With the State continuing to enjoy a strong surge in revenue, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget includes substantial funds to address housing needs. Newsom wants to spend $2 billion on homelessness, and another $2 billion to address housing in general. Of course, there are those who say this still isn’t enough, and others who say Newsom’s priorities are wrong, but there are a lot of good things in his proposed budget. I’m not a Newsom fan, but I think that in some ways he’s on the right track. As usual, the devil is in the details.
One of the things Newsom wants to promote is urban infill development, in other words building dense residential housing where infrastructure already exits, as opposed to more suburban sprawl. This is nothing new. State and local politicians have been pushing this for years, and in theory it makes perfect sense. One of the main goals of this policy is to make people less reliant on cars, encouraging them to take transit instead, or to ride a bike or maybe even just walk. The overriding goal is to fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
So what do we do? Well, there is evidence suggesting that high-priced new development in urban centers is causing gentrification, which displaces low-income transit riders. I can tell you I’ve seen numerous instances in Hollywood where low-income tenants have been thrown out of their apartments to make way for new projects. We need to preserve existing housing that’s accessible to low-income households, and to build a lot more affordable housing. That’s why I’m glad that Newsom is setting aside $500 million for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, and another $500 million to preserve and increase affordable housing stock. Of course, much more money is needed, since the federal government has slashed funding for affordable housing over the last several years. But the money Newsom is providing is a step in the right direction. In LA, the vast majority of transit riders live in low-income households. We need to help them remain near the transit hubs they rely on.
Another smart move Newsom has made is to earmark $100 million to support the conversion of office buildings to apartments. This makes a lot of sense, not just because more people are working from home these days, but because it helps minimize the significant environmental impacts caused both by the demolition of old buildings and the construction of new ones. As many people have said, the greenest building is the one that’s already standing.
The funding Newsom has proposed will not solve our housing problems, but it will help. That is, assuming the legislature supports his budget. This article from CalMatters offers a more detailed breakdown.
These days it’s difficult for seniors in LA to find affordable housing. And it’s even more difficult to find affordable housing that’s properly maintained. The seniors at Chinatown’s Cathy Apartments have been struggling to deal with elevators that don’t work, doors that won’t close, broken electrical outlets, leaky faucets and other significant habitability issues, without getting much help from the City of LA.
But last year the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), an activist organization based in Chinatown, stepped up and started demanding that local officials pay attention. They began a social media campaign to put pressure on Councilmember Gil Cedillo and Congressional Rep Jimmy Gomez to take action.
It worked. Community pressure has forced Cedillo and Gomez to get involved. And the LA Times reports that local, state and federal agencies have launched investigations into the causes of the problems at Cathay Manor. The LA City Attorney’s office has also filed a complaint. The landlord and the organization that operates the building have plenty of excuses, but according to the Times they’re getting around $3.5 million annually from the federal government.
So why can’t they take care of basic habitability and safety issues? According to the complaint filed by the City Attorney’s Office, elevators are not operational, fire protection systems are defective, fire extinguishers are inoperable and inaccessible, and the owners can’t even keep the building free of graffiti and trash.
The tenants at Cathay Manor shouldn’t have to deal with these problems. Senior citizens on fixed incomes need access to safe, clean, affordable housing. But not only has the City of LA failed by a long shot to provide the housing that citizens need, the City Council is doubling down on policies that promote huge density bonusses to developers in exchange for a small number of affordable units. According to the LA Department of City Planning’s Housing Progress Reports web page, the City has approved 172,613 new units since July 2013. Of that total, 87% have been for Above Moderate Income households. (Above Moderate Income households are defined as households that earn 120% or more of the Area Median Income.) The remaining 13% are for Moderate Income, Low Income and Very Low Income households. The recently adopted Housing Element and the proposed New Zoning Code will only exacerbate this intolerable imbalance.
If you want to read more about the situation at Cathay Manor, the Times story is below, along with the press release from the City Attorney’s Office and the complaint they filed.
The conflict over the homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake seems to be over. For now. After months of growing tension, things came to a head this week when the City of LA announced that it planned to close the park and that all persons living on the premises had to leave. Protests began on Wednesday morning. Later that day city workers showed up and began erecting a fence, while the LAPD announced that those remaining inside the park would be cited. Representatives of the LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) offered temporary housing for those who wanted it, and while there were many takers, some declined.
After a couple of chaotic days, the LAPD announced on Thursday night that anyone remaining in the park would be subject to arrest. Apparently by Friday the park was closed and all those who had been living there were gone.
Of course, this is just the latest episode in the ongoing story of housing and homelessness in LA. Nothing has been resolved, and really there’s no reason to think anything will be resolved any time in the near future. The forces that are driving LA’s homeless epidemic are still at work, and the LA City Council is doing nothing meaningful to change the situation. A renter relief program and a temporary eviction moratorium are just band aids on a gaping wound. As long as the City Council continues to prioritize the wishes of real estate investors over the needs of LA’s renters, things will just keep getting worse.
As an LA Times editorial pointed out earlier this week, while LAHSA’s stats show that in 2019 an average of 207 homeless people were housed each day, the daily average of people who become newly homeless was 227. There are a lot of different factors that lead to people living on the street, but the biggest factor is that they can’t afford housing.
While Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council constantly tell us that their number one priority is providing housing for the people of LA, the facts tell us something completely different. According to the LA Department of City Planning’s Housing Dashboard, from July 2013 through December 2020 the City approved 162,706 new units. Of those units, 87% were for Above Moderate Income households. The remaining 13% is the total for Moderate Income, Low Income and Very Low Income households COMBINED. During this period, the City of LA has produced more than double the number of Above Moderate Income units required by the State’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). It has not come anywhere near meeting the goals for the other three RHNA categories.
And let’s take this further. The Housing Dashboard says that the total number of affordable units approved during this period was 20,591. But according to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (which gets its data from the City of LA), during roughly this same period, January 2014 through December 2020, 9,444 rent-stabilized (RSO) units were removed from the market under the Ellis Act. This leaves us with a net gain of 11,147 units accessible to Moderate and Low Income households.
Right about now some of you may be saying, “Well, if we just ramp up allowable density the free market will solve our housing problem for us. We need to upzone LA.” My response is, take a look at New York City. New York City has been on an upzoning binge for the past decade. What have they got to show for it? A bunch of super-tall skyscrapers that have created a massive glut on the luxury housing market, while the Coalition for the Homeless reports that in 2020 there were 122,926 different homeless men, women, and children who slept in New York City’s shelters.
Getting back to Echo Park Lake, about the only positive thing I can say is that there was some really good reporting by the local press. I was impressed by Elizabeth Chou’s work for the Daily News, and I’d like to link to the story, but it’s restricted by a paywall. LAist also did a solid job. Actually, one of the best commentaries on this mess was in an e-mail I got from LAist, their Morning Brief written by Jessica P. Ogilvie. I couldn’t find it on their web site, so I’ll quote an excerpt….
The Echo Park tent community has found itself at the center of several heated debates over how to handle the city’s dire housing crisis. In January of 2020, a planned sweep of the encampment, which can lead to residents losing their belongings and being left with no place to go, was met by protesters who blocked city vehicles and stood near tents.
The following month, protesters once again joined residents to defend their right to be there.
Many who oppose officials’ plan to clear the area say that it’s a public relations maneuver, and blame the area’s city council representative, Mitch O’Farrell, for not doing more to ensure the safety of those living in the encampment.
Recently, officials and advocates have announced plans to ease the plight of L.A.’s unhoused residents by building community land trusts, making it easier to construct granny flats, and establishing communities of tiny homes.
But these efforts, while no doubt well-intentioned, are only the latest in an exhausting series of projects to get the problem under control. Some ideas have also included government-funded campsites, vacant hotel rooms, empty parking lots, neighborhood shelters, new legislation, emergency shelters, RV parks, prevention efforts, and more.
Mitch O’Farrell claims he cares about the homeless and wants everybody to have secure housing. But this is the same man who recently voted to approve the hotel project at 1719 Whitley which involves the demolition of 40 rent-stabilized units. And all the rest of his fellow Councilmembers, with the exception of David Ryu, joined him in voting to greenlight the project.
That should give you an idea of how much the LA City Council really cares about solving our housing problems.
Anybody who pays attention to the news knows that there’s a heated, ongoing debate in LA, and across California, about how to solve our housing problems. There are lots of different proposals floating around, but the message we hear most often from elected officials and the development community is that we have to upzone to allow a whole lot more density. The argument goes that it’s just a matter of supply and demand. If we upzone our cities and upzone our suburbs, that will unleash the power of the free market and we’ll have plenty of cheap housing for everybody
One idea that’s especially hot right now is the proposal to upzone areas dominated by single-family homes (SFH). Some State legislators have embraced this approach, resulting in bills like SB 1120. The City of LA hasn’t yet made a move to upzone SFH areas, but the concept is popular among local progressives who believe we just need to build more housing. Heated debates have erupted over the topic on social media. At a recent hearing on the Hollywood Community Plan Update (HCPU) some members of the public expressed enthusiastic support for ending SFH zoning.
It’s easy to see why the idea is popular. Young people, especially young people of color, are finding it difficult or impossible to afford housing these days. Whether you’re renting or buying, prices are sky-high. If you accept the argument that just creating more supply will drive prices down, it must seem insane to maintain zoning that only allows single-family homes. The argument is that older, affluent homeowners are selfishly defending their own turf, shutting out young people who struggle to make ends meet. Proponents of upzoning SFH areas also point to the history of racism that used tools like zoning to promote segregation.
Taking the last point first, there’s no question that racism has been a huge factor in housing policy in LA (and across the nation). There’s a well-documented history of real estate interests working with city officials to favor whites over people of color. It’s naive to think that racism doesn’t still play a part in the housing market today. Beyond that, it’s completely understandable that young people who can barely afford to pay the rent would look at the suburbs and ask why some people own single-family homes when they’re just a step or two away from homelessness. And there’s another reason the idea of upzoning SFH areas is attractive: It’s simple. If just building more homes will allow everyone to have housing, how could anyone argue against it?
And that’s the problem. The way case is being stated is too simplistic. It assumes that all we have is a problem of supply and demand. But the 21st century housing market is far from simple. There are many reasons why housing is so inaccessible for so many people. Zoning is a factor, but it’s just one aspect of the problem. The biggest factor, one that’s often ignored in heated housing debates, is that real estate has become a global industry powered by trillions of dollars in investor cash. In The Vacancy Report (SAJE/ACCE/UCLA Law, 2020) researchers point out that in recent decades housing has rapidly become financialized. Private equity and corporate entities have come to dominate the housing market, and they’re only interested in getting the highest rate of return as quickly as possible.
So if we’re talking about upzoning, it’s important to say up front that the value of urban and suburban land is determined by how much you can build on it. As soon as you upzone a parcel, its value increases. The more you can build, the more it’s worth. If you take a parcel that’s zoned for one single-family home and upzone it to allow four, eight or more units, you’re actually making the land much more valuable and therefore much more costly. The cost of land in LA is already extremely high, and increasing allowed density will drive the cost even higher.
If the key issue is the lack of affordable housing, upzoning by itself does nothing to solve the problem. As Patrick Condon points out in his book Sick City, when a city just increases allowable density, it’s really increasing the cost of the land, and that additional cost is ultimately paid by the household that’s renting or buying. The benefit goes to the landowner, not the renter or buyer. For a solution, Condon holds up Cambridge, Massachusetts, where city officials adopted an ordinance that allows increased density but only for the construction of permanently affordable units.
This is a radical solution, and one that probably has no chance of being adopted in a city like LA. The first people to object would be real estate investors, who would argue that they can’t possibly make a profit by building affordable units. Exactly. Because the Cambridge ordinance includes strict affordability requirements, it increases allowable density without jacking up the value of the land. This opens the door to not-for-profit affordable housing developers who can build what we most need: housing accessible to middle-income and low-income people. California legislators claim that bills like SB 1120 will help solve our housing problem just because they increase density, but without an affordability requirement, we might as well just be stuffing cash in the pockets of real estate investors.
And now back to the Hollywood Community Plan Update. The HCPU Community Plan Implementation Overlay (CPIO) is also based on the idea that increasing density will solve all our housing problems. It offers generous incentives for residential projects in Central Hollywood that include some affordable housing. Projects that offer between 10% and 23% affordable can receive a 100% density bonus, along with other incentives like increased floor area ratio (FAR) and reduced setbacks.
This is actually a rehash of the Transit Oriented Community (TOC) Incentives, a program that’s already in place. The City boasts about the affordable housing created by the TOC program, but what they don’t mention is that many TOC projects involve the demolition of existing rent-stabilized (RSO) units. The City does require replacement units to be built, but it allows the developer to count replacement units toward the affordable total. So a project recently approved at 4629 W. Maubert includes 17 new affordable units, but it also involves the demolition of 14 RSO units, meaning we have a net gain of 3 units accessible to low-income households. The TOC approved for 1920 N. Whitley includes 3 affordable units, but replaces 3 RSO units. No gain there. At 1341 N. Hobart the approved project offers 7 affordable units, but will erase 9 RSO units, meaning a net loss of 2. These projects will produce dozens of new high-end units, but there’s no shortage of those. What we really need is housing accessible to low-income tenants.
Since the vast majority of housing in Central Hollywood consists of RSO apartments, the hefty incentives offered by the HCPU are basically putting a target on the backs of renters who live in the area. For instance, a developer buys a property containing a rent-stabilized four-plex where existing zoning would allow 20 units. Taking advantage of the HCPU density bonus, they propose a new building with 40 units, including four extremely low income units to satisfy the affordable requirement. The developer gets a huge profit as a result of doubling the allowed density. The RSO tenants get an eviction notice. And there’s no net gain in low-cost housing. In other words, by jacking up density in Central Hollywood the HCPU incentivizes displacement. And it gets even better for developers. Under the Plan’s CPIO, City Planning can approve the project without holding a single hearing. There’s no requirement for community engagement, and no possibility of appeal. If the project meets the CPIO’s requirements, it’s a done deal.
If just increasing density made housing more affordable, Manhattan would be one of the cheapest places on earth to live. It’s not. It’s one of the most expensive. New York City has been on a building binge over the past decade, with massive upzoning leading to a swarm of super-tall skyscrapers. What’s the result? A glut of units at the high-end of the market, while middle-income and low-income households are still struggling to keep a roof over their heads, in spite of inclusionary zoning requirements that were supposed to deliver affordable housing.
Increasing density can bring benefits, but only when coupled with careful planning. Sweeping proposals to upzone large swaths of urban or suburban land will do nothing to increase affordability. They’ll just funnel more money into the bank accounts of real estate investors. And upzoning urban land can be especially dangerous. Without strong protections for tenants (which the HCPU does not have) density bonus measures will likely lead to even more displacement.
There are no simple answers. Upzoning by itself will not solve anything.
Housing is the hottest issue in California right now. Here in LA housing costs continue to climb, the pace of evictions is quickening, and the number of homeless is increasing by leaps and bounds. The folks at City Hall talk a lot about taking action, but nothing they’ve done so far has had any significant impact. The situation just keeps getting worse.
So a group of housing advocates, homeless advocates, and renters’ rights advocates decided to stage a protest on Fairfax last Friday. They put up a line of tents along the curb to dramatize the plight of those who are currently homeless, and also the thousands more who will likely become homeless in the next few years.
Protesters lined up on Fairfax.
The media showed up with their cameras to cover this tent city press conference. The organizers called on Mayor Garcetti and the City Council to develop a plan to create affordable housing, ensure responsible development, and expand rent control.
A number of people spoke about different aspects of the crisis. Victor García, a recent graduate of UCSB, talked about the invisible problem of student homelessness. He told the crowd about UCLA students living in their cars because they couldn’t afford student housing and apartments in Westwood were way beyond their reach. García would like to see an end to California’s Costa-Hawkins act, which the limits the expansion of rent control.
Victor Garcia speaks about student homelessness.
Emily Martiniuk told her own story, a harrowing account of being evicted at age 59 and having nowhere to go. Contemplating suicide, she had the presence of mind to check herself into Olive View Medical Center, and eventually was able to move into a permanent supportive housing facility. She escaped long-term homelessness, but there are tens of thousands of people on the streets of LA right now who weren’t so lucky. Martiniuk has travelled the US in recent years, speaking about the importance of creating more permanent supportive housing.
Emily Martiniuk is a vocal advocate for permanent supportive housing.
As cars drove by on Fairfax, protesters stood at the curb holding signs and chanting slogans. Just before I left I heard them shouting, “Tent city! Do something, Garcetti!” Hopefully somebody at City Hall is listening. It would be great if the Mayor and the City Council finally did decide to do something about this crisis.
There are a number of different Hollywoods. It can be a noun or an adjective, a brand or a concept, a nostalgic fantasy or a nasty slur. But there’s also a physical place called Hollywood, and it’s been through a lot of changes over the years. About a century ago it became the center of the film industry, and what started out as a sleepy suburb grew rapidly. Its fortunes rose and fell as the studios left, radio and TV moved in, radio and TV moved on, and the internet conquered the world. For decades people have been asking how to bring media back to the Hollywood area to revitalize the local economy.
Columbia Square has played a key role in putting Hollywood, the place, back on the media map. Opening to great fanfare last year, the project brings together residential, office and commercial space to create a media campus. The owners were spectacularly successful in landing major industry tenants long before the project was completed. Columbia Square was widely hailed as a major step forward in Hollywood’s revitalization.
The El Centro side of Columbia Square
The front of the campus along Sunset
I have to say I’m pretty impressed myself. I was skeptical about how this modern media campus would come out, and I was pleasantly surprised. This was a complex project, and roused a certain amount of controversy when it was first proposed. But the developer did an admirable job, not just engaging the community, but actually responding to residents’ concerns. And here’s it’s probably a good idea to give some background….
Columbia Square, located on Sunset between El Centro and Gower, was first built in the late 30s by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Creating a major, state-of-the-art radio/recording studio in the area was seen as a boost, not just for Hollywood the place, but also Hollywood the brand. New York had dominated the national radio market since the beginning, but this was a sign that LA was trying to change that. The look of the building was an integral part of getting that message across. CBS chose modernist William Lescaze to design the project, and the building was one more landmark in LA’s long engagement with progressive architecture.
The courtyard at the front of the complex
Another shot of the courtyard
One of the restored structures, now occupied by Neue House
A view of the courtyard looking toward Sunset
As TV took over in the 40s and 50s, a number of popular shows originated from Columbia Square, but it was radio that kept hanging on through the years. Broadcasts continued to emanate from the studios until 2007, when the last tenant left. Then the building went dark, and for a while no one was sure what would happen to it. The property changed hands a few times, and different ideas were thrown around. In 2009 the City released an EIR for a project that included a 40-story tower. If you’ve been following development in Hollywood for any length of time, you can probably imagine how that went over.
But then a new developer took charge, and things changed dramatically. When Kilroy Realty Group acquired the property in 2012, they took the time to listen to the community and made some changes, crucially lowering the height of the tower to 22 stories. This is pretty amazing when you consider that the City had actually approved 28. They also decided to rethink the layout of the campus, allowing for more open space to engage the public. And they agreed to work with local preservationists to restore the historic Lescaze structures.
Stairway leading to the rear of the campus
A space to hang out in
The end result is a jewel. I’ve actually gone to Columbia Square a few times since it opened, just to walk around and take pictures. (And because the weather was different each time, the light in the photos keeps changing. Sorry if it’s a little jarring.) I think it’s important to mention the people involved in making this happen. The firm of House & Robertson designed the campus and the new buildings. In restoring the original structures they worked with Historic Resources Group. And the landscapes were created by Rios Clementi Hale Studios. The Los Angeles Conservancy was so impressed with the finished product that they gave the developer their 2017 Preservation Award. It’s worth reading the Conservancy’s description of the project to get an idea of how much time, money, and work went into the restoration process.
I’m so knocked out by the new complex, and by the way Kilroy approached the project, that I hate to voice any reservations. While I was writing this post I kept asking myself whether I wanted to make any critical comments, because in some respects the revitalized ColumbiaSquare is a model of what redevelopment should be. But there are a couple of things I think it’s important to note….
First, while the residential tower is beautiful, the prices are way beyond what the average person living in Hollywood could afford. And the addition of a couple hundred high-end apartments is just another step in the ongoing gentrification of the area. Even as I write this, more low-income tenants are being pushed out of their homes.
Second, while the City has tried to portray this, and other projects like it, as transit-oriented development, it’s highly unlikely that the people who live at Columbia Square will be taking transit on a regular basis. The City has been pushing this line for years, and the results have been disastrous. Transit ridership in LA is lower now than it was back in the 80s, and continues to decline. City Hall’s continued insistence that building high-profile, high-end megaprojects is going to get people on busses and trains just shows how clueless our elected officials are.
The Gower side of the campus
Landscaping and benches along Gower
But let’s end on a positive note. I want to congratulate Kilroy, and all the others involved, in coming up with a project that has so much to recommend it. This is an unusual instance where a major developer respected the local context, and more important, the local community. The new Columbia Square is a beautiful piece of design, and it’s brought some major media players to the area, along with hundreds of jobs. Over all, it’s an important step forward for Hollywood the brand, the concept, the industry, and the place.
Ellis Act evictions are so common in LA these days that I’ve gotten used to hearing reports of landlords kicking their tenants out. It happens all the time. As speculative development continues to push property values higher, property owners are eager to cash in. Over 20,000 units have been removed from the rental market through the Ellis Act since 2000. And in addition to the thousands of tenants who’ve been kicked out under Ellis, it’s likely that thousands more have lost their apartments because they were bamboozled by unscrupulous landlords using cash-for-keys scams.
In the course of writing this blog I’ve met a number of people who’ve either already been evicted or are facing eviction. So when I went to meet a group of tenants who live in a small building on Las Palmas it seemed like a familiar scenario. The owner plans to demolish the existing structure in order to build a 7-story mixed-use project, and so the people currently living there have got to go. The breadwinners in these families are working hard to make ends meet, and odds are they’re getting by on paychecks that add up to well below LA’s median income. While I’m sure they’re worried about getting evicted, one thing that encouraged me is that they seemed much more angry than scared. They’re not going to take this lying down.
Some of the tenants facing eviction.
The tenants are paying much less than the area’s median rent, but they’re also getting next to nothing in terms of repairs and maintenance. I could see walking into the building that the owner wasn’t taking care of it properly. The tenants told me a number of stories about problems with their units that the landlord was either slow to fix or didn’t fix at all. My guess is that he’s been sitting on the property, waiting for the right deal to come along, and didn’t see any point in spending money on upkeep. I should mention that he has laid out some cash to fix up a few of the units, just not the ones that are occupied by the current tenants. You may be asking, why would he do that? The answer is simple. He’s posting the refurbished units on the net as short-term rentals. This is a pretty common practice. Landlords are doing it all over the city, and it’s more or less legal unless the tenants were evicted under the Ellis Act. So when we talk about a shortage of apartments in LA, we have to remember that there are probably thousands of units that are actually being used as unofficial hotel rooms.
Council District 13 Candidate Sylvie Shain.
My friend Sylvie Shain came by to talk with the tenants. Sylvie is running for the CD 13 council seat, in large part because of her concern over LA’s affordable housing crisis. She knows first-hand what it’s like to be evicted, having been forced out of her apartment by owners who planned to turn the building into a boutique hotel. Sylvie spent over an hour with the tenants, giving them info on what protections they had under the law and helping them figure out their next steps.
Several days later I went to a neighborhood council meeting on the proposed project. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about the impacts of the new structure, not the eviction of the current tenants, but it’s hard to separate the two. The owner has said that he will reserve seven units in the new building to replace the seven units that are currently occupied in the old building, and that he will offer them to the current tenants at the price they’re now paying. This may sound like a good deal, but there are a few problems with it. First, the owner hasn’t actually signed an agreement, which means he’s under no obligation to honor these terms. Second, while the owner is offering to replace seven units, there are actually fifteen units in the existing building that are covered by the rent stabilization ordinance (RSO). His deal would mean the loss of eight more RSO units. This may not sound like a lot by itself, but thousands of RSO units have been taken off the market in recent years, which is one of the reasons affordable housing is so scarce these days. Third, the owner knows that the new structure will probably take a couple of years to complete. If the current tenants get forced out, there’s a good chance they won’t find anything they can afford in LA. It’s entirely possible that by the time the proposed project is completed, none of them will still be living in the area, and he won’t have to offer them anything.
Neighborhood Council meeting on the proposed project.
Then there’s the way the Department of City Planning (DCP) is trying to push this project through. They’re trying to approve it with a categorical exemption, which means they’re arguing that because it’s in-fill development and conforms to the current zoning, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) doesn’t require an environmental assessment. And to make that argument, they cite CEQA Guidelines, Section 15332. But CEQA requires that the project meet a number of conditions in order to grant the exemption, including the following….
Approval of the project would not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality.
Traffic is already getting to be a problem on Las Palmas. Formerly a quiet residential street with one lane going each direction, in recent years it’s become a short cut for drivers looking to avoid congestion on Highland during rush hour. And traffic on Las Palmas is going to get a lot worse, because in addition to this project there are two others about the same size that are currently under construction, one just to the north and one just to the south of the existing building. But wait, there’s more. At the corner of Las Palmas and Franklin work recently began on a complex that wil contain over 100 units. In other words, if this project is approved, the neighborhood will gain about 300 units, which will definitely have a significant impact on traffic.*
Traffic northbound on Las Palmas at rush hour.
What’s more, the proposed project is about 500 feet away from the facility that houses both the Canyon Pre-School and the Las Palmas Sr. Center. Children and seniors are known to be sensitive receptors, and to say that there will be no significant impacts to air quality or noise levels during construction is ridiculous. The kids and seniors at this small facility already suffered an onslaught of construction dust and noise when work on the project at Las Palmas and Franklin began last year. But the DCP apparently just doesn’t give a damn, and so they’re trying to rush this project through with no environmental review whatsoever.
After the neighborhood council meeting, I contacted the DCP hearing officer to find out what the timetable was for the project’s approval. It’s tentatively scheduled to go before the City Planning Commission on April 13, though it could get pushed back. Meanwhile, the tenants wait and wonder whether they’ll have to find a new place to live, in a city where rents are spiralling higher every year.
* Some housing advocates may be cheered by this news, but don’t get too excited. The vast majority of these units will be well beyond the reach of those making the area’s median income, $34,807 a year. [Source: LA Times, Measuring income along L.A.’s Metro stations by Kyle Kim and Sandra Poindexter, March 4, 2016]
For over a decade people at City Hall have been talking about transit-oriented development (TOD). In theory, if we create high-density residential and commercial developments near transit centers, people will be encouraged to take busses and trains instead of driving their cars. Makes sense, right? So for years the City has been telling us we have to build up instead of out, that we need to go vertical instead of horizontal. And they’ve approved a slew of high-rises, all the while insisting that this will get people out of cars and onto transit.
Before I go any further, I’d like you to watch a video. It lasts about twelve minutes, and it was shot during rush hour not too far from Hollywood and Vine.
I hope the video makes my point clear.* The City keeps approving high-rises, and when communities complain that congestion will get worse, planners and politicians invariably say that the people who live and/or work in these buildings will surely take transit. But they’ve been saying that for over a decade now, and it ain’t working. The MTA station at Hollywood and Vine is a hub for a number of bus lines, as well as the subway. But these people are all driving right past it.
I’m not against TOD, but to make it work, you’ve got to do some planning. Instead of creating a well thought out framework for all this development, the City keeps dumping project after project in the Hollywood area. Mayor Garcetti will tell you that the City did produce the Hollywood Community Plan Update (HCPU), and residents sued to overturn it. That’s true. Among the HCPU’s many shortcomings, the population figure it was based on was inflated by about 10%, in spite of the fact that US Census numbers were readily available. The judge who threw the plan out called it “fatally flawed”.
To give you an idea of how little City Hall cares about planning, let’s go back to those two buildings in the video. The residential high-rise on the southwest corner is just getting started, and the hotel on the northeast corner isn’t quite finished. But look at how bad traffic is already, long before these projects are completed. Unbelievably, the City is considering approval of a third high-rise at the very same intersection. How clueless can you get?!
As I said in the video, I don’t own a car and depend on transit to get around. I support planning to encourage transit use. But TOD isn’t working in LA. Why? I think primarily it’s because that’s not really what the City is building. If our elected officials were really interested in building TOD, they’d be pushing high-density housing made up mostly of affordable units. But instead, the City has been encouraging developers to build high-priced housing by offering them generous entitlements.
I got on the Department of City Planning web site and took a look at multi-family projects in Hollywood and North Hollywood that have been built near Red Line stations since the subway was completed. The Lofts and The Gallery at Noho Commons combined contain 724 units. Eastown, when the second phase is completed, will have over 1,000. The Jefferson has 270, and is the only one that offers any affordable housing, 27 units. So out of about 2,000 apartments, only 27 are accessible to people in lower income brackets. And if you’re not one of the lucky few to snag one of low cost units, you can expect to spend at least $2,000 a month for a one bedroom. Let’s not even talk about what it might cost to live at The Vermont, which sits just across from the Vermont/Wilshire station. And call it a hunch, but I don’t think the massive Wilshire Grand Tower, which is rising up next to the 7th/Figueroa station, will be offering any affordable units at all.
According to a story published by the LA Times earlier this year (Measuring Income along LA’s Metro Stations, March 4, 2016), the median income in almost all communities served by the Red Line is well below the County median of $55,870, ranging roughly from $22,000 to $46,000 a year. (Universal City is the lone exception, with residents there making well above the County median.) For the people in the lowest income bracket, renting an apartment at the newer “TOD” buildings would consume pretty much all their earnings, and even at the higher end of the scale it would mean spending over half what they make in a year. The City says these high-density projects encourage transit use, but most transit riders couldn’t afford to live in them.
Could this be one of the reasons that transit ridership is lower now than it was back in 1985? There may be many reasons for the decline, but you’ve got to wonder why the MTA is serving fewer people than it did three decades ago. The drop in ridership is even more disturbing when you realize that the population of LA County (the area served by the MTA) has grown by over a million since 1985. Does anyone see a problem here? City Hall has been telling us for years that their policies will get people off the road and onto transit. Instead, we’ve seen a net loss in transit ridership since the eighties, in spite of the fact that the population has continued to climb. And the traffic that used to just clog the main thoroughfares is now spilling over onto side streets.
The City’s claim that they’re promoting transit-oriented density is bogus. What they’re really doing is allowing developers who spend a fortune lobbying City Hall to cash in on projects that don’t serve the majority of Angelenos. They’re backing projects geared towards the affluent, which is what developers want because that’s where the highest profits are. Meanwhile lines of cars sit on our streets and freeways at rush hour, burning fossil fuels and spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
You call this transit-oriented development? I call it a disgusting sham.
Just in case you’re thinking traffic is bad because it’s a Hollywood Bowl night, it’s not. The video was shot on Tuesday, October 25. Nothing was on the schedule that evening. But I can tell you the back-up on these streets can get way worse when something is happening at the Bowl.
There’s been a noticeable shift in City Hall’s public stance on evictions recently. A couple years ago, the Mayor and the City Council weren’t saying much, and certainly weren’t doing much, about the wave of displacement that was sweeping across LA. Ellis Act evictions had been rising steadily, thousands of tenants had been forced out of rent-stabilized apartments, and City Hall’s reaction was pretty much, “Who cares?”
But now that the issue is getting media attention and our elected officials are taking some serious heat for their inaction, the change in attitude at City Hall is noticeable. Mayor Garcetti has unveiled the Home for Renters campaign, designed to inform tenants of their rights. The Housing & Community Investment Department (HCIDLA) web site is offering booklets renters can download in English and Spanish to learn about how the law protects them. There’s also been an accompanying media blitz to get the word out. I have to wonder if City Hall’s sudden concern for LA’s renters will last beyond next year’s election, but right now you can tell the politicians are nervous.
One of the most striking examples of this turnaround can be found in the story of a group of tenants living in the apartment building at the corner of Yucca and Argyle in Hollywood. The building is home to 44 households, including singles, couples, families with children, seniors and veterans. It’s subject to LA’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO), which means that rents can only go up about 3% every year. A while ago they got word that the building was going to be sold to Champion Real Estate, a developer that had plans to build a luxury high-rise on the site. It seemed like it would just be a matter of time before the new owner started handing out eviction notices.
But that hasn’t happened. Yet. And a large part of it has to do with the fact that the tenants decided they weren’t going to let themselves be pushed around. They connected with the LA Tenants Union (LATU), which helped them organize the Yucca Argyle Tenants Association (YATA). They spoke out. They took part in public actions. They got support from their neighborhood council. They let the world know they weren’t going without a fight.
In fact they made so much noise that the developer stepped forward with pretty unusual offer. I asked Sasha Ali, of YATA, for an update, and here’s her response.
The developer recently stated at the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council’s Planning and Land Use Management meeting that he is willing to offer affected tenants the right of return to the proposed development at their existing terms of rent. He also offered to relocate returning tenants in Hollywood during construction and subsidize their rent.
When you think about the fact that many tenants evicted under the Ellis Act have to fight to get the payments that the law requires, this is pretty impressive. It’s a sign that the media attention about displacement is having an impact. Remember, this is happening in Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s district, and O’Farrell has been getting a lot of heat about widespread evictions happening on his watch. Could he have asked Champion to make some concessions in order to cool things down? Well, O’Farrell is up for re-election next year.
There’s no way of saying for sure what will happen next. Sasha said that at this point, eviction notices have not been served, and in fact Champion hasn’t actually bought the building yet. The tenants have retained a lawyer to help them negotiate with the developer.
I’m glad that the tenants at Yucca and Argyle are demanding a fair deal, and I wish them the best. But the dynamics that have created this situation are still wreaking havoc across LA. The eviction juggernaut is being driven by the huge profits developers can reap by buying an existing building, knocking it down, and putting up something much larger. This usually works pretty smoothly, because the City Council is mostly willing to grant whatever entitlements the developer asks for. Want a zone change? Sure! Boost the floor area ratio? No problem! Reduce setbacks to zero? Hell, yeah! Developers feel pretty confident they can make a bundle on these projects because they know all they have to do is hand a wish list to someone like O’Farrell, and he’ll do everything he can to make their wishes come true.
The City Council has no legal authority to stop Ellis Act evictions, but they need to stop incentivizing the practice. They need to stop handing developers massive profits by approving endless entitlements. If you want to talk about building higher density, fine. Let’s create community plans that will allow the City to increase density in an orderly way. Let’s revise our zoning so that developers can work within a consistent framework. (And I’m not talking about wasting time on a worthless sham like re:code LA.) And then let’s make the City Council abide by those plans, instead of making exceptions for every project that comes their way.
Hopefully things will turn out okay for the folks at Yucca and Argyle. But we need to stop the practices that create these situations in the first place. The City Council needs to stop handing out favors and start doing some planning.
Hotel construction is booming in Hollywood. Obviously, tourism is big business and brings a lot of money into the area, so it makes sense to build accommodations for visitors. But there are also tens of thousands of people who actually live in the community, and they need to be considered, too. Is City Hall thinking about them? Why don’t we ponder that question as we do a quick rundown of the hotels that are coming to Hollywood. It’s quite a list. We’ll start with the ones that are currently under construction.
There’s the nearly completed Camden at the corner of Vine and Selma. In addition to the beautifully appointed rooms, the Camden also offers a heated saltwater pool, a movie lounge, a dog den, and the “The Garden”, a “quiet zen filled space to meditate and reflect.”
According to the web site, “Dream Hollywood is an ultra-luxury merger of familiar and fantasy, where the line between entrée and exclusivity is refreshingly blurred.” Geared toward the “creative class”, it offers 179 “hyper-chic, yet comfortable” rooms and suites, along with a rooftop pool, restaurant and lounge “destined to become a player in the Hollywood skyline scene.”
Currently under construction, the Argyle Hotel will rise 16 stories above the intersection of Yucca and Argyle. It will feature 225 rooms, 6,000 square feet of meeting space and 3,000 square feet of restaurant space. There are also two residential high-rises planned for this same intersection, one already under construction. Afternoon rush hour traffic on Argyle is already pretty bad. Expect it to get way worse.
The owner of this formerly rent-controlled apartment building realized he could make more money by evicting the tenants and turning it into something else. He used the Ellis Act to get rid of the residents a few years ago, saying that he was going to build condos on the site. When that project fell through, he decided to turn the building into a boutique hotel. The owner asked the City for a zone change to make it happen, and no surprise, the City let him have it.
A similar scenario has also played out at the historic Villa Carlotta on Franklin. The owners evicted the tenants from their rent-controlled units with the aim of turning it into a boutique hotel. It was only through the efforts of dedicated activists that the change of use was thwarted. But the evictions have already taken place, and 50 rent-controlled units were taken off the market.
This massive project would be situated near the intersection of Sunset and Highland. Three skyscrapers are planned, including a 32-story hotel tower featuring 308 guest rooms and 10,500 square feet of ground-level retail and restaurant space. The developers are also asking for a Master Conditional Use Permit for “the sale of alcoholic beverages and for live entertainment in connection with a total of 22 alcohol-related uses”. You read that right. Twenty two new places for folks to buy alcohol in this one project. In addition, approximately 80 rent-controlled units will be demolished to build this behemoth, which the developer says will be replaced by approximately 80 affordable units. Even if the current tenants are granted right-of-return, where they’re supposed to live during the construction phase isn’t clear.
The Department of City Planning(DCP) decided this 21-story hotel at the extremely congested intersection of Sunset and Cahuenga didn’t need a full Environmental Impact Report. Instead, planners have been trying to rush this through with a Mitigated Negative Declaration, a much lower level of environmental review. The traffic study claims that PM rush hour traffic northbound on Cahuenga flows freely with no significant delays. Anyone who’s made that trip at rush hour knows how ridiculous that claim is. But that didn’t stop the LA Department of Transportation from approving the report. Just further proof that when a developer with deep pockets wants something to happen, the City of LA is only too happy to oblige.
One more example of how Hollywood area developers are pushing hotels into residential neighborhoods. While a small hotel does exist on Franklin just to the south, apartment buildings are directly adjacent to this proposed project on the north and west boundaries of the site. Residents were not happy to learn that they might have a 6-story, 150 room hotel next door. It didn’t help matters that the developer is seeking a liquor permit for a 1,200 sq. ft. bar/lounge in the lobby and a 3,500 sq. ft. restaurant/lounge on the north side of the site. Who cares if Chief Beck has written to the DCP warning about the oversaturation of locations that serve alcohol in Hollywood and the resulting problems with violent crime? Certainly nobody at the DCP. They keep handing out liquor permits like there’s no tomorrow.
Also on Wilcox, but closer to Hollywood Blvd., is this planned 134-room hotel with a 2,500 sq. ft. ground floor restaurant and a rooftop bar. You can never have too many rooftop bars, right? Who cares if the people in the apartment building next door don’t like it? And as traffic on Cahuenga continues to spill onto neighboring streets, you can bet these two projects will help turn Wilcox into a parking lot at rush hour.
The point of all this is not to say that we shouldn’t have hotels in Hollywood. The point is that these 8 hotels are just a few of the over 60 projects currently proposed for the Hollywood area. All of these projects will have impacts on infrastructure, air quality, traffic, and LAPD response times, but the City of LA isn’t making any serious effort to assess the cumulative effects of all this development. Whenever possible the DCP tries to approve these projects with a quick MND, and even when they do an EIR there’s no credible attempt made to calculate the collective impacts caused by this massive building binge. The Hollywood Community Plan Update was thrown out by a judge, in large part because the City inflated its population figures, but that hasn’t stopped the City from going full speed ahead. With no community plan in place, the DCP continues to approve thousands of new residential units, hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial, and who knows how many new hotels.
No doubt all these classy new hotels will make Hollywood a great place for tourists. Just not so great for the people who actually live in the community.