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LA Weekly

Thursday January 17, 2013

L.A. Mayoral Rivals Dinged for Favoring Developers, Fueling Affordable-Housing Loss

By Patrick Range McDonald

Larry Gross has fought for tenants' rights in Los Angeles for nearly 40 years, earning a reputation as the go-to guy for views on how to protect renters, whose incomes have dropped even as L.A. rents have increased sharply. But when developers set up a mayoral candidates' forum to address L.A.'s affordable-housing troubles, Gross wasn't asked to weigh in.

"I don't think any tenants' group was invited to be a part of it," he says.

Activists hoped the forum, sponsored by developers, would provide a chance to examine the track records of candidates Wendy Greuel, Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry. As Gross notes, between 2001 and 2007, when all three were in positions to influence the outcome, nearly 14,000 rent-stabilized units were wiped out due to condo conversions and demolitions. Thousands of others vanished when developers' "covenants" - agreements to offer low rents - expired.

Such forums "never talk about tenants' rights," Gross says. "They'll talk about crime and education and other things, but the majority of this city are renters. It shows a complete disrespect of renters."

The packed Los Angeles Mayoral Candidates Forum on Affordable Housing, on Jan. 11, took on the flavor of a children's school presentation, with Greuel, Garcetti and Perry giving canned answers to questions - submitted to them in advance - and each answer followed by applause.

"I will end homelessness as mayor," Garcetti declared - an achievement no U.S. urban mayor has even approached. Greuel promised to assure that "we don't have anyone homeless in the street."

Some housing activists are questioning the track records of the three politicians, who they say cozied up to landlords and developers. Greuel, Garcetti and Perry have eagerly publicized "affordable housing" projects they backed, even as many projects fell short of replacing affordable units quietly lost to city-subsidized gentrification and luxury developments they embraced.

Garcetti was the powerful president of the Los Angeles City Council for six years, until 2012. "The City Council over the past several years has completely ignored tenants," says Becky Dennison, co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, an anti-poverty group, "and are pushing forward the landlords' agenda."

Greuel has been city controller since 2009 and was on the City Council for seven years before that. In 2007, then-Controller Laura Chick issued a scathing report warning that the L.A. Housing Department was not tracking net losses of affordable housing units in any meaningful manner. Chick warned that City Hall was in the dark about the sometimes-devastating outcomes of city practices. "Once again, for the umpteenth time," Chick wrote, "we find a city department without the essential information systems and databases."

Greuel, who has been controller for more than three years, has not conducted a follow-up to Chick's audit.

Some activists are unimpressed - and question how Greuel and Garcetti would act as mayor. (Perry is far behind Greuel and Garcetti in fundraising, and experts say she faces an uphill battle March 5 to win a runoff spot for the May 21 election.)

Barbara Schultz, directing attorney of the housing unit at the Legal Aid Foundation of L.A., points to the fact that a 2009 housing study from the L.A. Economic Roundtable was disregarded by the City Council.

The Roundtable recommended that landlords register their rental rates with the housing department as a way to combat illegal rent hikes. It also suggested an end to L.A.'s annual, minimum 3 percent rent increase, in favor of rent hikes based solely on the Consumer Price Index, which often would be below 3 percent. Housing activists pushed hard for the idea, which fell on deaf ears. Garcetti was City Council president.

"None of those recommendations have been implemented," Schultz says, "and they would really improve the lives of renters."

According to raw city data compiled by Gross' Coalition for Economic Survival, when Greuel represented City Council District 2 in the San Fernando Valley, her district lost 1,534 affordable housing units from 2003 to 2007. From 2005 through 2006, the height of L.A.'s housing bubble - when Greuel lent her influential backing to a frenzy of development - 1,137 rent-stabilized units were demolished or turned into condos in District 2.

None of that came up at Friday's "affordable housing" forum, organized by a steering committee of developers who are part of Housing for a Stronger Los Angeles. Yet Gross, who devoted much of his work to helping tenants in District 2, remembers the mid-2000s as a time of desperation.

"Our phones lit up in terms of people trying to deal with condo conversions," he says.

"There's nothing about 'preservation' of affordable housing," Schultz says of the forum. The questions tossed to Greuel, Garcetti and Perry focused on constructing new, "affordable" units; that involves giving public subsidies and/or zoning concessions to developers but does not protect the city's existing affordable housing stock. "You could never build your way out of an affordable housing crisis," Schultz explains.

Yet when tenants' rights groups asked the forum's sponsors if Greuel, Garcetti and Perry could be asked about preserving low-cost rentals, the reply was no.

Robin Hughes of Housing for a Stronger Los Angeles, denied that her steering committee tried to protect the three candidates from tough questions about their roles in affordable-housing preservation. Hughes said her committee wanted to focus solely on how candidates would get more money to build housing. (Hughes is executive director at Adobe Communities, a nonprofit affordable housing developer. All members of the committee that planned the forum are developers.)

Schultz, Dennison and Gross say L.A. politicians have long been loath to touch tenants' rights issues. The City Council has shown "no political will to move forward" on a comprehensive plan to preserve rent-stabilized units, Dennison says. Such preservation, which typically aims to discourage the kind of explosion in tear-downs, conversions and big rent hikes seen in Los Angeles, is "a much more controversial issue at City Hall."

Garcetti tells L.A. Weekly that he could do little about it as City Council president - it was up to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to create the political will. Garcetti notes that he authored a 2008 moratorium against tenant evictions during foreclosure, and helped get subsidies to build affordable housing units for gay seniors, families and others.

But Garcetti has been, along with Perry and Greuel, the most avid City Council champion for "redevelopment," the urban-renewal philosophy that between 2000 and 2010 helped drive thousands of working-class people out of Hollywood and East Hollywood in City Council District 13, which Garcetti represents. As reported by the Weekly in "Hollywood's Urban Cleansing," the area suffered a net population loss of 12,878 mostly Latino residents and saw skyrocketing rents while Garcetti acted as District 13's unofficial, powerful, land-use czar.

Rushmore Cervantes, the No. 2 executive at the L.A. Housing Department, insists that his agency has gotten better at sharing critical data about what is unfolding. But in fact, the department still has no method, five years after Laura Chick's warning, to easily ascertain L.A.'s loss of rent-stabilized apartments.

When the Weekly late last year asked the department's policy and planning director, Claudia Monterrosa, how many net units were lost or gained in Hollywood's rent-stabilized housing, she was unable to produce the data though given 17 days.

Greuel, asked if she followed up on Chick's 2007 audit showing City Hall's failure to track affordable rental losses, said via email that she's "looked at various aspects of how the city monitors its housing stock and whether it is efficiently providing affordable housing for Los Angeles."

Paul Hatfield, an accountant and contributor to the blog CityWatchLA.com, who has strongly criticized Greuel's tenure as controller, says Greuel is more concerned about promoting herself than about following up on Chick's warning. Greuel "wants to make a name for herself," he charges, "rather than do the best thing for the city."

As for Greuel's time representing Council District 2, when the area lost 1,534 rent-stabilized units, Greuel responds, "I was a champion for affordable housing and changing city laws to prevent unjust evictions. And I made sure that tenants who were evicted received just compensation."

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