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Archive for the ‘Housing Issues’ Category

Illegal sources of income are subject to federal and state income tax; so, why would I object to the City of Los Angeles collecting Transitory Occupancy Tax (TOT) revenue from illegal short-term rentals, such as Air BnB?

In the former case, taxation does not exempt scofflaws from prosecution.  If anything, tax compliance requirements are useful tools to bring criminals to justice or enhance their sentences . If Al Capone were alive, he would agree.

The latter is different – it creates an impediment to enforcing zoning laws.  A cash-strapped city like Los Angeles will not want to bite the hands that feed it.  It is the equivalent of bribery.  Pay to play, and the city will not pursue enforcement of residential zoning codes. The City Council and mayor will drag their feet, if not completely overlook, the protection of honest residents’ right to enjoy their neighborhoods without the adverse effects associated  with revolving door occupancy.

In his annual budget letter to the mayor and City Council, City Controller Ron Galperin weighed in.  He said the city must be “vigilant to consider the potential TOT revenue impacts to the general fund.”

As I read between the lines of his statement, that’s not really an endorsement of the policy. If anything, it is a carefully nuanced assessment.  Ron is the controller and he is required to advise the city on any financial matter – good or bad.

But zoning violations should not be ignored just because the cash generated by the TOT partially mitigates the effects of the city’s reckless approach in managing its budget. Please note that Galperin also emphasized the importance of a prudent and well-balanced budget. Ignoring laws does not meet the definition of prudent.

It’s a good thing that a city-sanctioned, short-term rental scheme did not exist when Scarface Al was around. No telling how much more power he would have wielded in Chicago.

We now face an army of non violent mini-Als, no baseball bats or Chicago pianos, but armed with industry lawyers and plenty of money.

 

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Increased TV and film location shooting in Los Angeles is a good thing, but can it cross a line?

Some residents in a very quiet neighborhood Valley Village think so….and they have good reason. They support local filming, but a certain production has turned their block into a studio backlot extension for too many days.

Five times in two years, to be exact, for multiple days per event – all at the same residence. The permits cover 3-5 days each, although there is usually an added day at the front or back end for prep and breakdown. The hours run from 6AM to 10PM. However, the crews start arriving at 5AM. Overall, this quiet residential street has been a commercial zone for approximately 25 days within the last two years (with more to come), with 10-ton trucks, trailers, canteen vehicles and porta-johns lining both sides of the street. There are no ex-LAPD officers on hand.

valley-village-film-shoot-1

Aside from noise, difficulties backing out of driveways, lack of parking or inadequate access for emergency vehicles – concerns which can be mostly overlooked if they occurred a couple of times per year – the conversion of a residential street for commercial use on a semi-regular frequency is contrary to the right to enjoy one’s property.

There are no restrictions as to how often a specific block or residence can be used as a shooting location.

There are restrictions on yard sales, however.

The owners of the residence who allowed their home to be used are gone during the filming and do not have to put up with the inconvenience. There must certainly be some form of compensation involved. If so, I hope they report it on their tax returns. According to the residents I spoke with, they have not been responsive to appeals from the neighbors.

It would seem there should be a reasonable restriction on location filming in residential neighborhoods, including limits on the number and size of vehicles, the frontage occupied, the hours and days per shoot and minimum requirements for a permit approvals from the affected residents in accordance with the nature and scope of the shoot.

The zoning laws of our city are increasingly being ignored at the expense of the residents.

In this instance, the production company may be enjoying a tax credit for filming locally, but the residents receive little or nothing, only congestion, the aroma of the honey wagons, and noise late into the night.

Not a good deal.

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Through the efforts of Valley Village Homeowners Association and Neighborhood Council Valley Village, a homeless encampment along the 170 embankment, adjacent to Valley Village Park, was cleared.

Since the camp was on Cal Trans property, we asked for and received support from our State Assembly Member. The CHP posted warnings before arranging for the removal of the personal items and trash – there was a considerable amount of the latter.

I was not around to witness the intervention, but there is every reason to believe it was handled as responsibly as possible. No complaints were filed; no reports of violence or excessive force.

The North Hollywood side of the 170 has a homeless problem of its own, too, especially along Tujunga Avenue, where a dozen or so RVs and vans have become permanent fixtures, and homeless prowl the grounds of the Amelia Earhart Regional Library.

While I am pleased by the removal of the Valley Village Park camp, I acknowledge society’s failure in dealing with the underlying problem.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to cast a vote for the city’s proposed $1.2B bond measure, the objective of which is to acquire land and construct housing. It is certainly preferable over a parcel tax, but the cost ultimately still flows through our property tax bills.

But I am not ready to support handing the City Council (or the County Supervisors, for that matter) massive amounts of money when there is no outline or plan to organize, manage and, most importantly, perform timely audits of effectiveness. I would feel a little optimistic if the activities were supervised by financially responsible officials – competent individuals, say someone comparable to City Controller Ron Galperin. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough of Ron to go around.

Whatever the plan, if it does not recognize the distinct challenges posed by the two major component groups of the homeless population – economic victims and those afflicted by mental illness or substance abuse – it is doomed to fail. The plan must allow for triage: the chances of helping the former group are far greater than the latter. $1.2 Billion may sound like a lot, but is is less than $50K for each of the estimated 26,000 homeless. How much housing and services can $50K buy?

We need to focus, then, on making the maximum impact and accept the fact there will be many who are beyond assistance. I am referring to the persons who require institutionalization. Sadly, our laws prevent involuntary medical intervention.

Progress has its own issues, too. There is truth to the line from the film Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.” Even if we achieve a degree of success, there is a risk: we will create a magnet for new waves of homeless persons from other regions, which would offset, if not overwhelm, our capacity to deal with the problem.

Triage is the practical approach, then. Help the homeless in manageable increments. Also, a one-size-fits-all style of housing will not work. Everything from dormitories to well-organized, military-type camps must be considered. Experimentation will be required. We should not hand over a billion dollars until officials can provide evidence of success on a limited scale first.

Lastly, we must not dig ourselves a deeper hole. It is absolute insanity to encourage the destruction of serviceable, affordable housing units, as the city presently does. I was heartened to hear the news that the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative received many more signatures than necessary to qualify for the March 2017 ballot. Without it, our elected officials would be content to create the next generation of homeless in exchange for campaign contributions from developers.

And you are unlikely to find a homeless politician in this city or any other.

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I saw, first-hand, the reaction of a neighborhood group to the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (NII).

Jill Stewart, former managing editor of the LA Weekly and now the campaign manager for the proposed measure, delivered a crisp presentation about the initiative to the Valley Village Homeowners Association on April 20th.

It was not a one-way affair; Stewart fielded at least twenty questions from the roughly fifty members in attendance for the Association’s quarterly general meeting. The questions reflected a strong interest in the subject. Her answers were frank and there appeared to be no reservations about them from the attendees. Thirty-six signed up to receive more information about the initiative.

As with any ordinance, whether initiated by the City Council or through a ballot measure, subsequent enforcement is critical.

For example, even though I am pleased with the proposed draft ordinance to deal with the problem of short-term rentals, will the city apply adequate resources to assure compliance if the proposal becomes law? God knows there is little or none in my neck of the woods. One such rental was cited by the City Housing Department last September. It was referred to the City Attorney’s office soon after, but continues to operate today.

Section 11 of the NII enables an aggrieved person to take legal action against any violation of its provisions. Therefore, it would behoove the city to adequately staff its Planning Department to ensure thorough and timely reviews of developer requests for amendments.

Stewart told the audience that developers are not going to pack up and leave the city rather than work within NII’s rules. The city will still be a good place to build, as it has always been.

I can tell you that builders still find Valley Village desirable even though the community has a formidable Specific Plan, especially with regards to multi-unit housing, the SB 1818 density bonus notwithstanding.

What about the additional planners the city should hire?

Stewart pointed out how large the mayoral and City Council staffs are – around 500 in total, a number higher than that of the entire White House staff (I confirmed 474 from a 2015 report provided to Congress). She suggested shifting some of the budget over to Planning. Checking the Planning department’s 2015-16 budget, it has 268 authorized positions of all types. It is not typical to have executive support staff outnumber employees of a department providing a critical service.

It will be interesting to learn of the feedback from various homeowner associations and neighborhood councils around town as the NII organizers make the rounds.

If they have the same success in reaching out to them as Stewart appears to have achieved with Valley Village, then they will develop a diverse network comprised of knowledgeable people with a passion for protecting their quality of life.

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I recently wrote about the Neighborhood Integrity ballot measure proposal, an attempt to rein in the City Council’s tendency to play fast and loose with general plan amendments, especially when developers contribute to their re-election campaigns.

Just as the ballot measure is a grassroots-driven effort, so is a motion just passed by the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition.

LANCC’s motion calls on the City Attorney to prosecute illegal short-term rental operators. If he does not, the City Council is to hire outside counsel to do so and charge City Attorney Mike Feuer’s budget for the cost.

Here is the motion:
Whereas, it is now clear that short-term rentals are illegal in Los Angeles’ residential neighborhoods, and Whereas the City Attorney has consistently refused to prosecute short-term rental violations in the City of Los Angeles, for a variety of reasons, Now, therefore, be it resolved, that the LANCC urge City Attorney Mike Feuer to enforce the law as required by the Charter, and immediately prosecute short-term rental zoning violations in the City of Los Angeles.
LANCC demands that if after 60 days of this notice, Mr. Feuer does not start enforcement, City Council take action to hire a private law firm to start enforce procedures and reallocate the City Attorney’s budget to pay for those services.

Is it asking too much for our city government to honor our zoning laws and respect the residents quality of life?

It probably is.

Our officials, along with their business and union allies, will spend untold amounts of money to fight the Neighborhood Integrity measure and turn a deaf ear to the LANCC request. For that matter, the City Council generally ignores the NCs on any significant issues.

If the individual NCs vocally supported both of these endeavors and urged their stakeholders to do the same, they might just get some publicity in the media. While that alone would not be enough to influence policy, it would raise awareness of the selfishness that poses as governance in the city.

Ultimately, I see litigation in our future if the status quo persists.

But a better solution would be to defeat developer-friendly officials at the polls.

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For someone who purportedly wants to lead the charge to fight homelessness, City Council member Felipe Fuentes is quick on the eviction trigger.

Acting as if he were LA’s version of the Soup Nazi, Fuentes told Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council, “No space for you!”

My colleague at Citywatch, Denyse Selesnick, did an excellent job of summarizing the timeline of actions leading up to Fuentes’ sudden notice to Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council that the locks to the facility they share with the councilman’s office would be changed on October 15th.  The NC will be denied access to its small, 300-square-foot office space. That’s next week; close enough to Halloween to constitute trick-or-treat, with emphasis on the trick.

The space arrangement goes back to former council member Wendy Greuel’s days, when STNC was part of CD2.  Her successor, Paul Krekorian, honored the agreement. The memo of understanding does state that 30 days notice must be provided to the NC in the event the space was to be re-purposed.

Replacing city-chartered STNC will be two independent non-profits: LA Family Housing and the LA Conservation Corps. So much for being part of the “city family” – a term local politicians often use to describe an invisible bond among the components of municipal government. Make no mistake: STNC is an official part of the city’s structure of governance. Fuentes appears to believe otherwise.

Now, I am not taking a position as to whether the two non-profits are more or less worthy to occupy the space. Nor am I arguing that Fuentes can or cannot act on the termination provision in the MOU.

What I am saying is an entity created under the city charter deserves better treatment. The space arrangement has been in existence for eleven years, plenty of time for the neighborhood council to become ensconced in its setting, with a track record of assisting the community (including the homeless, I might add), and acting as a conduit between the public and the council member’s office.

Pulling the rug out from under STNC is not only disruptive to its mission, it will likely take a large bite out of its annual $37,500 budget.  Unlike the non-profits who will soon occupy the premises, neighborhood councils cannot raise funds.

To add salt to the wound, Fuentes did not offer any assistance to relocate STNC despite having leverage with the General Services Department. Surely, there were other options as far as city-owned facilities go or services to facilitate an orderly relocation.

Why would the council member act so recklessly?

As Denyse Selesnick suggested, it may have something to do with several STNC members who openly supported Patty Lopez in her successful challenge to incumbent Assembly Member Raul Bocanegra. They did so as private citizens; not in the capacity as elected board members.

Bocanegra was Fuentes’ former chief of staff who helped his former boss by placing Fuentes on his office payroll while he was waiting to take his seat on the City Council – a much better deal than unemployment!

Bocanegra was upset by Lopez despite an overwhelming advantage in money and organization.  It was undoubtedly embarrassing  to both men.

It also challenged Fuentes’ reputation as a person who pulls the strings.

It is reasonable, then, to assume Fuentes acted vindictively.  There is no other logical reason for treating duly-elected, respected  civic volunteers so callously.

Yet another example of City Hall’s disrespect for the neighborhood council system.

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What is it with the Los Angeles City Council?

Despite being the best paid city officials in the land, they cannot – or will not – get in front of a growing problem; not even up to speed. Do they have an aversion to doing their jobs, or are they just easily paralyzed by a challenge? It makes me wonder if the council members get tangled up in their underwear while getting dressed in the morning.

Think back – while other cities managed to regulate the growth of medical marijuana outlets, Los Angeles suffered through an explosion of thinly-veiled, illicit distribution establishments, estimated at around 1,000, before Mike Feuer stepped up and enforced the restrictions the voters approved under Measure D.

The unregulated proliferation never would have occurred had the City Council issued sensible regulations and enforced them back in 2007, and responded to neighborhood complaints. Instead, it was the wild west, with dispensaries opening up as fast as saloons did in the Deadwoods of the frontier, except there was no Wild Bill Hickock around to keep order.

Well, once again, the City Council is sitting on its hands.

This time, our officials are deliberately ignoring long-established zoning laws.

Just as medical marijuana dispensaries sprouted like mushrooms, residential units are being converted to boutique hotels across many parts of the city.

I am not talking about homes where the owners are renting out a room to a college student or a newly-landed aspiring actor – a perfectly legitimate activity. What is in play now are complete transformations of properties from single-family homes (including condos) to non-owner occupied, short-term rentals. These units are advertised on popular travel websites by the night, week, etc. Visa//MC/Amex accepted – even the Discover Card.

Full-time residents never know who might be going in and out of these “hotels”, therefore, making it difficult to determine if there is suspicious activity on their blocks. Late-night arrivals and undue noise from parties are also among the complaints. These may sound like minor problems, but who can blame the regular residents when their rights under city zoning laws are being violated and their concerns are ignored. When they purchased or leased their homes, they assumed the properties were located in residential neighborhoods, not on Airbnb Boulevard.

Short-term rentals also take apartments off the market, adding to the housing woes of local residents. The numbers are hotly debated, but there can be no doubt the transition from long-term use has the potential to push rental costs upward.

The City Council apparently has two opposing factions on this issue, both small, and some members who just do not care. There is talk of drafting an ordinance, but the problem will just spin further out of control the longer it takes….. and become even more difficult to resolve.  This is inexcusable in view of regulations passed by San Francisco and New York, which can serve as off-the-shelf models for a Los Angeles ordinance. If you follow the links and read the summaries, you will see that they are not all or nothing, but, most importantly, consider public safety as well as residents’ interests. It now appears Santa Monica is taking steps to curb the growth.

The State Assembly is in the very early stages of formulating bills, but what’s to stop the city from introducing an interim ordinance?

The owners of the short-term rental properties are becoming increasingly organized, and their enablers – firms such as Airbnb – are lobbying city officials. Airbnb has some serious money at its disposal, considering it is on the way to being valued at $20-billion.  Plenty of spare change there to buy a few council members. That can’t happen, or can it?

While the council drags its feet, one would think, at a minimum, that zoning laws would be enforced.  Many, if not most, of the short-term rentals have undergone some degree of structural modification.  Some may even lead to violations of occupancy caps or pose safety hazards.  Many are certainly not paying the city business tax, and perhaps not income tax. So, then, legitimate residents are allowing themselves to be screwed for free! We would make lousy sex workers.

The only way to counter the growing resources of the short-term rental industry and the negligence of our City Council is to bombard our officials with complaints, by mail, phone, e-mail and in person.  Next time you attend a neighborhood council or association meeting, don’t just sit back and allow your council member or his/her staff representative to reel off all the good little things they have done for your community, pin them down on this issue and others they conveniently ignore.  We pay them enough.

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