L.A. approves a 'path to legalization' for some bootlegged apartments

Year after year, Los Angeles has forced hundreds of illegal or “bootlegged” apartments to be shuttered, even as local politicians bemoan a housing crisis.

Now the city is easing the way to legalize such apartments, a plan long championed by an unusual alliance of landlords and tenant activists.

The Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to approve a new law that smooths the way for landlords to get approval for bootlegged apartments — existing units that were created without the city’s blessing — if they guarantee affordable housing on the site.

Councilman Jose Huizar heralded it as a step that would add affordable units and bring existing housing “out of the shadows.” He stressed that the apartments still would need to meet “all fire, life and safety codes.”

“This is a common-sense solution in increasing the city of Los Angeles’ affordable housing stock and protecting many low- and moderate-income Angelenos,” Huizar said Wednesday.

But critics counter that L.A. should find other ways to relieve its housing crisis, saying that the city should not reward “illegal behavior.”

“There are tons of places that aren’t developed in the city, but they don’t have the political courage to do what’s necessary,” said Beverly Grove resident Matthew Berger, who went to City Hall this week to raise concerns about the plan. “Instead of doing affordable housing the right way, they’re forcing this on us.”

Politicians have been under pressure to relieve the high cost of housing for Angelenos.

More than a quarter of Los Angeles households are severely burdened by housing costs, spending more than half of their income on a place to live, according to a study released last year by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. That was the highest rate among more than 300 metropolitan areas that researchers examined across the country.

Housing advocates say L.A. must build more housing and prevent the elimination of existing affordable homes.

Last month, lawmakers tightened rules for tearing down and replacing apartments covered by rent stabilization rules. Mayor Eric Garcetti has declared that the city is more than halfway to his goal of permitting 100,000 new units and has pressed for a new fee on development to fund affordable housing.

Making it easier to legalize bootlegged apartments is a “small but significant step” to address affordability, Councilman Gil Cedillo said in March.

Law doesn’t apply to ‘granny flats’

The new law applies to buildings in areas that are zoned for multiple families, including apartment complexes and duplexes.

It does not cover bootlegged units tucked behind homes in neighborhoods zoned for single families. Los Angeles has been embroiled in a separate debate over how to regulate newly constructed “accessory dwelling units,” also known as granny flats, that are built behind homes after California passed new laws that invalidated its existing city rules.

Bootlegged apartment units already could be legalized in the past, but landlords said the process was so difficult and costly that it was easier to shut them down and evict tenants. Between 2010 and 2015, more than 1,700 units were eliminated after being discovered by city inspectors, according to the housing department.

Tenant advocates lamented that many of those apartments were safe and habitable but were difficult to legalize because of other city requirements. Some were created years ago by walling off a bedroom in an existing unit, making them virtually identical to legally sanctioned apartments.

Under the new system, Los Angeles will relax some of its rules, including restrictions on the number of apartments allowed on site, if landlords agree to provide at least one additional affordable unit and guarantee that it will remain affordable for at least 55 years.

The process is much like the state system allowing “density bonuses” for developers who pledge that a percentage of their units will be affordable for people with lower incomes. Depending on how many affordable units a landlord provides, he or she can get up to three modifications in zoning rules, such as reducing requirements for open space or parking spots.

City officials say that in most cases, however, a landlord has only one bootlegged unit that needs to be legalized.

Units had to be occupied during a five-year window

To gain city approval, the bootlegged apartments must meet other city code requirements and must have been occupied sometime between Dec. 11, 2010, and Dec. 10, 2015. That rule is meant to prevent landlords from rushing to improperly carve up more apartments and legalize them under the new ordinance.

Anyone who tries to do that would have to go through the older, more difficult process to legitimize the units, city officials said.

“We’re not creating anything new. These tenants already live there,” said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a tenant advocacy group. “This protects existing affordable housing and enables landlords to have a legal unit and not be subject to fines. … Everyone comes out ahead.”

The Del Rey Residents Assn., a nonprofit neighborhood group, has consistently opposed the measure, arguing it would reward people for flouting the law.

“The retroactive sanctioning of illegal construction is nothing more than a public acknowledgement that the city is incapable of enforcing the law,” its president, Elizabeth Pollock, wrote to city lawmakers.

Some of the ordinance’s original proponents have been concerned about its final details: The Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, which joined tenant advocates to push for the measure, raised concerns that requiring units to remain affordable for 55 years could dissuade some landlords from going through the process.

However, “we’re happy that people finally have a path to legalization,” said Fred Sutton, government affairs director for the association.

In reaction to their concerns about the 55-year requirement, city lawmakers have asked to hear back from the planning department in one year to determine whether the law needs to be adjusted.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesEmily


UPDATES:

2:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background on the city’s housing crisis.

This article was originally published at 12:35 p.m.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
74°