The luxury housing that Measure S would stop doesn’t actually require many evictions
Eve Hars, undergoing chemotherapy for Stage 3 breast cancer, was facing eviction.
A developer had purchased her rent-controlled Echo Park bungalow to level it and build new housing.
Hars recounted her story in a recent campaign ad paid for by supporters of Measure S, the March 7 ballot measure that would put a two-year moratorium on developments that need certain exemptions from city planning rules.
“I had to hire a lawyer just to stay through my treatment,” Hars said in the video. “Everyone else has been evicted.”
In campaign ads and news releases, backers of Measure S, also known as the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, describe real estate development in Los Angeles as out of control — a wave of large, luxury housing projects that not only gridlocks traffic, but leads to the demolition of thousands of rent-controlled units and eviction of their tenants.
But a Los Angeles Times review of city records found that only a small fraction of such evictions in recent years was caused by the types of projects Measure S would bar: those requiring zone changes, height district changes or General Plan amendments, a practice often labeled as “spot zoning.”
In fact, if the measure had been in place, it wouldn’t have stopped the development set to replace Hars’ apartment.
That’s because in the vast majority of cases in which developers demolish rent-controlled units, they are building new houses, subdivisions and midsize residential complexes that don’t need the planning exemptions targeted by Measure S.
The Times reviewed city records from 2011 to 2015, a period that includes the most recent development boom, and found that fewer than 200 rent-controlled apartments were removed from the market by developers who requested or received spot-zoning approvals.
That accounts for less than 10% of the 3,000-plus rent-controlled apartments that private owners removed during that time period from the city’s housing stock under the Ellis Act, a state law that regulates evictions from rent-controlled homes.
Los Angeles’ rent-control law applies primarily to units built before fall 1978 and caps annual rent increases for existing tenants, currently to 3%.
The Ellis act allows evictions from those units if they are taken off the market and no longer offered for rent. Typically, landlords and developers invoke the act to replace the units with new construction, or they might convert them into condominiums. Oftentimes such projects can proceed under existing zoning regulations.
Measure S “is not going to protect tenants from displacement. It doesn’t protect affordable housing. It doesn’t stop evictions. It’s false promises,” said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, who pushed for the passage of Los Angeles’ rent-control ordinance in the 1970s and assists tenants facing eviction.
Proponents of the initiative, principally backed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, paint a different picture.
One news release reads: “The city’s Wild West approach to development has created a massive luxury housing glut, displaced more than 60,000 people and wiped out 22,000 affordable housing units since 2000.”
A campaign Facebook post says, “We need to protect L.A.’s affordable housing units, not demolish them to make way for luxury housing mega-projects that break zoning rules.”
And in a recent op-ed, AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein wrote that the city’s inaction over the loss of 22,000 rent-controlled homes is one of the issues “at the center of Yes on Measure S.”
Angelenos even received a mailer mimicking an eviction notice from the Sheriff’s Department, warning that they could be the next victim of a cozy relationship between “greedy developers” and City Hall.
In an interview, a representative of the campaign acknowledged that the 22,000 figure represents all the rent-controlled units taken off the market through the Ellis Act since 2000, not just those demolished to make way for projects that required spot zoning.
Measure S proponents say the figure is relevant because many spot-zoned residential projects are anchors for gentrification, prompting the construction of other nearby luxury developments that cause evictions but don’t need exemptions.
“It has an enormous ripple effect,” said Miki Jackson, a consultant for the Yes on S campaign.
But opponents take issue with the 22,000 figure and argue that Measure S would have the unintended consequence of causing evictions to skyrocket.
The Times analysis found that the vast majority of projects that receive exemptions tend to be proposed for property where little or no housing currently exists, such as parking lots or manufacturing areas.
A prime example being fought by Measure S supporters is the Martin Expo Town Center, which would replace a Cadillac dealership. The mixed-use community in Sawtelle would add 516 housing units, about 100 of them reserved for those of lower and moderate incomes.
If developers are restricted from building on such sites, opponents say builders instead will target areas where no special exemptions are needed — often neighborhoods populated with older, rent-controlled buildings.
“Measure S will intensify Ellis Act evictions,” said Josh Kamensky, spokesman for the anti-Measure S campaign. “The measure will leave in place the options that removed the most housing.”
Developers and other opponents argue that Los Angeles is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis and say the measure would slash housing construction of all types — market rate and income-restricted — and cause rents and home prices to climb further out of reach for ordinary Angelenos.
Business groups and some economists say the root cause of the affordability problem isn’t luxury projects in certain neighborhoods, but a housing shortage across Los Angeles that’s priced out even well-off individuals from their neighborhoods, pushing them to look for housing in traditionally working-class communities.
“The idea that if people are hungry, you make it harder to grow food doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” said Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. “Every unit that is built helps the city a little bit.”
In 2015 alone, developers sought permission to build more than 8,000 homes through exemptions targeted by Measure S, city records show. If approved, those projects would result in the demolitions of fewer than 150 rent-controlled units, The Times found.
Builders say they need the exemptions because previous slow-growth initiatives reduced the number of homes that can be built throughout Los Angeles, and the city has failed to update its general and community plans to reflect current development patterns that favor denser projects near transit lines.
But Measure S proponents say the outdated plans have led to a planning process through which out-of-scale projects often are approved for wealthy developers who make campaign contributors.
Last year, a Times investigation found that donors with direct and indirect ties to developer Samuel Leung, who was seeking approval of a 352-unit apartment complex in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood, gave more than $600,000 to support L.A.-area politicians as the project was being reviewed.
Measure S aims to address the need for exemptions through its two-year moratorium, during which Los Angeles officials are required to review the outdated general and community plans. Proponents say they then will seek to craft policies to stem the loss of rent-controlled homes.
“We are forcing the City Council to update the General Plan,” Yes on S spokeswoman Ileana Wachtel said in an email. “One of the key discussions, clearly, will become: How do we save our precious [rent-controlled] housing from a municipal system of planning that treats it like an endless and easily lost resource, by utterly ignoring its ongoing loss?”
After the moratorium, developers still could seek zone changes and height district changes, but General Plan amendments — typically required for land-use changes such as building homes in a manufacturing district — no longer could occur for individual projects.
Such projects sometimes require evictions, but a far more typical case is that of Hars, who was pushed out to make way for a development that can be built under existing zoning rules and would require no exemptions.
In 2015, a developer purchased her rent-controlled bungalow and six adjacent units. Less than three months later, residents received eviction notices, stating that the developer no longer would be offering their units for rent.
Instead, he wanted to level the buildings to build 18 new housing units, records show.
David Lara, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, said the project doesn’t require a zone change, height district change or General Plan amendment.
“This is a by-right project,” he said last month, shortly before he retired.
Hars, who appeared in the Measure S ad, said she did not expect the measure to have saved her home. But she thinks that the initiative would minimize gentrification and force the city to develop plans sensitive to the needs of existing renters rather than developers who know their way around City Hall.
“To me, it’s all connected,” said Hars, who since has moved to Florida after failing to find a place in pricey Los Angeles.
Times staff writer Thomas Suh Lauder contributed to this report.