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Landlords, tenants unite on amnesty plan for illegal apartments

Los Angeles landlords and tenants have formed an unusual alliance seeking amnesty for illegal apartments
The L.A. apartment amnesty plan would require units to meet safety standards but free them from other rules

An unusual alliance of landlords and tenants wants Los Angeles to ease the way for bootlegged apartments to become legal.

Each year, the city housing department discovers 600 to 700 such apartments, units created without city approval.

Landlords argue that many of these nonconforming apartments are perfectly safe. And tenant advocates say they often provide rare patches of affordable housing in a city of whopping rents.

Together, they are pushing for Los Angeles to provide a kind of amnesty for unapproved apartments. It would require such units to meet safety standards but free them from some other rules, such as parking requirements, that often trip them up in city codes and sometimes force residents out of their homes.

Right now, "the quick remedy is to evict the tenants and rip out the unit" when the city uncovers an illegal apartment, said Amos Hartston, chief counsel and director of legal services at Inner City Law Center. If the city smooths the way to fix up and permit such units, "it's a potential win-win."

The details are still being worked out, but backers say the idea is simple: Landlords could come forward and fix plumbing, wiring or other issues without enduring a lengthy, expensive process to comply with city codes. Tenants could avoid being displaced from decent apartments.

Although the idea has united landlord and tenant groups, it troubles residents concerned about pinched parking and other strains on neighborhoods.

"If you follow this lawless path, you'd very quickly see the quality of life deteriorate for residents in lawful, permitted apartments," said Steve Sann, chairman of the Westwood Community Council. "It's a fiction to say you can cram more people in the same space and nobody loses out."

Landlords can already try to legalize such units but say the time and expense can be draining. Irma Vargas, whose company manages properties in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, said one of her owners sank $60,000 into one, including the costs of lost rent, permits and tearing down a staircase and altering an entrance to add parking.

Others simply close the apartments. Property manager William Dawson said that years ago, city inspectors discovered bootlegged units at one of his buildings in Sawtelle. The housing department indicated that doorways to main units were sealed without city approval and some guest rooms had illegally added plumbing or kitchens.

Dawson said the elderly owners believed the apartments weren't a problem because they existed long before they bought the building. Records show that inspectors noted some other issues, including walls or ceilings that needed to be patched and painted, but Dawson said the units had the necessary doors, windows and bathrooms.

"Everything met safety standards, but we couldn't comply with the parking requirement," Dawson said. "So we were forced to evict these ladies that wanted to stay."

The rare partnership between tenant and landlord advocates arose after a clash at City Hall. Four years ago, the City Council considered — then scuttled — a plan to temporarily freeze rents on hundreds of thousands of rent-controlled apartments. Outraged protesters started shouting in the council chambers and refused to leave, spurring three arrests.

After the uproar, then-Councilman Tony Cardenas called a meeting between tenant and landlord groups. "I said, 'Look, y'all need to talk to each other,'" said Cardenas, now a congressman. "We are not going to sit here and argue ad nauseam."

The team of rivals continued to meet in the years since.

Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, said that if their idea becomes a reality, "people's lives are not going to be disrupted by having to be displaced. They can have a little bit of security for their families that they're living in safe homes. And for the landlords, it also means an increase in their property values."

The alliance has yet to release a written proposal, but tenant and landlord groups described the imagined amnesty in similar terms. It would not cover granny flats or garages illegally converted into apartments, but would be available to apartments carved out of other units, such as apartments divided up or converted out of existing rooms.

Both sides stressed that the amnesty would be available only to long-standing units. "If someone heard about this and they had a storage room and they ran in and put a little kitchenette and shower in it, they couldn't qualify," said Rick Otterstrom, a director of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles.

Other cities have taken similar action: San Francisco recently offered a path to legalization for bootlegged units that met building requirements. Santa Monica granted leeway to some units if their owners could make them safely habitable. And Ventura temporarily relaxed some zoning requirements and fees for approving a second, previously unapproved unit.

In Los Angeles, some lawmakers have already expressed interest. Councilman Felipe Fuentes wants a working group to come up with specific recommendations on how more apartments can be legalized. Another councilman, Paul Koretz, said it made little sense to eliminate housing.

If an amnesty is proposed, "people will object," Koretz said. "But in every case, people have been living with this already. They just don't know it."

Illegal units can be uncovered through complaints or discovered during routine inspections by the city housing department, which examines apartment buildings every four years. Others are detected by the Department of Building and Safety, which inspects single-family homes and commercial buildings.

In Echo Park, 77-year-old Paul Hansen was stunned to get an order telling him to eliminate the basement apartment that had existed in his home for decades. He had long assumed the unit was legitimate and paid fees to the housing department for it annually.

Hansen said the downstairs tenant, an 81-year-old man, would be at risk of homelessness if evicted. "What else could he find for $400 a month?" he asked. "Nothing."

His case, still under city review, would not be affected by the imagined amnesty because the unit is in a single-family home, not an apartment building. Otterstrom said the group decided to focus on apartment buildings partly because granny flats and converted garages were touchier for neighborhood groups.

The budding plan already worries some residents: Sann said it could give landlords a windfall without helping neighborhoods starved for parking and green space. Westwood homeowner Barbara Broide said the city should reexamine existing housing programs instead of adopting a "Band-Aid approach to legalize every rec room."

But Fuentes said that in the face of L.A.'s housing shortage, "everything has to be on the table."

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesEmily for breaking news from City Hall

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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