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City funding for developer angers housing advocates

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles City Council voted Friday to provide $8 million to a developer who is rehabilitating a 12-story residential hotel near skid row, infuriating homeless advocates who charge the developer is waging an illegal campaign to drive impoverished tenants out of another building nearby.

Two community groups accused the recipient of the money, San Diego-based Amerland Group, of harassing tenants of the Alexandria Hotel by disabling elevators and turning off the water -- leaving toilets inoperable for hours.

Amerland denied the charges, while council members said they had looked into the allegations and found them to be unsubstantiated. Critics of Amerland said they may be willing to go to court to block the funding, half of which must be repaid by the developer.

“We are certainly weighing all of our legal options, because our political options are basically nothing on this issue,” said Becky Dennison, director of Los Angeles Community Action Network, a group that represents low-income tenants.

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Backers of housing for very low-income residents said the stakes go well beyond two residential hotels. Downtown Los Angeles has thousands of other units in once-grand but now decrepit buildings whose occupants are one eviction away from the street or jail, said UCLA law professor Gary Blasi.

“It’s clear that the last remaining stock of very low-income housing, which is all that stands between homeless people and the street, is in serious jeopardy,” he said. “There’s just enormous development pressure there, and the values of those buildings have grown to where it doesn’t make sense for anyone to operate them as low-income housing in the old model.”

The council’s vote will allow Amerland Group to renovate the Rosslyn Lofts, a 94-year-old residential hotel near 5th and Main streets. Eighty-six of the apartments will go to households who earn 35% of average median income. Another 173 will go to renters who earn 60% of the average median income.

Housing advocates said those rents are still too high for many of the poor who live in the single room occupancy hotels on skid row.

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Roughly a dozen tenants and their supporters, two of them in wheelchairs, appeared before the council to complain that Amerland wants to replace impoverished tenants with those who may have low incomes but can afford to pay higher rent.

“You’ve given a bailout to one of the biggest slumlords in Los Angeles,” added Bilal Ali, who organized some of the Alexandria’s tenants.

Amerland president Ruben Islas strongly disputed the groups’ accusations, saying he has turned off the water in the Alexandria only for short periods of time to install new bathroom fixtures and kitchenettes as part of a wide-ranging renovation.

Islas, in turn, accused his critics of sabotaging work at the Alexandria by turning off the water and disrupting service on an elevator days before a meeting at which the Community Redevelopment Agency reviewed his financing.

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“Someone got into the sub-basement, which isn’t easy to get to, and physically broke through the fence and shut off our water pressure the day before the meeting,” he said.

The two sides even disagree on how many evictions have taken place. Dennison says that 124 units have been emptied since Amerland received permission from the city to take over the Alexandria. Islas said he is responsible for 28.

Not all the Alexandria tenants were troubled by the disruptions. “Yes, it’s an inconvenience. Yes, it’s a pain in the butt. But those are the things you have to go through to get things done,” said tenant Andorra Ward.

Amerland Group bought the Alexandria Hotel a year ago and is expected to complete the renovations in February.

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Last month, Amerland cleared its first hurdle for the city financing at the Rosslyn. A divided redevelopment agency board voted to give the developer monetary assistance, despite protests from two of its members.

Days after that vote, commissioner Madeline Janis, one of seven board members appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said her colleagues were under pressure to approve the $8-million package.

Janis said it was especially unusual to see two council members -- Jan Perry, who represents downtown, and Tony Cardenas, who represents the San Fernando Valley -- sit through four hours of discussion on the matter.

“There was all of this political pressure put on every member of the board,” Janis said. “It was direct, like having two council members sitting there the entire time, to the indirect, like hearing back that the developer was really angry and was going have retribution against any CRA board member who didn’t support him.”

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Cardenas and Perry disputed the allegations. “I don’t know Madeline very well, but anyone who comes up with such a concoction of a scenario is confused and making things up,” Cardenas said.

After the vote, Cardenas chastised organizers of the Community Action Network, saying they had failed to support housing for the working poor. Those activists, in turn, called Cardenas unprofessional.

With the city funding approved, Islas now plans also to seek funds available under Proposition 1C, a state bond measure that provides money for affordable housing projects.

Half of the city’s funding will go toward the apartments designated for renters who earn 35% of average median income. That move will cost the redevelopment agency $46,511 per apartment.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

jessica.garrison@latimes.com


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