Turning Housing into Hotel Rooms

Met Upper

The Metropolitan on Sunset

If you needed any more proof that City Hall has no real interest in solving our housing crisis, you should have come to the September 12 hearing held by the Central Area Planning Commission. On the agenda was an appeal of a decision by the Department of City Planning (DCP) to approve a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for transient occupancy at the Metropolitan Lofts on Sunset near Van Ness. There’s a long, complicated story behind this, but basically the owners want to be able to turn apartment units into hotel rooms. Susan Hunter, of the LA Tenants Union (LATU), filed an appeal to try and overturn the CUP. But the Commissioners sided with the owners, and gave them the go ahead to allow transient occupancy at the Metropolitan.

The September 12 session was actually continued from the August 8 hearing when the appeal was first heard. Taken together, these two hearings were a mind-numbing demonstration of the DCP’s arrogance and callousness. It has never been clearer that the DCP’s culture is geared toward serving private interests rather than the general public. Most of the Commissioners, along with DCP staff, bent over backwards to make allowances for the owners of the Metropolitan, while throwing the building’s tenants, and renters in general, under the bus.

The story of the Metropolitan is long and complicated, but to give you some background, here’s a brief recap….

The building originally started as a hotel back in the 80s. It ended up getting a reputation as a place to party, and by the 90s it was getting a lot of attention from the LAPD. After a while the owners decided they’d be better off turning it into an apartment building, and the DCP signed off on that in 2006. In their determination letter, the City Planning Commission said the conversion of the Metropolitan’s 52 units was consistent with both the General Plan and the Community Plan, and stated that the change would, “provide increased opportunities for residential living in Hollywood where it is appropriate and needed.”

Fast forward about 10 years. Hollywood has always been a hot spot for tourism, and with the advent of Short-Term Rentals (STRs), property owners can make a bundle posting units on AirBnB or any of the other popular sites that offer “home sharing”. This is especially attractive to landlords, who realize they can make a lot more money by getting rid of tenants and opening the door to tourists. The folks who own the Metropolitan were thinking they could cash in by turning the building back into a hotel, but they came up with a very creative way to do it. They didn’t just ask the City to turn the place back into a hotel, they requested a zoning overlay to make it into a Transit Occupancy Residential Structure (TORS), while maintaining the residential use. This way the owners could use the units as either apartments or hotel rooms, depending on how they feel on any given day.

Do you see a problem here? The small group of tenants who were still left at the Metropolitan sure did. You see, the owners decided they weren’t going to wait for the City’s approval. They actually allowed a company that specializes in STRs, Senstay, to start offering some units to travellers. The tenants started to see all kinds of strangers wandering up and down the halls with their luggage trailing behind. They found themselves letting in guests who didn’t have a key because there was no front desk to help visitors. They sometimes had to wait to use the laundry rooms because housekeeping staff was there ahead of them. And they started to worry about break-ins because things were getting stolen. These problems were piled on top of the problems they already had to deal with, like lighting that didn’t work, long periods when the AC was down, and elevators that were frequently out of service. And to make things even worse, they were required to pay fees for utilities, trash, and sewage through an on-line service which often added late charges for bills paid on time, in addition to a “convenience fee”.

It’s pretty clear that the Metropolitan owners don’t care about their tenants, and would like to get rid of them. Jerry Neuman, the owners’ representative at the hearing, claimed that they treated their tenants well, and that they didn’t intend evict anybody. That doesn’t jibe with the facts. All the residents I spoke to at the Metropolitan confirmed the problems listed above. And while the owners claim they’re not removing housing to make way for hotel rooms, they had allowed the number of tenants to dwindle to 15, and offered those who still remained money to leave. This sounds to me like they’re planning on turning the Metropolitan back into a hotel.

Which brings us back to Senstay. To give Commission President Jennifer Chung-Kim credit, she confronted Neuman with evidence supplied by appellant Hunter that the Metropolitan owners had been renting rooms to tourists for a while. Neuman’s response was one of the few amusing moments in an otherwise grimly depressing ordeal….

“As I understood it, that was a corporate lease. That was not…. I don’t…. and we…. our understanding…. and we have not rented our facility for temporary occupancy.”

But let’s take a look at the way Senstay presents itself on its own web site….

“Building upon Airbnb’s monetization and subsequent creation of a new asset class, we are passionate about bringing our own meld of ‘the sharing economy’ and traditional real estate investing to our clients.”

Senstay exists to facilitate STRs. That’s the business it’s in. When Commissioner Chung-Kim handed him the document, Neuman finally realized his clients were busted, and he decided not to say any more on the subject. There’s some ambiguity about whether the LA Municipal Code allows individuals to rent their homes as STRs, but it is illegal for landlords to turn multiple apartment units into STRs. So did the Commission follow up on this? Did they turn to the representative of the City Attorney’s office, who was sitting right there with them, and ask for an investigation? Did they recommend that the Housing & Community Investment Department take action against the owners for illegally offering apartments as STRs? Nope. They did nothing. They let the Metropolitan owners off the hook without any consequences whatsoever. The Commission just let it slide.

With the exception of Vice President Daphne Brogdon, it seemed like the Commission was ready to give the Metropolitan owners pretty much whatever they wanted. At the August 8 hearing, Brogdon repeatedly questioned the wisdom of allowing 52 apartments to be turned into hotel rooms in the middle of a housing crisis. She pointed out that allowing this dual use could be a precedent, leading to other landlords making the same request.

Neuman’s response? “As much as you may say that Hollywood…, that we have a housing crisis, we have an equal amount of crisis in the number of temporary occupancy units available in Hollywood.” It’s true that tourism is booming, and there is a demand for more hotel rooms throughout the city. But there are 25 hotels within a 1 mile radius of the site, and in Hollywood there are 13 more either under construction or currently making their way through the approval process. On top of all this, AirBnB alone offers hundreds of listings in the Hollywood area, without even counting those offered by platforms like VRBO, Oasis Collections, Housestay, and One Fine Stay. Oh, and let’s not forget Senstay. Honestly, I haven’t heard any stories about tourists sleeping on the street because they couldn’t find a hotel room.

But there are thousands of homeless people sleeping on LA’s streets, and Ellis Act evictions continue to climb, with over 1,000 rent-stabilized units being taken off the market annually. It’s amazing that in Neuman’s eyes the lack of hotel rooms for tourists represents a crisis equal to the lack of housing for residents.

So it was great to have Brogdon at the August 8 hearing to ask tough questions about adding the transit occupancy use. Unfortunately, that was her last day on the Commission. When the hearing continued on September 12, her seat was vacant, and no one was left to speak up for the tenants.

And speaking of the tenants, where were they during all this? None of the tenants that Hunter was representing made it to the August 8 hearing. It’s not always easy for people who work to make it to City Hall at 4:30 pm on a work day. But 4 of them showed up for the continuation in September. They came down because they wanted to speak about the habitability issues they’d experienced at the Metropolitan, and about the difficulty of living in a building that had already been partly converted to a hotel, and about their fears that the owners were planning on getting rid of them.

But they never got the chance to speak. Commission President Chung-Kim decided that since they’d already heard public comment on August 8, there was no need to hear any more. She had mentioned earlier that it was difficult to reopen public comment once it had been closed. Somehow, though, she had no problem doing exactly that back in August when she wanted to hear from the owners’ rep. Toward the close of that session, Chung-Kim wanted to get Neuman’s input on a possible compromise, and it seemed pretty simple to reopen public testimony. But in September somehow that wasn’t possible. This is actually something I’ve often seen at hearings held by the DCP’s various Commissions. They always seem more than willing to let the developers and their reps babble on endlessly, but public comment is usually strictly controlled. At the August hearing and the September continuation, Jerry Neuman had ample opportunity to talk about why his clients needed the CUP, and I’d be willing to bet he spoke more than any other individual in the room. But the tenants Hunter was representing, the people most affected by the change of use, weren’t allowed to say a single word.

Met Hearing 1

A shot of the September hearing.

I’ve been to a number of Commission hearings over the years, and I do feel like there’s definitely a bias in favor of owners and developers. But maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. Or maybe, since the Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor, they all just share his enthusiasm for aggressive gentrification and rampant displacement. But there could be other reasons, too. It’s interesting that the owners’ rep at this hearing was Jerry Neuman of Liner LLP. In case you haven’t heard of Liner, they’re one of LA’s top lobbying firms. In fact, in the Ethics Commission’s 2nd quarter lobbying report for 2017, Liner ranked number one in terms of payments received, racking up $2,310,565. Pretty impressive. And one of Liner’s top clients is Harridge Development Group. If you take another look at the Ethics report, under the section for clients, you’ll find that Harridge is number 10 in terms of payments reported, having shelled out $118,765. But that’s actually kind of misleading. If you really want to know what kind of money Harridge is throwing around, you should take a look at the number 2 spot on the list. This is where you’ll find Crossroads Associates LLC, which is behind Crossroads Hollywood, a massive complex planned for Sunset and Highland, and even though the name is different, this is also a Harridge project. For this project the client has paid out $393,837, and the recipients were the swell folks at Liner LLP.

So what does all this have to do with the Metropolitan? If you look at the applicant for the Metropolitan’s request to the DCP, you’ll see Brad Woomer, 5825 West Sunset Boulevard, LLC. The company is just another anonymous LLC, but it turns out Woomer is the Chief Financial Officer for Harridge. So the people behind the request for transient occupancy at the Metropolitan just happen to be the same people who figure so prominently on the Ethics Commission’s lobbying report. And the firm handling the request is none other than Liner LLP, which ranked number one in terms of payments recieved in the same report. Liner is definitely well connected. Among the agencies they’ve lobbied for the Crossroads project are the City Attorney, the City Council, Building & Safety, and of course, the Department of City Planning.

But maybe this has nothing to do with how the Metropolitan hearing went. Maybe I’m just a crazy conspiracy freak with nothing better to do than pore over Ethics Commission reports and show up at grindingly dull Commission hearings. (Seriously, I think I need to get a life.) Whatever the reason, the Commissioners voted to deny the appeal and grant the CUP. The Metropolitan owners can now legally turn residential units into hotel rooms. And since this does seem to be a precedent, it opens the doors for other landlords to do exactly the same thing.

Still, the Commission had to make it look like they were taking care of the tenants. So between the August and September hearings, Neuman met with DCP staff to work out a set of conditions that were supposedly going to make everything okay. The conditions included granting the remaining tenants a 4 month extension on their lease, and the option to move to a part of the building where they would be consolidated, the idea being that this would resolve conflicts with short-term guests. The Commission acted as though they were doing everything they could to protect the tenants, but it’s really all a game, because the City rarely enforces any of these conditions. Even when violations are brought to the City’s attention, enforcement is generally so lax as to be meaningless. Agreements like these are put in place to make it look like the DCP is doing its job. Once the hearing is over, it’s just a lot of language to be stuck in a file and forgotten.

So that was it. The Commissioners denied the appeal. The Metropolitan owners got their CUP. And after it was over the tenants stood outside the hearing room, realizing that the City had thrown them under the bus. For me it was one more maddening demonstration of the City’s staggering disregard for the rights of LA’s renters. I can’t imagine how the tenants felt. The DCP seemed to be saying to them, “We just don’t give a damn about you.”

The appellant, Susan Hunter, who’s a friend of mine, was frustrated, but has refused to give up. She’s been working on trying to find legal representation for the tenants so they can get relief from the courts. This isn’t her first fight, and it won’t be her last. I have to give credit to Susan for her tenacity, and to all the others in this town who keep pushing for some kind of justice. It’s got to be tough to keep going when the deck is clearly stacked against you.

P.S.
In the post above I mentioned Jerry Neuman’s claim that the owners had no intention of evicting anybody, and that they just wanted the option to post vacant units for transient occupancy. Well, since the hearing I’ve been told by Susan Hunter that the tenants she does not represent have been told to vacate the premises. They’re supposed to be out by Christmas.

Met Side

 

The Hollywood Rip-Off

DH SM 01 Tao Dream 2

The other day I picked up a copy of the LA Weekly and came across Besha Rodell’s review for Tao in Hollywood. Clueless loser that I am, I’d never heard of this popular mini-chain before, and had no idea it had been a huge success in New York and Las Vegas. Tao’s latest location is tucked into the just-opened Dream Hotel in Hollywood, and it seems to be doing big business. But Rodell wasn’t impressed. At all. You can read his review here.

Worse Than We Imagined from LA Weekly

Reading Rodell’s description of the decor’s garish excess and ridiculously inflated prices, I felt like his review could apply to a lot of what’s happening in Hollywood these days. The Dream Hotel and Tao just seem like the latest in City Hall’s efforts to wreck the community.

DH SM 10 Tao

Tao on Selma in Hollywood

Does that sound extreme? And does it sound strange to be railing against garish excess in Hollywood? Hasn’t that been Hollywood’s game all along? Certainly if you look at the movie industry’s output, from the lurid spectacles of the 20s to this summer’s CGI-fueled action flicks, you’ll find plenty of outrageous, vacuous entertainment. You could also point to the sumptuous nightclubs and decadent nightlife that flourished during the studio era, when gossip columns were filled with the shameless antics of movie stars.

But the studio era ended decades ago, and over the years the place called Hollywood has grown into something very different. For a long time now it’s been a low to middle-income community with a fairly dense mix of residential and commercial. The movie stars are long gone, but there are lots of hardworking people here, people who run small shops and family-owned restaurants. Would-be actors and actresses who knock themselves out waiting tables while trying to get auditions. Kids who walk to school on streets where they have to learn early to look out for themselves.

And these people are struggling harder than ever because the City seems to be doing everything it can to push them out of Hollywood. What these people need more than anything is housing they can afford, and instead the City keeps approving high-end mutli-family projects that most Hollywood residents could never hope to move into. Yes, some affordable units have been created in recent years, but the wave of evictions continues, and we’re still losing scores of rent-stabilized apartments.

And with all this going on, the City decides we need over a dozen new high-end hotels? With multiple bars? Rooftop decks? Live entertainment? In some cases right up against apartment buildings? Really?

The City has long said that one of the key components to its plan to revitalize Hollywood is to boost the night life, but how’s that working out? I like a drink as well as the next guy, but last time I counted there were 67 places that serve alcohol in Central Hollywood. It’s not hard to get a drink here. And still the City continues to approve new liquor permits, even though violent crime and property crimes have been rising steadily in the area since 2014. Are you wondering if there’s a connection? Actually there are years of research that show a strong connection between alcohol and crime. Check out this report from the Department of Justice if you’re skeptical.

Alcohol and Violent Crime

And then there’s the traffic. Every time the City approves one of these projects, planners insist it won’t have any significant impact on congestion because Hollywood is a transit hub. The hotel guests and the partiers won’t need to drive because they can ride the bus instead. Well, take a look at these photos I snapped in front of the Dream Hotel around seven o’clock on Saturday night.

DH SM 20 Cars Crowd

Cars lining up in front of the hotel.

DH SM 22 Guy Smoke

The line of cars continues west on Selma.

And now let’s take a look at traffic a half a block away on Cahuenga.

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A shot of traffic on Cahuenga, facing Hollywood.

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A shot of traffic on Cahuenga, facing Sunset.

Remember, this is not a weekday at rush hour. This is early evening on a Saturday. Somehow I don’t find the City’s claims about people taking transit to be completely credible.

It used to be the club scene in Hollywood was mostly concentrated on Cahuenga. But the City wants to change that. Selma used to be a fairly quiet street running through a largely residential neighborhood between Vine and Highland. There’s a senior center about a block and a half away from the Dream Hotel. And there’s an elementary school about two blocks away in the other direction. But the City doesn’t seem too concerned about the elderly or the children living in the neighborhood. Our elected officials are going to turn Selma into a party corridor. A few years back Mama Shelter opened up, now the Dream, and the City Planning Commission (CPC) recently approved the tommie, an eight-story hotel featuring 2 bars, a rooftop deck, and live entertainment. It didn’t bother the CPC at all that Selma Elementary is less than 500 feet away from this latest project.

And you haven’t even heard the best part. Just blocks away, a developer is planning to build the massive Crossroads Hollywood project, and they’re asking for a master alcohol permit to allow 22 establishments to serve alcohol. You read that right. Twenty two. And not only is Crossroads Hollywood in close proximity to Selma Elementary, it’s right across the street from Hollywood High School.

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The front of the Dream Hotel.

This is the City’s idea of revitalizing Hollywood. We need low-cost housing. They give us high-end hotels. We need relief from violent crime. They keep pouring on the alcohol. Meanwhile traffic is worse than ever, transit ridership continues to decline, and the number of homeless keeps growing.

City Hall keeps saying they’re trying to bring Hollywood back to life. Why does it feel like they’re trying to kill it?

DH SM 90 Motorcycle

How Many Hotels Do You Need?

DSC02054

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.

1 Camden

The Camden
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.”

2 Dream

Dream Hollywood
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.”

3 Argyle Hotel b

Argyle Hotel
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.

4 1850 Cherokee

1850 Cherokee
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.

5 Crossroads

Crossraods Hollywood
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.

6 Ivar Gardens

Ivar Gardens
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.

1919 Wilcox
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.

1717 Wilcox

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.