent study by UCLA found that this city is the least affordable major city in the nation, and mass evictions are only making things worse.

And third, up until this whole mess started, the Carlotta was home to a community of creative people. According to many of the former tenants, it was a place where budding screenwriters and struggling artists could meet friends and make connections, where they could share their work and shape their ideas.

The lobby where tenants used to gather, now deserted.

The lobby where tenants used to gather, now deserted.

This aspect of the story took on new importance when it was announced that the Hollywood Arts Council had decided to hold a fundraiser at the Carlotta. The HAC apparently thought it would be the ideal place for the event, which was held to raise money for arts education at nearby Cheremoya Elementary School. The remaining tenants at the Carlotta were surprised by the announcement. It seemed odd that an organization which has the stated goal of supporting the arts in Hollywood had decided to hold their event at a venue that was nearly vacant because dozens of artists had been forced to leave.

They contacted the HAC and explained the situation, asking if the organization would consider moving the event. The answer was polite, but firm, no. Bothered by the apparent hypocrisy of the HAC’s actions, the tenants decided to protest.

Sylvie Shain, one of the few remaining inhabitants, had imagined the protest as an elaborate performance piece. Former tenants were asked to come to the event wearing white, and they would stand for the ghosts of the Villa Carlotta. Alternately, attendees could show up dressed in red to symbolize of the affordable housing massacre that’s taking place. The idea was to dramatize the plight of renters throughout the City.

Protesters holding a banner to protest evictions.

Protesters holding a banner to protest evictions.

The same message in English.

The same message in English.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned. The first part of the protest, with people congregating on the sidewalk outside, went smoothly. But when Sylvie led a group into the building things got kind of chaotic. There were moments when I couldn’t figure out what was going on. But one thing is clear. At one point Sylvie was forcibly ejected from the building and temporarily denied re-entry.

On the positive side, the event got a fair amount of media coverage. Two local stations showed footage on the evening news, and Curbed did a piece as well. The Los Angeles Tenants Union joined the residents of the Carlotta, and LATU members spoke eloquently about the affordable housing crisis in LA, emphatically pointing out the damage that the Ellis Act is doing.

It’s important to say that artists aren’t just having a hard time finding housing in Hollywood. In recent years Silverlake and Echo Park have both seen an exodus of musicians, writers and others who can’t afford to pay what landlords are asking these days. And then there’s the sick joke of the Arts District in Downtown. In the late 70s, creative people started moving to the industrial districts in the City’s center. The community came together because people who were struggling to make music or art or whatever could find cheap rents in areas that nobody else wanted to live in. But then the developers discovered it, started marketing it as the Arts District, and housing prices soared. Many of the artists who had created the community were forced to leave because it got too damn expensive.

So let’s get back to the question I asked in the heading for this post. This past Sunday night, who was really standing up for artists? Was it the Hollywood Arts Council, knowingly holding their fundraiser at a site where dozens of creative people had been forced to leave? Or was it the scrappy band of tenants who staged an action to call attention to the fact that artists and others are being thrown out of their homes all over LA?

You can probably guess what my answer would be.

Sylvie put together a beautiful brochure for the event, which you can view by clicking on the link below.

Ghosts of the Carlotta

And if you’d like more info about the situation at this historic building, here’s a link to the Save Villa Carlotta Facebook page.

Save Villa Carlotta

VC 6 Fac Clouds

Talking About Displacement

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

Speaking at a recent Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, MTA CEO Phil Washington talked about how the growth of LA’s transit network has been accompanied in some areas by gentrification and displacement. Washington is concerned about the fact that low-income residents are being pushed out of the communities they call home, and he wants the MTA to do more to address the problem.

It’s good to hear somebody at the MTA talking about this. The question is what can actually be done. Earlier this year the MTA Board agreed that when new residential units were built on the agency’s land their goal would be to set aside 35% for low-income renters or owners. That’s fine, but it’s not nearly enough. What we really need is to have the City and the County commit to changing their planning practices. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas serve on the MTA Board. They should both support Washington and take a public stand against displacement. Then they should push for the City and the County to create policies to address the problem.

While gentrification is happening all over the city, the growth of LA’s transit system definitely seems to be a catalyst. Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, and Highland Park have already seen thousands of low-income residents displaced. Leimert Park and Boyle Heights seem to be next on the list as the MTA continues its rapid push to expand, bringing an influx of developer dollars to neighborhoods near rail stops. As property values skyrocket, rents go up, too, and low-income tenants who can’t afford to pay must find somewhere else to live. Tenants in rent-controlled apartments can be forced out by landlords who use the Ellis Act to convert their units to condos.

I’m really glad to hear Washington talking about displacement, and I hope others back him up on this issue. This is a conversation we need to have, and it should have started long ago.

MTA construction in North Hollywood

MTA construction in North Hollywood

Homeless Emergency? Stop Evictions!


The Mayor and the City Council recently declared that LA is in the throes of a homeless emergency. While I’m glad that our elected officials have finally decided to acknowledge how serious the problem is, they still haven’t offered any concrete plan of action. The promise of a hundred million dollars in funding is worthless until we know where that money’s coming from and how it’s going to be spent.

But I’d like to offer a suggestion on how to combat homelessness, and the people at City Hall should be glad to hear that they won’t have to spend a penny to implement it. My proposal is simple. I can give it to you in two sentences.

Stop Ellis Act evictions.

Stop the destruction of affordable housing.

Now, you may be saying, that’s ridiculous. The City doesn’t have the authority to do either one of those things. The Ellis Act, a state law, gives landlords the right to evict tenants if they decide they don’t want to be landlords any more. And the City can’t prevent a property owner from demolishing rental units if the owner does so within the boundaries of the law.

But the City can stop giving landlords incentives to do these things.

As the housing market heats up again, the potential to reap huge profits has drawn a slew of developers to LA. Speculators swoop into neighborhoods offering wads of cash to landlords, but they don’t just want to buy existing buildings. They’re interested in maximizing their profits, which often means kicking tenants out of rent-controlled apartments and either converting the units to condos or knocking the building down and putting up something larger.

And here’s where the City comes in. For developers to accomplish their goals, they often need to get the City to grant variances. They might ask the Department of City Planning to reduce the required setbacks from the sidewalk or neighboring buildings. Or maybe to relax the height limit. In some cases they ask the DCP to change the way an area is zoned, which could allow them to turn an apartment building into a boutique hotel.

All of these entitlements granted by the City increase the value of the property because they increase the potential for profit. The more money there is to made, the greater the attraction for investors. The more money investors offer, the greater the temptation for landlords to evict their tenants and sell the building. During the last housing bubble, this trend peaked in 2005 when over 5,000 rental units were taken off the market. When the recession hit, property values plunged and evictions dropped. But as the market heats up again, we’re seeing this practice becoming popular once more. In 2013, landlords took 308 units off the market. That figure more than doubled in 2014, rising to 725. And as long as housing prices continue to rise, you can bet that evictions will rise as well. For more details, take a look at this article from the KPCC web site.

Ellis Act Evictions in LA on the Rise

While there’s usually some negotiation involved when developers seek variances from the Department of City Planning, they usually get most of what they want. And as long as the DCP continues to hand out entitlements like candy, developers will feel confident that they can make tons of money by converting existing buildings to condos, small-lot subdivisions or boutique hotels. This means more people will be evicted, and more affordable housing will be taken off the market.


I’m not claiming that everybody who gets evicted ends up living on the street, but a significant number do. While I couldn’t fine any data on evictions leading to homelessness in Los Angeles, in New York the data shows that it’s a leading cause. Check out this article from CityLimits.

Evictions Are Top Driver of Homelessness

So if the City of LA is really serious aout tackling homelessness, our elected officials need to stop making it so attractive for landlords to evict their tenants. The Department of City Planning needs to start asking if the needs of wealthy developers outweigh the needs of renters on a limited income. Yes, we are dealing with a homeless emergency. The people at City Hall must start looking at the policies that have contributed to this situation, and think about the changes that need to be made.

Building shelters for people living on the streets is fine. But an even better approach would be to prevent people from losing their homes to begin with. As long as City Hall continues to put the needs of developers over the needs of its citizens, the homeless situation will only get worse.


Showdown on Sunset

Tgt Curve

If you haven’t already heard, the Department of City Planning is holding a hearing this coming Friday on a proposal to restart the half-completed Target on Sunset. The project was stopped by a judge because it violated the Station Neighborhood Area Plan (SNAP). The City wants to create a sub-area within the SNAP which would allow Target to finish the building as is.

For those of you who haven’t been following this long, nasty struggle, the project that Target originally proposed for the corner of Sunset and Western was in compliance with the SNAP, and it seemed like pretty much everybody was on board with the idea. Then, at the behest of city officials, Target significantly increased the height of the project, making it more than double what the plan allowed. The revised design would have also required a number of other variances. At that point, community members who had supported the original project came out against the new, larger version. They filed a law suit, and Target, inexplicably, forged ahead with construction. When the judge sided with the plaintiffs, construction screeched to a halt. And this hulking, half-finished curiosity has been sitting at the corner of Sunset and Western ever since.

Tgt Crnr Side

Why is this happening? Local residents worked with the City for years to formulate the Station Neighborhood Area Plan. The whole idea was to create a framework for development that would stimulate growth without trashing the community. Why did members of the community invest years of time and effort into writing the SNAP if a city official can sweep it aside with a wave of their hand? (Many point the finger at then-Councilmember Eric Garcetti, who’s been pushing for taller buildings all over LA.)

Target gambled when they started construction on a project that was facing a legal challenge. They lost. Why should we bail them out? They should go back to the drawing board and create a project that complies with the law. And if they don’t want to do that, they should forget the whole thing and just sell the site.

But instead of making Target deal with the consequences of their actions, the City of LA is running to the rescue by creating a new sub-area within the SNAP. This is so depressing. But certainly not surprising. When you look at the amount of money that developers have given to the Mayor and City Council, it’s easy to see who’s really running things.

My feeling is that this is probably a done deal. The Department of City Planning is putting on a show this Friday to make it look like the public has had a chance to be heard. After the hearing is over, my bet is that they’ll approve the sub-area, and Target will go ahead and finish their building.

But don’t let my pessimistic, defeatist attitude infect you. In spite of my misgivings, I still sent an e-mail to the hearing officer to let the DCP know I was completely opposed to this stunt. I urge you to write as well, or better yet, show up at the meeting and let them know how you feel. We may not win, but we can go down fighting.

Here’s the info for the meeting.

Friday, October 2, 2015, 10:00 am
City Hall, 10th Floor, Room 1020
200 N. Spring St.

You can send an e-mail to the hearing officer at the address below. Be sure to include the case number in your subject line.

Blake Lamb
Case No. CPC-2015-74-GPA-SP-CUB-SPP-SPR

And here’s the link to the meeting notice.

Target Sunset Hearing Notice

Tgt Sunset