City Wrestles With Dilemma of Garage Units

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was a joke going around the table at the first meeting of a city task force on illegal garage apartments: Now that the election is over, participants chuckled, maybe we can put off dealing with this for another four years.

Indeed, Los Angeles has visited the problem--estimated to involve as many as 100,000 households citywide--every few years since the late 1980s, each time concluding that it's best to do nothing.

But eight people have died in the last four months in illegal garage apartments that became firetraps, forcing city officials to confront the issue once again.

It would seem a simple task: Either shut down the illegal apartments or find a way to make them safe.

But almost every suggested solution has a negative side effect. Closing the garages down could cause homelessness. But legalizing the apartments so they can be better regulated raises the ire of homeowner groups, who fear that higher density zoning would hurt property values.

"Is it better for kids to live in a garage that is a fire hazard than to be homeless?" asked Los Angeles housing director Gary Squier. "These are imponderable questions."

The task force has identified several safety measures that cannot be compromised as members search for answers: All dwellings must have smoke detectors, emergency escape routes and safe electrical wiring, among others. The group has until May to provide the City Council with recommendations on the tougher questions, such as whether the city should flout its own zoning laws by making at least some of the safer garage apartments legal, or simply crack down.

Set up earlier this month with prompting from Councilmen Richard Alarcon and Mark Ridley-Thomas, in whose districts the two fatal fires occurred, the task force includes 13 top officials from several city departments including housing, fire, police, planning, and building and safety. Its conclusions could lead to measures as simple as giving away smoke detectors and as sweeping as changes in the city's zoning and building codes.

Ridley-Thomas probably will press for strict enforcement of existing laws, while Alarcon, who once lived in a garage apartment himself, favors finding a way to make parts of the code more flexible.

"To do nothing is completely irresponsible, and to do anything simplistic is equally irresponsible," said Alarcon, who represents the East San Fernando Valley, where two girls and their grandmother perished March 19 in an electrical fire in a garage apartment whose bedroom had no windows or smoke detectors.

"This is not a planning issue alone," Alarcon said. "It is a social issue."

It is also a dilemma that pits two very different visions of Los Angeles against each other: Is the city to remain a haven for people seeking suburban-style living in single-family homes, or is it to be a place of high density, like New York or Chicago?

Some planning experts say the question has been answered; that Los Angeles has changed, and because of its population boom and expensive housing costs, thousands of homeowners have added on illegal apartments--in garages, basements and divided rooms--that now constitute a huge portion of the city's affordable housing stock. An open secret, some experts say, the apartments should be legalized so city inspectors can ensure their safety.

Others say that only strict enforcement of existing codes can stop the city from changing further.

"Without enforcing the zoning code, the community gradually changes over time, and a property owner in a single family neighborhood may wake up to find he's the only person left with a single family home," said Robin Uptegraff, planning chief for the city of Santa Ana, known around the state for its meticulous code enforcement.

Officials in Santa Ana, which spends $1.8 million a year to ferret out and shut down illegal apartments, and Pasadena, which also has a strict, proactive approach, say they have few problems with garage fires.

"I say the garages that are illegally converted ought to be shut down," said Ridley-Thomas. "They are a risk to public health and public safety. . . . And we shouldn't be doing things that contribute to the devaluing of other people's property."

No one questions that many of the units are extremely dangerous. Food is often cooked on a hot plate, and power comes from extension cords or cheap wiring that can heat up in a flash, igniting curtains and carpets. In December, five children burned to death in an electrical fire in a converted garage in Watts, in Ridley-Thomas' district.

But even when safe, such apartments lead to higher density in neighborhoods whose infrastructure was not designed to handle extra people and cars, opponents say.

"Additional units increase the demand on water and fire services, trash collection, police," said Uptegraff of Santa Ana. "Schools aren't planned for it. Parks aren't planned for it."

Ridley-Thomas, who has said he would be willing to consider small adjustments to the zoning codes even though his preference is to shut the illegal units down, says renters would be better off in housing that is built to legal standards. If the city makes a real commitment to affordable housing, he and others say, those displaced from garages could live in subsidized apartments.

But for now, at least, the city lacks enough affordable housing and experts say it would cost billions of dollars to build enough low-rent apartments for all the city's garage dwellers.

Funding aside, Los Angeles has always been ambivalent toward apartment houses. Settled long after the big eastern cities of tenements and high rises, it was planned as an oasis of single-family homes. Many who came to Los Angeles were fleeing crowded conditions elsewhere, and vowed that their new dream city would never pile families into one or two room apartments.

The building codes and zoning laws enacted here and in other new cities are based on assumptions from the 1930s and 1940s, when immigration had slowed from the early part of the century and it appeared that high quality housing could be the standard for everyone, said William Fulton, publisher of the California Planning and Development Report, a monthly newsletter.

"By the 1960s there was decent housing for most Americans," Fulton said. "So communities didn't concern themselves with cheap housing or substandard housing. They simply set standards that all new housing should be built at a very high level."

In today's Los Angeles, he said, it's only legal to build houses that are fairly expensive and require a lot of land, and that makes it extremely difficult to develop affordable housing.

The result is that people double up, constructing apartments without permits in order to both subsidize high mortgages and meet the city's pressing need for cheap housing.

"What you have in Los Angeles," Fulton said, "is First World zoning and Third World reality."

Although planners have been loath to lower their standards, more than one task force member acknowledged that the city might have to do just that. In fact, the task force is considering at least two "flexible enforcement" approaches to existing building and zoning codes.

One would involve working with homeowners to fix serious safety problems, while ignoring lesser building-code violations that apply more to aesthetics than safety.

For example, landlords would be required to add windows or doors to every room used as a bedroom, but they might not be required to add two off-street parking spaces, said David Keim, spokesman for the city Building and Safety Department.

"We're not talking about red tape items," said Keim. "It's really life safety issues that we're concerned about."

Other alternatives would involve the thornier issue of zoning.

Even if garage apartments are made safer, deputy planning director Frank Eberhard noted, many would remain illegal in neighborhoods where only one home is allowed per lot. But the city could grandfather in existing garage apartments, at least temporarily, Eberhard said. Or it could create residential zones where extra units are allowed, similar to the way horses are allowed in some neighborhoods but not others.

These ideas, however, are likely to anger homeowners who, even in neighborhoods with plenty of illegal units, have traditionally not wanted the legal density to increase.

"It's hypocritical, because so many of them have these in their own backyards," said a top city official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Homeowners, however, say that could mean a death knell for the lifestyle long associated with Los Angeles--and drive down property values.

"I would feel like we've opened Pandora's box, because you're giving people an incentive to do this," said Tony Lucente, president of the Studio City Homeowners Association. "You're beginning the deterioration of stable single family neighborhoods. That's why we have zoning for heaven's sake."

Any decision over which neighborhoods are ripe for the extra density is bound to be fraught with politics. Opponents to the idea fear that poorer neighborhoods will be targets, in part because there are many units already in existence and in part because their homeowner associations might not be as strong as those in wealthy neighborhoods.

"There's going to be a firestorm over any attempt at legalization of these units," said Sally Richman, planning and policy manager for the Los Angeles Housing Department. "We have to be very clear of all the power players, all the stakeholders."

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