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Alert! LA Planning’s Repeal of Second Dwelling Standards Threatens your Single-Family Neighborhood

LOS ANGELES

ZONING ASSAULT-Anyone concerned about the Los Angeles City Planning Department’s proposed repeal of the City’s current protective second dwelling unit standards -- supposedly to encourage development of affordable rental properties -- should visit 6651 Noble Avenue in Van Nuys. (photos above) You’ll see a vivid example of the damage that the proposed repeal (and resulting application of the State default standards) can do to a quiet single-family neighborhood.

Our neighborhood consists of single-family homes built in the 1950s and 60s on 8,000 square foot lots. The average home is about 1,500 square feet, all one-story. Our neighborhood is designated as “Low Density Residential” in the General Plan and zoned R-1, which, according to the Zoning Code, limits the use to a “one-family dwelling” per lot. Almost all of the houses are owner-occupied – relatively few houses are rented.

Many of our neighborhood’s homeowners have invested to upgrade their homes. To all of us, our backyards are a precious part of our homes – a key reason we choose to live in a single-family neighborhood. Our backyards are typically small (about 2,500 square feet), but they have the usual mix of amenities: gardens, children’s play equipment, barbeques, patios and sometimes pools. These are private spaces where we enjoy being outdoors.

In November 2015, a real estate speculator purchased the 1,368 square foot house at 6651 Noble Avenue for $450,000 in a probate sale. He quickly began to renovate the existing house. Most neighbors thought nothing of it, other than wondering who the new owner would be and whether he would sell or rent the house.

We were shocked, however, to see that in February 2016 the investor began building a huge second house in the backyard! In fact, it was a 1,200 square foot, three-bedroom, two bathroom detached two-story house with an attached two-car garage (shown in the attached photos). The second house was taller than the original house and almost as large in area. The windows from the second story, presumably a master bedroom, looked directly into the backyards of all 5 surrounding homes, and even into the windows of our bedrooms and living rooms, giving anyone inside a clear view of what had been private areas of our home. The building site had once been a single-family home with a nice backyard -- like all of the others on the street -- but was now two homes with no backyard.

Beyond this, we learned that the investor intended to rent the original house for $3,000 per month and the second house for $2,900 per month – a total of nearly $6,000 per month. 

Concerned neighbors called the Department of Building and Safety and complained that a huge second house was being built in an R-1 zone. We assumed that the house was being built without permits. We were horrified to learn from City officials that an obscure memorandum issued by the Chief Zoning Administrator in 2010 (called ZA Memo No. 120) permitted anyone “by right” to build a second house up to 1,200 square feet as long as it met the setback and other requirements of the Code. In this instance, the R-1 zone does not have a height or one-story limit and the developer could easily build within the setbacks simply by eliminating the backyard. 

I have never considered myself to be a “NIMBY.” Our neighborhood, like many in Los Angeles, has major boulevards with large commercial developments nearby – office buildings, hospitals, shopping centers, apartments. I believe that well-planned high quality development can be an asset for the community. I know we have a housing crisis, and many hardworking families spend too much of their hard-earned income to rent housing. Vacancy rates are at an all-time low, and rents are at an all-time high. I agree that the City should do more to encourage truly affordable housing.

I don’t disagree that a homeowner should be able to build a small unit to house a parent, family member or caretaker – a so-called “granny flat.” If tightly regulated with sensible development restrictions, we can accommodate these units in our single-family neighborhoods. For example, the City’s current adopted standards limit second units to only 640 SF, not the 1,200 SF two-story monster being built in our neighborhood, and they would prevent these units from being visible from the street frontage. 

But, I don’t understand why the City Council would repeal our adopted Zoning Code development standards for second dwellings and intentionally substitute a policy designed to insert huge, highly visible second units into our single-family neighborhoods. This is especially hard to understand when the second houses will be rented at rates that won’t even come close to being affordable to lower income families. And I certainly don’t understand why the City Council would surrender its zoning authority to default standards that the Legislature designed to be so permissive that cities and counties would normally prefer to adopt their own more restrictive standards to control and mitigate the negative impacts of new second unit construction. The City Council must recognize that one of our City’s most important assets – strong, stable single-family neighborhoods – should not be compromised in this manner. 

Our neighborhood is grateful that our councilmember, Nury Martinez, understands the harm that this type of development will cause in our neighborhoods. She heard our concerns, and she took a firm stand to formally oppose the repeal of the second dwelling ordinance.

My neighbors and I urge all of CityWatch’s readers to contact their City Councilmember immediately and insist that the existing protections against second dwellings be maintained.

(Michelle Kiers is a producer at Disney Studios, lives in Los Angeles and is active in the fight against out-of-control second unit policies. Carlyle Hall contributed to this article.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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