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Proposal to Fine Owners of Illegal Dwellings Delayed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fearing it would force thousands of tenants into the streets, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday turned away from a plan that would impose criminal fines against landlords who rent out illegally converted garage dwellings.

Instead, after an emotional debate that touched on the need for more affordable housing in Los Angeles, the council unanimously approved a less controversial program that would educate residents on the dangers of living in garages.

The council put off for at least 30 days a vote on issuing $1,000 fines to landlords who rent out the bootleg dwellings. But there seemed to be little support among council members to ever enact the fines.

The crackdown appeared doomed after several council members who represent low-income neighborhoods blasted it because it did nothing to find new housing for evicted tenants.

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“Why do we believe this will work without some interim strategy?” said an angry Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who represents Hollywood and surrounding neighborhoods. “Where are these folks going to go?”

The debate was quelled when Councilman Hal Bernson, who originally proposed the landlord fines, asked that the plan be sent to a special committee on garage dwelling for further study.

That committee was formed in response to two garage fires that killed eight people in the last four months. City officials estimate that up to 200,000 people in Los Angeles live in more than 42,000 garage dwellings.

Despite nearly two hours of debate, several city officials worried that the problem is so complex that it may lie idle in the committee indefinitely.

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“We have got to get this on the minds of everyone on the council,” said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents parts of South Los Angeles. “There will be no perfect solution because of the gargantuan size of the problem.”

Bernson’s original motion was to charge landlords a $1,000 misdemeanor fine for renting out illegal garage dwellings. He also wanted to force landlords to help pay for the cost of relocating garage tenants.

Bernson also asked the city to support state legislation to seek felony charges against landlords if a tenant is killed or injured in a garage fire.

Bernson argued that his proposal was “not draconian.” He said he believes there are plenty of vacant apartments in the city to house the garage tenants.

“We are not interested in throwing people into the streets,” he said. “We want to create safe and decent housing.”

But several tenant rights advocates who testified before the council disagreed, saying there is not enough affordable housing in the city to accommodate the estimated 200,000 garage tenants.

“Even if [garage tenants] get relocation benefits, where are they supposed to go?” asked Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a tenants’ rights group. “Nearly a quarter of a million people cannot be swept under the rug.”

Under the current process, Building and Safety inspectors issue a notice to landlords who rent out an illegal garage dwelling, giving them 30 days to vacate the garage.

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If the landlord ignores the notice, the matter is turned over to a hearing officer in the city attorney’s office for resolution. If the landlord still refuses to cooperate, the city attorney can file criminal charges.

A landlord can only rent out a garage legally if the property is zoned for multiple units and the landlord gets the necessary permits to convert the garage to a stand-alone dwelling.

Councilman Richard Alarcon sought to modify Bernson’s proposal by giving landlords a 180-day amnesty period before a citation is issued so long as the garage dwelling does not pose a safety hazard. He offered no amnesty if the unit is considered a safety risk.

Alarcon also asked that the city put a lien on the landlords who refuse to pay the fines or relocation costs of garage tenants.

But Maureen Siegel, chief of the city attorney’s criminal division, told the council that criminal fines may not solve the problem because landlords can simply evict the tenants immediately or pay the fine and continue to rent out the garage.

The city turned its attention to the problem of garage dwellings after a March fire in an illegally converted garage in Sun Valley, which killed a woman and two of her grandchildren.

A few months earlier, five members of a South-Central Los Angeles family died in a garage blaze.


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