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LA Planning Department’s Airbnb “Listening Session” Turns a Deaf Ear to Neighborhood Councils

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ALMOST A NO SHOW-On Saturday October 3, the LA Planning Department brought its “Listening Sessions” tour to the Lafayette Park Community Center to meet with LAANC. This was to be a 45 minute joint session to discuss the Short Term Rental Ordinance, including an opportunity for questions and answers. 

It was probably a bad omen that the venue had no free parking and most of the street parking was metered with a 2 hour limit. Intended or not, the initial nonverbal message to the community was: you can come, but don’t stick around. 

The next surprise was that, for whatever the reason, there ended up being no joint session of LANCC and the Planning Department. And this was the third and final “Listening Session” offered by City Planning. 

Instead, the Planning Department Listening Session set up shop in another part of the building -- and started their meeting at 10am, at exactly the same time as LANCC’s regular meeting. And (surprise) they tried to require a LANCC official to sign in just to get their survey -- so much for the Ralph Brown Act, but what the heck. I actually appreciated the subtlety of being blown off twice in one morning…right on, LA City, we hear you! 

Back to LANCC. The topic of how to preserve the integrity of neighborhoods in the face of short term rentals was too complex for the time allotted, so attention turned to Airbnb’s business methods and the “art of the possible,” given the City’s lust for taxation.  

By way of context, I am told that Airbnb and their progeny absolutely disclaim any liability for any of their “hosts” and their “guests.” Not only that, but after a transaction is complete, they scrub their website so that there is no historic record of the transactions. Yes sir, right on the up and up.  

In light of this revelation, the group passed a motion to the effect that, once the City Council passes a Short Term Rental Ordinance, Airbnb (and their clones) should be required to directly collect the TOT (tax) themselves and forward the money to the City. This means they would need to keep records which could then be audited – so they could no longer wipe away their transactions, making their servers as clean as Hillary Clinton’s.  

Personally, I would go even further and require that, under the ultimate Ordinance, the City allocate 20 percent of the TOT monies to staff LABBS Code enforcement activities specifically earmarked for short term rentals. Based on the fact that LABBS barely enforces existing codes right now, there’s no reason to believe that they would do any better with a new Ordinance. The only folks who currently get concierge services are the big developers as they dig up the city. Usually, new taxes are swept into the black hole of the General Fund, where the Council can play. 

Meanwhile, back at the Planning Department’s third and final Listening Tour (which had been mandated by the Council PLUM Committee,) there was a continuous standing room only audience, mostly people opposed to the proposed Ordinance. They were given the “opportunity” to vent and to fill out a short survey -- but no chance for any real dialogue. There was no give and take, no discussion about how the process is going or what direction is being taken. Nada, nothing, zilch. The event did not even rise to the level of a regular dog and pony show. 

I have been through a couple of these PLUM/Planning/Listening Tours before, so you will have to excuse my cynicism. Typically it is simply a tactic designed by the City Council to let the troops vent their frustrations -- somewhere in a place far, far away from the councilmembers -- leaving our elected officials alone to quietly put together the Ordinance they wanted in the first place. 

Later, they can declare victory as they proudly announce that they have really listened to these wonderful outreach meetings as part of their deliberations...and all because they care. Sure, and I know a guy who will sell you the Hyperion Street bridge for ten bucks. 

The three page form handed out by City Planning was a pablum Google Form, “neither created nor endorsed by Google,” which will allow the Planning Department staff to prepare a statistical analysis from the three “Listening Session” meetings. This in turn will be presented with great fanfare as “community input” when the PLUM Committee finishes doing what they were going to do anyway. If you don’t believe me, when it’s all over, go back to the original motion by Herb Wesson and Mike Bonin and compare the results. 

For those who care, the staff person from the Planning Department who is in charge of this exercise is Matthew Glesne (Policy Planning). His contact information is [email protected], telephone number 213-978-2666, and FAX 213-978-1477. According to the “Short Term Rental Comment Card” that was handed out, you can submit comments until October 15. The website to do this is.  

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I personally find this whole process sad and depressing. The LANCC folks know that the LA City Council is not going to engage in meaningful dialogue about short term rentals that will actually help the various areas of the City. They’re just not geared for honest and open dialogue. 

Sure…how to tax…they’re all about that. But how much and what type of short term rentals should be allowed by the City for the different neighborhoods is very complex -- and one size does not fit all. Solving this problem would require a level of open and transparent give and take that I have never seen in the City of Los Angeles. They’re not even willing to engage in whether or not the existing laws and codes will be enforced by the City.  

What is at stake is the very character of the different neighborhoods in our City…the unique areas that make LA what it is. There is no simple solution, no way to know where the tipping point is that could lead to the fundamental destruction of the very concept of “neighborhood” -- something that’s been central to the cultural development of Los Angeles. 

Neat places like Angeleno Heights, Echo Park, Silverlake, Glassell Park, Eagle Rock, Mt. Washington and parts of Highland Park (I only claim to be familiar with Northeast LA) are at risk of losing their character to clogged streets, party houses, and LLC companies who accept no liability. 

And what happens when property values decline because no one wants to be next door to a short term rental property? What happens to the residents who have taken out $700,000 to $800,000 mortgages so they could live in these communities? Low interest rates won’t save them, and somehow I doubt that the LA City Council will be offering rebates. 

Stay tuned…as the meat grinder grinds.

 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch. Tony can be reached at [email protected])  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams

-cw

  

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 83

Pub: Oct 13, 2015

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