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Why pay a mortgage when you can get away with a bootleg apartment?

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Forget paying a mortgage or rent! If amnesty is granted for bootleg apartments, here's where I'm moving

Every year in Los Angeles, the city's housing department finds 600 to 700 bootleg apartments created by enterprising property owners who have not bothered to obtain permits. According to a Times article by Emily Alpert Reyes, this activity has brought together an "unusual alliance of landlords and tenants" who want the city to issue an amnesty for those units that meet safety codes.

"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," Reyes wrote.

Current practice is to "evict tenants and rip out the unit" after such apartments are discovered, according to Amos Hartson, chief counsel and director of legal services at the Inner City Law Center. Both sides see this as a waste of perfectly good housing.

Reyes wrote: "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."

Not everyone is cool with this. "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."

Though seemingly novel, there are precedents for retroactively legitimizing living spaces that began outside the normal legal strictures. New York's SoHo district, now a tony tourist neighborhood choking with high-end boutiques, was populated during the bad old 1980s days by artists roughing it in former industrial lofts, sometimes without running water, much less certificates of occupancy. A "loft law" allows people who can prove they've been in their now-seven-figure spaces since the "C.H.U.D." period to keep them. Also in New York, squatters have occasionally been allowed to keep "their" homes -- sometimes even collecting city loans to help them make improvements.

In Los Angeles, the police won't arrest a squatter unless there's proof a crime has been committed -- and he or she can be evicted only after a civil proceeding, which can take many months. But that's an ad hoc, not a systemic, policy.

Which brings us to Sann's point. If anyone can create a bootleg apartment anywhere he or she wants, aren't those of us who pay rent and mortgages -- not to mention real estate taxes -- suckers to play by the rules? The median price of a three-bedroom house in L.A. County is $668,000. Wouldn't it be smarter to set ourselves up anywhere we want, then get legal later?

For this cartoon, I fantasize about moving into the ultimate view spot: the top of the Hollywood sign. Because the setting doesn't have a lot of intrinsic detail, I worked a little harder than usual on the foliage.

Follow Ted Rall on Twitter @tedrall

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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