‘Some Men Rob You with a Six-Gun, and Some with a Fountain Pen.’ – Woodie Guthrie

PLANNING WATCH--Los Angeles, like the rest of the United States, is obsessed by crimes perpetrated by people at the bottom of society. 

This country has four percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of its prisoners, most of them from poor backgrounds.  Petty crime stories are a staple for local news shows and electronic bulletin boards, like NextDoor.  Every Amazon package thief, dog poop scofflaw, and mailbox rifler can count on a long list of hostile comments. 

Even though petty crimes make for bold headlines and alarmist social media posts, white collar crime, what Woodie Guthrie called robbing you with a fountain pen, is where the real money lies.  For example, the Federal Government spent $125 billion to settle the savings-and-loan bank scandals of the 1980s.  One high profile case, Irvine-based Lincoln Savings, ensnared five US senators and sent the lead crook, Charles Keating, to a Federal penitentiary.

The total cost of this forgotten crime wave, $160 billion in 1994 dollars, would now be $286 billion.  Needless to say, this is more than pilfered packages and stolen bicycles. 

To his credit, USC sociologist Barry Glassner has methodically debunked these irrational fears about petty crime, identifying the media outlets that create them.  Prof. Glasser then compares these phobias to truly rational ones, especially climate change and economic inequality (a major factor responsible for the housing crisis), that are systematically downplayed by the same mainstream media. 

For those who care to look, though, there are three forms of high-priced and rarely reported lawless behavior at LA’s City Hall that undermine Angelinos’ quality of life: 

  1. Small Projects: At the lowest level of criminality are thousands of small construction projects that violate LA’s building and zoning codes, often with a “wink” from Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) inspectors.  LADBS considers developers, not the public, to be its “customers.”   The results of this ruse are easy to see.  For example, in my Los Angeles neighborhood (Beverly Grove) oversized and over-height McMansions can be found on every street.  Even though they violate the Los Angeles municipal code, including the Beverly Grove Residential Floor Area Overlay District ordinance and the R1 Variation zone in North Beverly Grove, LADBS has rejected all code violations complaints.  Similar lax enforcement can be found in every Los Angeles neighborhood. 
  1. Large Projects: Even though most large projects could proceed without zone changes and density bonuses, developers shoot for maximum size and profits. This forces them to bust through LA’s already permissive zoning laws and hire squads of public relations consultants, City Hall lobbyists and expediters, and land use attorneys.  When these big time developers still encounter bumps in the road, they don’t hesitate to make legal and illegal bribes.  The legal ones take the form of campaign contributions, junkets, and event tickets, while the illegal ones, some of which have been exposed by the press, include pay-to-pay envelopes stuffed with cash and free trips to Las Vegas highlighted by booze, gourmet meals, hotel stays, and “escorts.” 
  1. Legislation: At the highest level of corruption are the backroom deals to craft give-away municipal ordinances.  Even though they are rarely prosecuted, these are the many land use laws, like density bonuses, that fill the pages of CityWatchLA.  They enrich savvy real estate investors far more than over-sized McMansions.  The purpose of these ordinances, such as the systematic up-zoning of Hollywood, is not pulling strings for individual projects, but legalizing future mega-projects years ahead of time. 

This type of robbing people with a fountain pen is where the serious mischief takes place.  Unfortunately, it takes solid investigations to unravel the ordinances that allow lucrative real estate projects to eventually sail through City Hall without bundles of hundred-dollar bills to grease their way.  

How does these rarely prosecuted crimes jeopardize the public?  While this list is hardly complete, it should give readers an idea how they are victimized by City Hall corruption. 

  1. City Hall is a well-oiled homeless machine.  We already know that 27,000 low-priced residential units have been demolished through the Ellis Act, while an unknown number of other affordable rental units disappeared through cash-and-key and negligence-induced evictions.  Thousands of starter homes have also been levelled to make way for in-fill McMansions.  Furthermore, the new housing is more expensive that the housing it replaces, a process that pulls up the cost of existing housing. 
  1. Loss of privacy and urban forest. Each new McMansion or over-priced, over-sized apartment building leads to a loss of privacy, air, and sunlight to neighbors.  In fact, former USC architectural researcher Travis Longcore wrote that new residential development is responsible for a 14- 55 percent loss of urban forest tree cover in Los Angeles neighborhoods. 
  1. Infrastructure decay. Los Angeles no longer plans or monitors its basic infrastructure systems (1971) and public services (1969).  As a result, new construction strains existing infrastructure to the breaking point, creating electrical blackouts and bursting water mains.  Even though METRO spends billions on mass transit, they rarely include first-last mile public improvements in their projects, such as road repairs, sidewalk reconstruction, street trees, lighting, bike paths, scooter parking, and bus shelters. 
  1. Loss of value. A local appraiser calculated that a new McMansion reduces that value of adjacent older homes by at least $50,000. 
  1. Traffic congestion. Because new housing is invariably expensive, those who can afford to buy or rent these units, own and drive cars.  They rarely take transit, even when it is close by.  This is one reason why traffic congestion is increasing in Los Angeles neighborhoods with new transit-adjacent apartments. 

If you ever wonder who the major crooks are in Los Angeles, remind yourself to look up, not down.


(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA.  He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and co-chairs the new Greater Fairfax Residents Association.  Previous Planning Watch columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives.  Please send questions and corrections to [email protected] .)