Mon, May

LA City Council: ‘City Hall is Clueless about Its Role in Fueling Homelessness


VOICE OF THE PEOPLE--Were the evictions of more than 20 disabled veterans, elderly and low-income people from 1850 N. Cherokee, (photo above) which left two residents of the rent-stabilized building permanently homeless, a really rare outcome of the LA City Council's habit of giving developers favors to build whatever they want, even if it pushes the poor out of the way? Or is the tragic scenario at Cherokee Avenue actually a lot more widespread than imagined — as testimony this week involving three LA City Council members strongly suggested? 

The answer: The testimony revealed that the City Council and LA Planning Department have no idea how many evictions, or how much destruction of affordable housing, they create by approving “spot zoning” — the severe bending of zoning rules on a single piece of land. In fact, City Hall's broken planning system is fueling LA's luxury housing craze — at the expense of everyone else.  

Historic 1850 N. Cherokee is the centerpiece of a tragedy, having been emptied in 2013 of its low-income Angelenos by the wealthy Lesser family — to make way for luxury condos. A “spot zoning” change in 2009 allowed the Lessers to subdivide the land for luxury condos. This exemption from zoning rules wipes out many rent-stabilized units in Los Angeles. Already 22,000 rent-stabilized units have vanished in LA since 2000, fueling LA's homeless crisis. The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, a reform heading for the March ballot and sponsored by the Coalition to Preserve LA, is focusing heat on the City Council to end its practice of letting wealthy developers get around zoning rules that are supposed to protect communities.  

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative requires the City Council to do its job, by writing a General Plan and 35 Community Plans that respect what communities want, reducing developer control over the planning process.  

But as testimony at City Hall this week revealed, the system is broken. Only some Cherokee tenants were paid relocation fees required under the Ellis Act, a state law that allows mass evictions if the building owner wants to permanently transform his structure into a non-rental use. Some Cherokee residents, according to testimony before LA City Council members Gil Cedillo, Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Jose Huizar, were not properly compensated.  

Several tenants were also promised a chance at the new condos that were on the way at Cherokee. Under redistricting in 2012 the property was shifted from Council District 4 to District 13. Developer David Lesser persuaded the new city councilman, Mitch O'Farrell (who is even more eagerly pro-developer than Garcetti), to allow Lesser to pursue a much more profitable project — a luxury hotel.  

“Susan,” an older woman who lived at Cherokee for 30 years, was among those mass-evicted by Lesser under the Ellis Act. Susan told the Council members, “You never quite recover from that. I dream about my old apartment. Now I see it happen to dozens, probably hundreds, probably thousands of other people. It’s unconscionable what’s going on.”  

City officials have justified allowing Lesser to switch from condo housing to hipster hotel by portraying the forced-eviction apartment building to be nothing more than a “vacant” shell, no harm done. Which is clearly a lie by city officials. But just as improper, the Department of Planning has declared the proposed upscale hotel to be “residential” not commercial — allowing wealthy developer Lesser to provide fewer amenities, yet another City Hall favor to a developer who drove people out.  

“Homelessness is on rise and 1850 Cherokee is an example of that,” Sylvie Shain, an advocate for the displaced who appealed the hotel plan this week, testified to Cedillo, Harris and Huizar. “Two of the former tenants are still homeless three years later — one lives on the couches of benevolent friends and the other is living in his car.”  

Sitting as the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee (PLUM), the three councilmembers ultimately did something rarely seen at City Hall: they sided with the little guys. Dawson and Cedillo voted to back Shain’s appeal of the city’s approvals for a luxury hotel at Cherokee, with Huizar voting against Shain’s appeal. (Photo right: Councilman Huizar)  

In a revealing and highly unusual exchange, all three PLUM committee members — Cedillo, Dawson and Huizar — appeared stunned that the city's small Department of Planning, whose staff is about half the size of Seattle's, does not know how many people the City Council is displacing by backing “Ellis Act” evictions. Yet the City Council and Department of Planning are the ones who set these evictions in motion, whenever they let developers turn LA’s desperately-needed affordable housing into a different use.  

How is this possible? Los Angeles has the highest paid City Council in the nation ($184,000 a year), and each council member has a personal staff of up to 25 aides. Yet read the below back and forth between the three councilmen and Director of City Planning Vince Bertoni at this week's fascinating PLUM hearing (yes, we said fascinating hearing). It reveals that the City Council is utterly in the dark about the human displacement its land-zoning manipulations cause:  

Huizar: “Mr. Bartoni when we get these projects before us, seeking an 'entitlement' and/or a new use on a property, is there something in the documents that flags to [us] that the property is under the rent-stabilization ordinance and/or the Ellis Act? Does anything flag us?”  

Vince Bartoni, City Planning Director: “I’ll ask Mr. Rausch to come to the microphone to address that.”  

Charlie Rausch, L.A. City Planner: “What was question again?”  

Huizar: “Whenever there’s an applicant to change a use for a property, do we get somehow flagged in our documents that this [property] is under rent-stabilization or under the Ellis Act?”  

Rausch: “Generally not. I haven’t seen one in a case file.”  

Huizar: “I’ve always wondered what’s the cumulative impact … At some point we should have an odometer that says, 'Look, you’re taking off [the market] all these rent stabilization units. Does the left arm in housing department, who is in charge of this, really know what we are doing over here?” 

At that point, Rausch reminded Huizar of the hotly disputed proposal to transform the affordable Wyvernwood housing development in Huizar’s district in Boyle Heights, displacing a staggering 6,000 residents who stand in the way of 4,400 proposed luxury condos and luxury rentals. Only 15% would be set aside as “affordable.” The gigantic multi-skyscraper urban renewal plan hearkens back to massive, vertical projects pushed by Eastern cities decades ago.  

Boyle Heights residents have marched in the streets against Wyvernwood, which would forever transform and gentrify heavily working-class and Latino Boyle Heights. It would pour 20,000 mostly upscale new residents into several 24-story towers, and would include 300,000 square feet of office, commercial and retail space. The wealthy developer, Steven Fink of Fifteen Group in Miami, would be allowed by City Hall to carve up extensive green space and meadow-like grounds that meander through Wyvernwood, to jam in several new streets.  

With a nod to respecting the existing tenants, Huizar has nevertheless backed the developer. Simply put, Wyvernwood is the equivalent of displacing a small working-class town for the desires of a single developer.  

In the end, this week's City Hall PLUM committee upheld Sylvie Shain's appeal against the luxury hotel proposed at Cherokee, which she based on requirements of CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act.  

Cedillo said of the human displacement tragedy created at 1850 N. Cherokee, “People have been basically put asunder.” Dawson said, “We don’t even know if the people got the basic relocation fee — while the letter [of the law] might have been met, the spirit is being violently violated in this case.”  

If Cedillo and Dawson stick to their guns at next Tuesday's follow-up PLUM hearing (plus find one more city council member on PLUM to back them with a third vote), the consistently pro-developer LA Planning and Land Use Committee might find itself in an unusual situation: turning down a rich developer with a bad project that breaks the city’s zoning rules and displaces people.  

Mark Simon, of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, summed it up best to the PLUM councilmen: “Just walk outside — in maybe 20 feet in each direction, [you'll] get some hard evidence of the devastation projects like these cause on the homeless impact. It's ridiculous to say there’s no hard evidence — my God, we’re all living with it.”


(Jill Stewart is Campaign Director for the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative and former LA Weekly editor. She can be reached at [email protected]. Miki Jackson writes about Los Angeles politics. She can be reached at: [email protected]


Tags: Jill Stewart, people’s voice, Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, 2preservela, 1850 N. Cherokee, LA City Council, city hall, PLUM committee, David Lesser, Erick Garcetti, Jose Huizar, Gil Cedillo, Coalition to Preserve LA


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