Rules limit home size, hotel conversion in L.A.

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday approved new rules to address major byproducts of the gentrification that has swept the city: limiting the size of “mansionization” additions and making it harder for developers to convert low-income housing into luxury lofts.

The rules radically limit the size of remodeled homes in the city’s flatlands to about 3,000 to 4,000 square feet in most cases, curtailing what homeowners say is a plague of giant, ugly stucco boxes that are killing neighborhood character.

On the other end of the spectrum, council members voted to preserve more than 18,700 units in residential hotels, mostly in downtown, that advocates worry are in danger of being turned into luxury lofts or condominiums, leaving many of the city’s poorest with nowhere to live.


The controversial measures required heavy negotiation among activists, property owners and businesspeople. But in both cases, the unanimous decisions by council members represent recognition of the incredible pressures that rising property values and gentrification have exerted on virtually every corner of the city in recent years.

Despite the recent slowdown in the housing market, officials said the ordinances were necessary to protect neighborhoods in the future.

“When certain neighborhoods have homes on steroids and others no longer have a place for the poor to sleep, the social fabric is torn,” said City Council President Eric Garcetti.

For years, the city has been criticized for not doing more to preserve the look and character of existing neighborhoods against “tear-downs,” in which property owners demolish homes and replace them with dwellings often two or three times larger. Many other Southern California cities, including Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, have far more restrictive mansionization rules.

Activists also have been alarmed at how the revitalization of downtown L.A. has led some owners of residential hotels that for decades were the domain of the poor to remake their properties for the new downtown crowd.

Mercedes Marquez, general manager of the city’s Housing Department, said the double action represented a move “to make sure that everybody has a say and stake” in the city.


The mansionization law was proposed more than two years ago, after residents complained that behemoth houses were invading communities across the city, dwarfing neighborhood scale, and destroying peace and privacy.

On Tuesday, Mark Lipis of Westwood brought council members poster-size photos of his neighbor’s house towering over his own. He described the offending home as a 6,500-square-foot giant with a roof deck and an elevator.

Other residents from all over Los Angeles had similar complaints.

One woman invited the council to a backyard barbecue to experience the loss of privacy she said her neighbor’s giant home had caused.

The new law limits most homes to a square footage about half the size of the lot, plus 400 square feet for a garage. It would affect 304,000 lots in the flatlands of Los Angeles, most of the city’s single-family homes.

Since the average size of a home in Los Angeles is now 1,700 square feet and many lots are between 5,000 and 6,000 square feet, city officials said most homes still have plenty of room to grow before hitting the new limits.

Councilman Tom LaBonge said he hoped to see a similar law for the city’s 100,000-plus hillside homes soon.

Building industry and real estate representatives, on the other hand, warned that the law would drive down property values and hurt the city’s economy. They also decried what they said was the law’s one-size-fits-all policy.

James Ward Litz, government affairs director for the Beverly Hills/Greater Los Angeles Assn. of Realtors, conceded that there is “bad design out there.” But hurting property values is not the way to fix it, he said.

Others, including representatives from the building industry, cited a report commissioned by the city that said the law could lead to an “immediate decline” in property values.

But council members were easily persuaded otherwise, approving the measure 12 to 0. Council members Jack Weiss, Bernard C. Parks and Garcetti were absent for the vote. Garcetti, who made an appearance in support of the ordinance, was on jury duty.

The residential hotel ordinance passed 13 to 0, with Parks and Garcetti absent. It replaces a temporary measure approved in 2005, when there was a growing concern that available housing for the poor -- especially in downtown Los Angeles -- was rapidly dwindling amid the gentrification of historic neighborhoods. That ordinance was set to expire later in the month.

The law, which is modeled on a similar regulation in San Francisco, protects units in the 336 single-room-occupancy and residential hotels across the city, most of which are privately owned.

Owners who wish to convert their buildings may do so only if they meet a strict set of guidelines requiring them to replace the residential units within two miles of their building or pay a fee that would provide for acquisition of a new site plus 80% of the cost of constructing new units.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who introduced the ordinance, said it would protect the city’s residential housing stock while providing incentives to improve living conditions in the aging properties. Landlords who agreed to place all their units under a 55-year covenant for low-income tenants would qualify for city and state affordable housing funds.

Activists who support the new law said it provides strong protections for the city’s poorest.

“We feel like it’s a strong victory for tenants, one of the first victories in quite a while,” said Becky Dennison of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, one of several dozen groups supporting the measure.

Veronica Perez Becker, vice president of legislative affairs for the Central City Assn., a business advocacy group, called the ordinance a “flexible policy that takes into account the needs of the business community.”

Perez Becker said the ordinance “allows revitalization to continue,” in part because there are provisions allowing owners to convert their buildings if they follow certain rules.

The owner of the downtown Cecil Hotel took issue with his building’s designation as a residential hotel. In recent months, the Cecil has been the target of activists who allege that the owners have conducted prejudiced and illegal housing practices.

But Michael Ross told the council that most of his hotel’s guests are tourists.

“We haven’t been given due process,” he said, adding that the ordinance would “give L.A. control over our property without recourse.”

A lawyer for the Cecil filed a lawsuit against the city late Monday, seeking relief from the ordinance as well as $40 million in damages and fees.

Jane Usher, head of the city’s Planning Commission, said the ordinances were important to Los Angeles’ future.

“Both represent an understanding of the needs of our residents,” she said. “The city needs to be home to people of every income.”