Los Angeles: Illegal Planning Capital of the World

TALE OF TWO LA’S--Three doors from my house in Venice, a builder tore down a 1940’s bungalow and put up a two-story spec house that fills every square foot of allowable space on the lot.  But when the house didn’t sell at the $4 million asking price, the builder listed it on Airbnb at $1400 a night, and now it’s the functional equivalent of a hotel, with guests coming and going and partying at all hours on the roof deck and around the pool and spa.  

If you’re only casually acquainted with the ways of the city of Los Angeles you might ask how this can happen, since the city has an ordinance prohibiting rentals shorter than 30 days in single family neighborhoods.  For those of us familiar with the city’s history of code enforcement, that’s a rhetorical question. 

Less than a mile from my house, on traffic-choked Lincoln Boulevard, a double-sided Clear Channel billboard beams ads for fast food, alcohol, movies, and other products and services to a captive audience of motorists and pedestrians.  The city has known for at least six years that one of those billboard faces was added without the required permit, so it’s reasonable to ask why it’s been allowed to remain, helping to fill the coffers of a billion-dollar, multi-national corporation.  Another rhetorical question. 

But rhetorical questions don’t answer anything, and lots of people in Venice and elsewhere want actual answers about illegal short term rentals, illegal billboards, illegal tree trimming, illegal dumping and untold other violations of codes and regulations that the city apparently cannot or will not enforce. 

Take the case of the Clear Channel billboard on Lincoln Blvd.  In a citywide survey conducted in 2011, it was identified as one of many throughout the city that had a second face added without a permit. In a rational world, one would expect the city to undertake some kind of enforcement action, but in Los Angeles nothing has been done about that billboard or any others on the city’s list. 

The initial reason given for this inaction was that the City Council was contemplating a grant of blanket amnesty to illegally altered billboards as well as a large number of other billboards for which no permits of any kind were on record.  That amnesty proposal, put forward by City Councilman Mitchell Englander, provoked outrage in many neighborhoods and was heartily rejected by the City Planning Commission. At this moment it’s presumed dead although one shouldn’t  be surprised if attempts are made to breathe new life in a widely despised proposal that has the support of powerful interests like the billboard industry. 

While the amnesty scheme was still alive two years ago, the office of City Attorney Mike Feuer sent a letter to the City Council’s PLUM committee stating that his office was ready to “aggressively enforce” against illegally altered billboards as soon as notices of violation were issued by the Department of Building and Safety.  

Inspectors had identified 391 such billboard structures, almost all of which had unpermitted second faces.  Another 546 billboards had no permits on file, and the letter said that enforcement could probably be taken against at least some of those, although the effort would be complicated by an obscure state law that says a billboard is presumed lawful if it has been in existence for five years or more without being cited for violation of codes. 

Despite this strong endorsement of enforcement action, another year passed without a single one of the illegal billboards being cited.  Finally, when the PLUM committee began discussing proposals to allow new digital billboards in a wide area of the city, the building department submitted a request to hire the personnel needed to inspect and cite the altered billboards. 

One might be excused for believing at that point that enforcement was imminent, better late than never.  But that would be overestimating the city’s will to act, because to date the committee has done nothing with the building department request.  Why?  Indifference, perhaps, or some form of paralysis, or maybe the fact that committee chairman Jose Huizar (photo right) and several other members, including Englander, have gotten significant support in the form of free billboard ads for their political campaigns.  

As for property owners turning single-family homes and apartment houses into de facto hotels, the failure of the city to enforce its laws isn’t due to lack of funds for inspectors, but to the fact that applicable ordinances on the books are almost impossible to enforce.  Or so says the city.     

My neighbors who live next door to the aforementioned spec house reported the renting of the house on a nightly basis, and the city eventually sent out an inspector.  The inspector later told these neighbors that he had encountered one of the guests, who admitted to having booked the place for a couple of nights, but this guest didn’t have any paperwork to that effect and thus it wouldn’t possible to prove a violation of the 30-day rule.           

Let’s get this straight.  A glowing description of the place, including comments from a number of guests, can be readily found on the Airbnb website.  A guest admitted to a city inspector that he was staying for far less than the legally required 30 days. Yet nothing can be done, and neighbors continue to be tormented by noise, parking problems, and the other issues that people who move to single-family neighborhoods often seek to avoid.  If this strikes you as Kafkaesque, you aren’t alone. 

In the highly compacted Venice Canals area, which is a residential neighborhood as well as a tourist attraction, neighbors finally got so fed up with a house that had been turned into an Airbnb hotel that one of them surreptitiously booked the place and then tried to turn over the ensuing correspondence and paperwork to the city as proof that the law was being blatantly violated. 

What happened next?  Nothing. 

The city is currently debating a new ordinance to regulate these short term rentals, although getting revenue from property owners seems to be as much an impetus for the process as a desire to protect residential neighborhoods.  And while the ordinance does provide added protections, the looming question is whether or not the city has the means and the will to enforce what it ultimately puts on the books.


And it’s not just single family neighborhoods suffering these intrusions.  In Venice, which according to a recent survey has more Airbnb listings than any other LA community, entire apartment buildings have been turned into hotels without the niceties of permits and public hearings.  This has required the eviction of many long-term tenants in rent-controlled units, and the city’s inability and unwillingness to stop it makes the pronouncements of the mayor and city council members about the need for more affordable housing look at best like lip service.


Years ago, I appeared before the old Board of Zoning Appeals at a hearing on the legalization of a bootleg garage apartment across the street from my home.  The zoning administrator had proposed a condition requiring the apartment’s occupant to be a member of the property owner’s immediate family, which I didn’t oppose in theory, but when it was my turn to speak I questioned whether this restriction could be enforced.


The board president’s terse response was that enforcement wasn’t part of their considerations, and the unit was approved with the ZA’s condition.  Several weeks later I saw an “Apartment For Rent” sign on the front lawn of the property, which I photographed and mailed to the building department. I heard nothing in response and because I was busy with other matters, I didn’t pursue it.  I only know that from time to time the For Rent sign would reappear and new faces could be seen coming and going from the place.


Contrary to that board president’s assertion, consideration of enforcement ought to be part of every decision of this nature, part of every debate about new ordinances that are worse than nothing if property owners and others believe they can be ignored with impunity.


If you’ve spent much time following the City Council and various boards and commissions, you’ve probably asked yourself this question. How is a proposed ordinance or other initiative, no matter how well-intentioned, going to be enforced?  Will it be like parking regulations, where you’re certain to get a ticket if you don’t move your car quickly enough on street cleaning days, or will it be like Airbnb houses and billboards, where ordinances gather cobwebs in a dusty corner of the Municipal Code? 


The failure of the city to enforce existing ordinances isn’t the only problem.  When a new ordinance or regulation is proposed to deal with this or that issue the process of getting it enacted is often painfully slow.


One of the most glaring examples came after the legalization of medical marijuana in California. In Los Angeles, while proposals to regulate the sale of the drug were moving at a snail’s pace through the legislative process, medical marijuana outlets wildly proliferated, causing consternation in many communities and generating legal problems that took years to sort out. 


Another concerns the seemingly unavoidable subject of billboard regulation. 


Back in 2008, then Councilman Jack Weiss stood on the City Council floor and forcefully argued for the need to revise the citywide sign ordinance in order to halt the spread of billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising throughout the city.  The city’s Planning Department got all hands on deck and produced an extensively revised ordinance in what was probably record time.  And at the last of three public hearings, the City Planning Commission approved it in March, 2009, and sent it on to the City Council.


The ordinance was referred to the council’s PLUM committee and that’s where it’s been ever since.  Chairman Ed Reyes vowed that the ordinance would be adopted before he was termed out of office in 2013.  His successor, Jose Huizar, expressed confidence in 2015 that the ordinance would be adopted as a present for his September birthday.  Two years and one month later, it languishes in some kind of legislative purgatory.


Will the regulation of Airbnb and short term rentals follow the same trajectory?  In 2015, after increasingly vocal protests about affordable housing units being converted to short term rentals, and houses in residential neighborhoods operating as hotels in blatant violation of the law, the city began discussing new regulations.


A draft ordinance has now made its way to the council’s PLUM committee (yes, that one again) but given the interests lined up on both sides of the issue it’s anybody’s guess when an actual ordinance will emerge, and what the final form will be.  And questions of whether or not its provisions can actually be enforced have already been raised.


With billboards, with short term rentals, with marijuana sales and a number of other issues, deep-pocketed interests like the billboard industry and Airbnb with a vested interest in seeing laws go unenforced deploy their troops of lobbyists to City Hall, and new ordinances that might impinge upon their profits remained stalled in the legislative process. 


And therein, I think, lies the heart of the city’s failures to enforce regulations and get needed regulations on the books in a timely manner.  The mayor and City Council members take strong, vocal stands in favor of progressive causes, but when it comes to butting heads with the interests that employ armies of lobbyists like real estate and billboards, caution and even outright ennui seem to come into play.


After all, in a city like Los Angeles, speaking out in favor of sanctuary status or LGBT rights doesn’t take a politician very far out on a limb, but saying that neighborhoods have to be protected from the collateral damage of real estate development or the tech industry and then actually backing up those words with action does take real courage.


So we might borrow from Charles Dickens and call this account “A Tale of Two Cities.”  The first is a city that recognizes an obligation to protect its residents from threats to their quality of life and strictly enforces ordinances and regulations to make sure that promise is fulfilled.  The second is a city that also recognizes this obligation, but allows the quality of life of its residents to degrade because it fails both to enact the necessary ordinances and to enforce the ordinances that are already on the books.


Or staying on a literary theme with a nod to Joseph Heller, whose second novel after his classic “Catch-22,” was titled “Something Happened,” we could call this account of the city’s inaction on enforcing its ordinances, “Nothing Happened.”


(Dennis Hathaway is past president of the Ban Billboard Blight Coalition and a CityWatch contributor. He can be reached at:Venicedd@gmail.com.