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Plan to legalize 'bootlegged' L.A. apartments advances in City Council

Illegal or “bootlegged” apartments — dwellings that were created without city permits — could soon get a smoother path to legalization as Los Angeles lawmakers grapple with a housing crisis that has priced many Angelenos out of decent, affordable homes.

The City Council voted Tuesday to move forward with a plan to make the process of legalizing bootlegged apartments swifter and easier, and asked city lawyers to start drafting an ordinance. Councilman Felipe Fuentes, who championed the plan, said the city needs to bring such units out of the shadows.

“There is a housing crisis and an absolute need here,” Fuentes said.

The idea was born out of an unusual alliance of landlords and tenant advocates, who complain that Los Angeles officials have been shuttering hundreds of apartments annually, many of them safe and livable, while Angelenos struggle to find housing they can afford.

“The housing department is supposed to be creating housing, not taking it off the market,” said Jim Clarke, executive vice president of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles. Clarke dubbed the plan a “win-win” that would keep tenants housed and spare landlords from city charges for relocating them.

But the tentative plan troubles some L.A. residents who see it as a reward for violating the law and worry about whether neighborhoods have enough parking and green space for unplanned units.

“Making illegal units legal does not solve the problem,” said Elizabeth Pollock, president of the Del Rey Residents Assn. “It does not help us to have unplanned density crammed into our neighborhoods.”

Backers of the proposal counter that it would not increase density because it would only legitimize apartments that already exist. City officials said the chance to legalize an apartment would only be offered for a limited amount of time, to prevent people from illegally creating new units and trying to legalize them.

“These are all units where people are already living and parking in neighborhoods,” said Adam Murray, executive director of Inner City Law Center, which advocates for poor tenants.

Between 2010 and 2015, more than 1,700 illegal apartments were eliminated after being discovered by city inspectors. Such units can already be legalized under city rules and may be otherwise habitable, but landlords say the process is so difficult that many are simply shut down and tenants evicted.

In a recent report, city officials said that many such apartments are virtually identical to legal units because they were carved out of other apartments or building space that was legally permitted.

In many cases, they said, the barriers to legalization are not building problems, but zoning requirements that mandate a minimum number of parking spaces or restrict the number of units on the lot. Clarke said some units have existed for years before the buildings were bought by their current owners.

Under the tentative plan sketched out by lawmakers, city planners would use a checklist to make sure that bootlegged units did not create a nuisance in their neighborhoods. If an illegal apartment did not meet those requirements, it would still have a shot at becoming legal, but would have to go through a longer, more involved process that would include notifying neighbors and giving them a chance to appeal.

No apartment could be legalized if it violated health and safety codes, according to the city proposal. However, the city would delay imposing some fines and other penalties while a landlord was in the process of fixing up a unit to try to make it legal.

“We’ve got people living in deplorable conditions, illegally, in converted units,” said Councilman Mitch Englander, who said he had heard from some residents worried about the plan. “This will provide that safety mechanism, legalize them, provide the opportunity for them to live safely.”

Some of the most sensitive details of the plan remain unclear. Lawmakers said landlords would have to provide some affordable housing to legalize units, but the exact requirements have not been spelled out.

Fuentes also said parking rules could be relaxed if apartments were close to transit hubs, but city lawyers still have to hammer out how that would work. Those details will be included in a draft ordinance that will return to the council for approval.

The new rules would only apply to illegal units in apartment buildings, not converted garages or other bootlegged housing shoehorned into lots zoned for single-family homes, despite the fact that city officials believe the bulk of illegal housing citywide exists on such lots.

Fuentes said he hoped to ultimately tackle that problem, but decided to address apartment buildings first because they were already inspected regularly by the city. Clarke said that including converted garages in the ordinance could be a “poison pill” for many homeowner groups worried about legalizing such units.

Murray, of Inner City Law Center, praised the vote as “a remarkable moment.”

“It is very unusual that you have the landlords and the tenant activists in the city on the same page, saying, ‘Yes, we agree on this,’” Murray said.

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