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Dueling views of an L.A. developer show what a battlefield housing has become

A person kneeling on a staircase while painting
Helices Peres paints the handrail in the staircase at the Hirsh Apartments in Los Angeles. SoLa Impact, which owns about 200 properties in South L.A., did a massive rehab of the 100-year-old building, which was the subject of a lawsuit alleging uninhabitable conditions.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, June 14. I’m Reed Johnson, filling in for Justin Ray.

As California’s houselessness and housing-affordability crises escalate, with Angelenos growing more desperate and little relief in sight, anyone appearing to offer remedies — politicians, activists, entrepreneurs — is likely to grab our attention.

Oprah Winfrey and Eric Garcetti are among the most visible admirers of Martin Muoto, who has earned a reputation for rehabilitating L.A. rental properties in poor areas generally shunned by Wall Street investors, and for housing large numbers of Section 8 tenants. Last fall, when Muoto’s brainchild SoLa Impact opened the 28-unit Avalon apartments to accommodate formerly homeless adults and children, TV crews and assorted VIPs turned up to mark the occasion.

But as Doug Smith reports in a front-page story today, the Nigerian-born Muoto also has been criticized by tenants’ advocates for deploying what they say is an investor-backed business model that prioritizes profits over quality of life.

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“The day after the Avalon opening, the nonprofit Inner City Law Center alleged in a suit that SoLa exposed tenants in one of its buildings to ‘health and safety threats on a daily basis’ including ‘long-term infestations of rats and cockroaches, severe water damage destabilizing the walls and ceilings, rampant mold’ while the company’s principals ‘have lined their own pockets with ... rental payments by skimping on necessary repairs and regular maintenance,’ ” The Times’ story reports. “Public records show that many of SoLa’s buildings have been repeatedly cited for code violations, a fact Muoto attributes to their age and the deteriorated condition they were in when he purchased them.”

In addition to detailing the legal and other challenges besetting Muoto, The Times’ story describes the intriguing career trajectory of this graduate of the prestigious Wharton School of Business (Donald Trump’s alma mater), whose bulging portfolio of residential-rehab projects has broadened to include commercial real estate ventures.

On his own behalf, Muoto rebuts much of the criticism leveled against him, asserting that his stewardship is a step up from that of previous landlords, who he says “bled” their tenants “for cash and didn’t put a penny into maintenance.” According to Muoto, SoLa has put nearly $50 million into renovations, despite the considerable challenges of developing these types of projects and COVID-related delays.

“This is not Moses leading people out of Egypt. But if we didn’t buy them, who would, right? If we didn’t invest, who would, right?” Muoto says.

Indeed, to date no individual has emerged capable of shepherding Los Angeles out of its affordability desert, although some of the city’s aspiring leaders insist that they will be the one to deliver our tens of thousands of houseless neighbors to the Promised Land. Muoto’s example underscores that such a task won’t ever be simple.

Read “A for-profit mission to house the poor, homeless earns praise but takes flak over upkeep” in the Los Angeles Times.

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And now, here’s what’s happening across California, brought to you by newsletter editor Scott Sandell:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

Overworked California firefighters struggle with PTSD, suicide, fatigue and intensifying wildfires. A four-part series on the mental health crisis facing Cal Fire. Cal Matters

L.A. STORIES

Home sellers are increasingly cutting their asking prices. The growing number of price cuts, a trend showing up in data from Southern California and across the nation, is one of the strongest signs yet that the previously red-hot market, fueled by low mortgage rates and all-cash bidding wars, is cooling. Los Angeles Times

SoCal’s lush golf courses face new water restrictions. How brown will the grass go? As residents cope with their own restrictions, frustrations are bubbling up all around. Los Angeles Times

An aerial view of a golf course
An aerial view at Simi Hills Golf Course in Simi Valley, where course managers plan to reduce watering on non-playable areas.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Plus: Your native plants look dead. Here’s what to do. Los Angeles Times

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End of the line for Farmer John’s meatpacking plant in Vernon. It’s long been a smelly L.A. landmark of Dodger Dogs, tourists and protests. Los Angeles Times

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Then-President Trump ignored repeated warnings from Atty. Gen. William Barr and his own advisors that election fraud claims were “bogus.” The second hearing this month by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection focused on Trump’s decision to spread false allegations of election fraud. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) helped lead the hearing. Los Angeles Times

Republican Orange County Congresswoman Young Kim advances to the general election. She beat back a last-minute challenge from a fellow Republican and will face off with Democrat Asif Mahmood for the seat centered in inland Orange County. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

A Millbrae City Council member says he had a concrete block thrown at his head while he and his family were out for a walk. “We went out to Lands End for a little family hiking; it’s a beautiful place,” Anders Fung said in an interview. His injuries included a 2-inch gash on the top of his head. Fung said he believes the assault was tied to his ethnicity. San Francisco Chronicle

An Oroville resident found a stick of dynamite while gardening, police say. Officers said the person carried the unexpected find from the garden and placed it in the front yard, before the Butte County Interagency Bomb Squad disposed of it. KRCR

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

The Colorado River: Where the West quenches its thirst. To document the Colorado’s central role in life in the Southwest, Times photojournalist Luis Sinco traveled throughout the watershed and captured images that reveal how this river is being pushed beyond its limits. Los Angeles Times

A visitor takes a selfie beside public art in Bombay Beach, a tiny community on the Salton Sea in California.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Authorities investigate vandalism at Yosemite National Park. Rangers say they found about 30 sites that were spray-painted with white and blue graffiti, some of which say “Fresno.” Officials are asking for the public’s help to identify the culprits. ABC 30

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Will the Cheech Museum put Riverside on the art map? A museum featuring the art collection of comedian Cheech Marin is about to make its debut. The initial exhibition features nearly 100 works from 44 artists. Press-Enterprise

Philip Baker Hall played gamblers, producers and presidents. His best role? Friend. Times sports writer Sam Farmer remembers the actor who lived in his Glendale neighborhood. Los Angeles Times

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The Angels and Dodgers are mired in MLB’s big-team bear market as they renew the Freeway Series. Each team is stuck in the worst stretch of their young seasons, with both clubs trying to regain a foothold. Los Angeles Times

The James Beard Foundation’s awards chair, Tanya Holland, once had three Bay Area restaurants. Now there are none. What happened? SFGATE

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: Partly cloudy, 78. San Diego: Partly cloudy, 70. San Francisco: Sunny, 73. San Jose: Sunny, 85. Fresno: Sunny, 93. Sacramento: Sunny, 93.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Victoria Tucker:

While living in Hidden Hills my girlfriend and I rode our horses on the Warner Bros. Ranch property adjacent to Calabasas. It was beautiful open space and is one of my favorite memories of all time. Calabasas had a small grocery, a gas station and a post office. No sign of the hundreds of tract homes that exist today. It breaks my heart to drive 101 South now.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.

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