FAIRFAX DEVELOPMENT - On Wednesday, July 7, the Department of City Planning held a public hearing as part of the environmental review process for the large new development planned for 800-840 S. Fairfax Ave.
The next day, on July 8, the Planning Department approved the environmental review and forwarded it to the City Council Planning and Land Use Management Committee for its next round of discussion and approvals.
This is just one small step forward in a much longer process, but it’s been about a year and a half since we reported on this project, so it seems like a good time to catch up with both the latest news and what’s been happening with the proposal on other fronts over the last 18 months or so.
South end of the new project, as it would stand just to the left (north) of Tom Bergin’s pub and restaurant on Fairfax Ave.
The plans, as currently presented, do not seem to have changed since they were proposed in 2019. The proposal calls for construction of a new “8-story, 94-foot-tall, mixed-use project with 209 dwelling units, and approximately 2,653 square feet of commercial floor area,” to be built under the City’s Transit Oriented Communities guidelines, with 28 units reserved for Extremely Low Income tenants. There will also be 239 vehicle parking spaces, parking for 146 bicycles, and 18,357 square feet of open space.
The project would also include demolition of the existing 40-unit Fairfax Gardens apartment complex, which has a total of 40 rent-controlled and relatively affordable units (approximately $1,850 for a one-bedroom, according to residents we spoke to).
The existing Fairfax Gardens apartments at 830 S. Fairfax.
Talent Relocation Issues
At the time of our last report, neighbors in the Miracle Mile neighborhood were concerned about the development’s size and compatibility with the surrounding historic neighborhood, and about the fates of the current Fairfax Gardens tenants, many of who have lived there for decades, who will be forced to relocate. And in the most recent discussions, the tenant issues have taken center stage.
In March 2020, after being contacted by the newly organized Fairfax Gardens Tenants Association, the Mid City West Community Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution supporting the tenants and officially expressing the MCWCC’s concerns that the residents be treated fairly in the coming relocation process. Following the March vote, the MCWCC board sent a letter to the Department of City Planning expressing its concerns…and noting that the 28 units reserved for Extremely Low Income tenants in the new development would “not make up for” the 38 current and more moderate-income tenants who will lose their homes to the project.
“Current residents have lived in their homes for many years, have raised children and grandchildren in this neighborhood, and have formed a tightknit, long-lasting community,” said the MCWCC’s letter. “By demolishing these apartment homes, the proposed project would cause irreparable harm to the families who have no interest in leaving. The proposed development would not only displace and separate more than 32 families, but it will also change the makeup of the neighborhood and remove children, parents, and grandparents from their social networks, schools, jobs, health centers, places of worship, and other types of community groups.”
The letter also expressed concern about the loss of the existing rent-stabilized units in the current housing crisis:
“…it is crucial to save these RSO units especially for the elderly population in the building who live on a fixed income and those living from paycheck to paycheck. Preservation has not been at the forefront of the homelessness discussion–but it’s a major contributing factor to the crisis,” wrote the MCWCC. “Displacing these tenants can put them at risk of not finding another affordable place to live, relocating them away from their support system, and/or becoming homeless.”
For the last year and a half, of course, the city has had a moratorium on evictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so none of the Fairfax Gardens tenants have been evicted yet. But the developer has hired a relocation firm to offer current tenants buy-out deals and help them find new apartments, and some have now signed relocation agreements and moved out.
According to Fairfax Gardens resident Annmarie Hehir, who heads the tenants’ association, there were 38 occupied units when word of the development first broke, but now that several tenants have accepted buyout deals and relocated, only 24 of the 40 units are still occupied. Hehir said many of those who have chosen to leave so far were those who moved into Fairfax Gardens most recently and had rents closest to market rate. Tenants who have been there longer (some for decades, and one for more than 50 years), have much lower rents and will find it much harder to find new housing they can afford.
For now, the state’s eviction moratorium has been extended through September 30, and there has been some talk of a further extension through the end of the year…but Hehir said that whenever it is lifted, the remaining Fairfax Gardens residents are bracing themselves for the inevitable. In the meantime, though, they are also seeking support where they can.
Earlier this summer, Hehir reported, the remaining tenants met with two representatives from the LA Tenants Union, and then met with City Council District 4 staff at the end of June. (Hehir noted that City Councilmember Nithya Raman advocated against the loss of rent-stabilized housing during her election campaign last year and said “now is the time for us to hold her to that” position.)
Hehir said a developer’s representative recently indicated that any current tenants who meet the city’s threshold for “Extremely Low Income” status ($24,850 per year for a single-person household in 2021), could be allowed to return to one of the official ELI units in the new development…but she said she doubts that many of the current more moderate income residents would meet that threshold, and it’s unlikely that any of them would be able to afford the much higher market rents in the new building’s other units. So, in effect, she said, 40 below-market-rate units/tenants are being replaced with just 20 Extremely Low Income units/tenants, which is much less than the more equitable 1:1 replacement ratio she would like to see for such situations.
Meanwhile, another resident we spoke to a few months ago, who had negotiated a relocation deal with the current owners, said they had requested an option to return at a rent similar to what they’d been paying, after the new construction is complete, but the relocation company said that wouldn’t work, because of the three-year construction period required for the development. That tenant wound up moving elsewhere a few months ago.
City Environmental Review and Approval
While the tenant negotiations have been playing out, the city has also been moving forward with an environmental review for the project.
Many Transit Oriented Communities projects can be very simply approved, with no public notice and no community review process, if the developers meet all requirements for a TOC project at their chosen site, and do not request more than the base-level incentives offered by the city. But TOC projects as large as this one, and which request a certain number of developer incentives, as this one does, do have to notify the local neighborhood council about the project. (The MCWCC received a presentation on the project details last August, but did not take any votes on it). Large TOC projects also have to go through an abbreviated environmental review process, known as a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment (SCEA). And while no public hearings are required before the basic application can be approved, there does need to be a public hearing, after a 30-day comment period, on the SCEA.
This hearing was held via telephone, as noted above, on July 7, and it provided a new opportunity for the current tenants and other neighborhood stakeholders to comment on the project.
Among the five stakeholders who spoke at the hearing, one was a former resident of Fairfax Gardens, who thanked the owners for their help in her relocation. Another was a nearby resident from Carthay Circle, who encouraged the city and developers to save a large tree at the development site, and to develop a tree plan for the project. A third resident, whose parents live across Fairfax from the development site, spoke out against the way the project will change the character of the neighborhood, calling it a “a complete disregard for the American middle class family.” The fourth speaker, Hana Kawano, who sits on the board of the Miracle Mile Residential Association, said she is very concerned for the long-term residents who will be forced out of Fairfax Gardens and unlikely to be able to afford any other housing in the same neighborhood. She said Miracle Mile has always been like a “giant family,” and one of the few places where even single women feel safe living alone and doing things like going grocery shopping at 10 p.m.
Hehir also spoke at the hearing, noting how new development is changing the character of Miracle Mile. She, too, said that those who have always lived there – teachers, nurses, police officers, and other blue collar workers – are now being forced out, and will not be welcome at this new development or many others now under construction or recently completed.
Finally, Mashael Majid, planning director for Nithya Raman’s City Council District 4 office, also attended the hearing to express her office’s support for the Fairfax Gardens tenants. She read the following statement, which she also sent via e-mail to Miracle Mile Residential Association president Greg Goldin the following day:
“It is our Office’s priority to be in direct communication with tenants facing potential eviction and displacement. We recognize that many tenants of Fairfax Gardens may not be able to remain in this neighborhood because of the current market rate of comparable units and that they are also not eligible for the new extremely low-income (ELI) covenanted affordable housing units. Our office is currently providing tenants with information and resources to learn about and claim their legal rights, share information about planning processes, and listen to their lived experiences in order to deepen the context for developers so they are better rooted in community concerns and recommendations. In this vein, we have raised the concerns and questions from the Fairfax Gardens Tenants Association with the applicant and then communicated the replies with the Tenants Association.
Our goal is to facilitate transparency and ensure the legal rights for each of the tenants. Specifically, we have communicated what we understand about the project timeline, the tracking of relocations registered with HCID, the process used by a vendor in offering Tenant’s cash buyouts and new rental assistance relocation services, in the hopes that this can serve as a potential way to reduce some of the harm to tenants who had not intended to move and many of whom have lived in the building for decades and intended on remaining.
Additionally, we take inequities in displacement very seriously and they are central to our policy and legislative agenda. While we understand that this development can take place under the city’s zoning laws and planning entitlement pathways – including the TOC incentive program – tenant protections, RSO preservation, and affordable housing production are pillars for our office. The current rules do not go far enough to protect renters in the city. Through the purview of the council office, we will continue to proactively legislate in order to ensure investment and development without direct displacement. Moving forward, we want to make sure that for any project seeking to demolish and redevelop sites with on-site RSO units, that there is a right to return for RSO tenants at the same rate they had been paying in addition to a developer fulfilling onsite inclusionary unit requirements per affordable housing incentive programs.
Our constituents who reside at 800-840 Fairfax are facing distressing circumstances. We will continue working with them as this project moves forward. “
Meanwhile, although they did not speak at the hearing, the MMRA, the Los Angeles Tenants’ Union, Fix the City, and the Fairfax Gardens Tenants Association also submitted letters to the city opposing the looming tenant evictions, the general displacement of moderate income tenants by projects that will not return the same number of rent-controlled units to the neighborhood housing supply, the size, scale and architectural incompatibility with the surrounding neighborhood, and more.
Finally, on July 8, the date after the required hearing, the Planning Department approved the SCEA document and sent it on to the City Council PLUM Committee for the next stop in its journey through the city review process. So far, that committee has not scheduled its discussion.
For more information, or to track the progress of the SCEA for this project, see the City Council File page (where you can also subscribe to updates on the case), and/or the Planning Department’s page for case number DIR-2019-7299-TOC-SPR.
(Elizabeth Fuller has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.)