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The downside of upscale growth

Los Angeles deals with a housing crisis as expansion clashes with ethics

by Bill Boyarsky

October 25, 2007 | 8:00 pm

The Walgreens building at Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

The Walgreens building at Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

I've been following the Los Angeles housing story for a few months because of its special relevance to the Jewish community.

It has been a story of skirmishes, of threatened apartment houses, of new high rises and old buildings converted into expensive lofts and even of profound ethical questions that confronted two of our most prominent synagogues, Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Both bought apartment houses -- perfect examples of middle class rental housing -- to be torn down to make way for expansion plans provoking long and anguished discussions at the temples.

The skirmishes are part of a much bigger question: What kind of Los Angeles do we want? Is there still room for apartments and homes for garment workers, gardeners, waiters, cooks, bus drivers, teachers, health care providers and social workers, for the millions of people who are not rich? Can they find places to live in a Hollywood suddenly restored as a playground and living space for the affluent? Will there be room for them in the new downtown aimed at fulfilling the builders' dreams of a high-rise city extending to USC?

And what about the middle- and working-class Jews living in apartments in the West Valley, Pico Robertson, Venice, Fairfax, Silver Lake and other places? Will they be forced to move when their homes are wiped out along with their unique communities? Will the classic L.A. two-story duplexes and quadplexes south of Wilshire Boulevard give way to expensive condos, some of them ugly?

As I pursued the story, Larry Gross, an advocate for affordable housing in his job as head of the Coalition for Economic Survival, told me of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple situation. It seemed like a natural clear-cut story with a rich villain, the temple, tearing down an apartment house, and the downtrodden tenants as victims. But, as is often the case, when I dug into the matter I found it was much more complicated. The temple board discussions are an example of debates going on throughout L.A., with the added angle that colors all our fights:

What is our ethical obligation as Jews?

I called Howard Kaplan, the temple's executive director, a native Angeleno from East Los Angeles. He had been dealing with the controversy for months, talking to the renters, even sending over his maintenance crew to help one of the tenants, an older woman, pack and move boxes.

"We bought it about a year ago," he said. "Our intention was to build a nursery school there."

He said the temple was concerned about the tenants from the start.

"The temple did everything possible in a difficult situation, including financial assistance. It was not something that was done lightly. It was thought through and done as best as we could," Kaplan said.

He said the nursery school, with room for about 180 children, would be a key part of a restoration and redevelopment of the site on Wilshire Boulevard and Hobart Avenue. I had long wondered about the fate of that magnificent old sanctuary in Mid-Wilshire. The area had been in decline for years. But I learned that it is coming back, and young Jewish families are among those moving into residential areas around the temple, including Hollywood, Silver Lake, Glendale and elsewhere.

"We did demographic studies," Kaplan said. "We found that Jews are moving to east of La Cienega, into Hollywood, Los Feliz, that whole area. People can't afford the Westside."

Providing these Jews with a vibrant place to participate in Jewish life, including convenient, up-to-date Jewish schools and worship facilities, is crucial in keeping our migrating population engaged in the Jewish community. People, particularly the young, are reluctant to drive long distances for religious participation, and congregations have found that they are most successful in keeping families involved if they engage them when the kids are starting school.

Understandably, the purchase of the apartment house and the evictions that followed -- to make way for tearing it down -- upset some of the tenants.

I have a copy of a letter sent to Kaplan by three of the renters. It said, in part, "While the temple promulgates its commitment to helping the most disadvantaged in our society and sets a fine example on the surface with innumerable and most generous contributions to the community, in the shadows, un-divulged to even its members at large, the temple forces those in the lowest of the economic classes out of their homes and into a housing market increasingly diminished of affordable low income housing to compete with only what the law demands they receive plus a mere pittance to soften what will most indubitably be a devastating economic blow."

I was told that one of the tenants was paying $716 a month in the building bought by the temple for an apartment with a small, separate kitchen. The tenant moved to a smaller apartment with a counter, a sink and a small built-in refrigerator at a rent of $725 a month, found after two months of looking.

Kaplan said the temple "let them [the tenants] know by letter that we were going to do this, we followed the city process. We met with city officials ... we provided way more in financial assistance than required. Neither side would say how much financial assistance the temple gave because of a confidentiality agreement.

The city requires owners of apartments who tear them down to pay relocation fees. Tenants who have lived in a rental unit for less than three years are entitled to $6,180 from the new building owner. Those who have been residents for more than three years receive $9,040.

In addition, the city law created a class of tenants called "qualified." These are those who are seniors, disabled, families with minor children under 18 and residents who may have lived in a building for less than three years but whose family income is 80 percent of or below the Los Angeles area median income of $56,000. Qualified tenants have a year to move after they have received their eviction notice.

A qualified tenant who has lived in a unit for less than three years receives $14,850. Such a tenant who has been a resident for more than three years gets $17,080. Temple Israel of Hollywood encountered the same sort of situation when it bought two apartments for the expansion of school and administrative facilities. I was told that the board discussion was painful, as the members wrestled with the ethical issues posed by evicting tenants who would not have an easy time finding other housing.

"We did follow all of the legal requirements for the relocation of the tenants in the two buildings we purchased and provided relocation assistance when requested," Phyllis Klein, the vice president for administration, said in an e-mail.

Richard Lichtenstein, a Los Angeles public-affairs consultant and a member of Temple Israel who is serving as a neighborhood liaison during the expansion, said that the new facilities will provide "a place for the educational program for the kids and a gathering place for people not only in the temple but for the people in the neighborhood." He said this includes Jews and nonJews, because the facility will have room for concerts, lectures and classes. He said that expansion was needed because of the growing number of Jewish families in the area served by the temple. It will provide for expansion of the day school and religious school, plus new meeting rooms, and will significantly expand parking facilities, removing congregants' and visitors' cars from the neighborhood streets.

Lichtenstein also said that the temple used a consultant to help tenants find new housing, and that they received more in relocation payments than required by city law.

While these two temples' board members, concentrating on their own problems, may not realize it, similar discussions are going on throughout the city, from neighborhood meetings to City Hall.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has his own vision of Los Angeles.

"If we are not creating hope," he told the editors of the Los Angeles Business Journal, "if we are not bringing in investment, if the official bird of Los Angeles isn't the crane, then we won't be able to do all the good things we would like to do with people."

But Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is warning against crane worship. As a Los Angeles city councilman, Yaroslavsky joined with his colleague Marvin Braude to persuade the voters in 1986 to approve Proposition U, which sharply limited development. Today, his district includes the Westside and parts of the Valley, and he is concerned about development there.

"What is happening in Los Angeles is that the economics of real estate are such that it is economically profitable to tear down existing buildings and build new ones," he said. "More density, more units, no rent control -- we lose all affordability. It is a profound social challenge. The social implications are more homelessness, more people doubling up in units, more people living in garages, people finding really unsatisfactory living conditions."

He warned that "the initiative process is still available in the city of Los Angeles, and the next Proposition U will go farther than" his 1986 measure.

Now, Yaroslavsky is fighting a city proposal that would give developers a huge break. It would permit teardowns if the developer promises to put affordable housing in the new building. Of course, the developer could get away with putting in only one such unit. In return for putting in a minimum of lower rent housing, a developer could build bigger, taller and more profitable projects. "This is a wolf in sheep's clothing," Yaroslavsky said.

He said the proposal threatens neighborhoods such as Beverly Fairfax. Displaying a house-by-house knowledge of the area, he said, "Streets like Orange Grove, Genesee, which have these beautiful quadplexes which have served the tenants for 70 years, Sycamore, between Rosewood and Third. Apartments in Studio City, Leimert Park. Why all of a sudden are we lighting a fuse that will blow up those neighborhoods?"

The proposal came from the city planning department and was approved by the Los Angeles Planning Commission.

After interviewing Yaroslavsky, I talked to Los Angeles Planning Director Gail Goldberg. She's been on the job since January 2006. Previously, she was San Diego's planning director.

Goldberg said she was sympathetic to low-income renters.

"The problem is ... there is not enough housing for them," she said. "We have terrified folks in the rental business, or scared them enough so they will not build rental housing. "

Los Angeles has inadequate plans guiding development in the many areas of the city, she said, and there is a "complex entitlement process, getting all the approvals. In this city it is complicated and lengthy. It adds to the costs of the project. It keeps lower-cost projects out of the market."

Goldberg said she expects the proposal opposed by Yaroslavsky to be changed by the City Council. That was assured when the mayor weighed in on the subject at a UCLA summit meeting on housing sponsored by the Los Angeles Business Council. There, the Los Angeles Times reported, he called for his version of a city law that would require housing developers to include in their projects units affordable to the poor and middle class.

Such a proposal has been defeated in the past because of opposition from developers and other business people. Groups in affluent neighborhoods have also objected to apartment projects that would have room for the poor. They don't want poor people around.

Villaraigosa, taking note of the opposition, said, "I believe it is time to have a grown-up conversation about the gravity of the crisis of affordable housing in Los Angeles. Only with shared responsibility can we address the situation."

Still to be determined is just how much affordable housing will be required by Villaraigosa's proposal. Will it be as small as the Planning Commission proposal, or will it be more expansive, more neighborhood-friendly, along the lines envisioned by Yaroslavsky? The mayor, like the rest of Los Angeles, is confronted with a dilemma. He wants growth to provide economic health, but he also knows that the cranes building the new high rises are taking away the housing of his blue-collar constituents.I saw a solution in Hollywood, at the end of a bus tour I took a while back to take a look at threatened affordable housing, It was sponsored by the Liberty Hill Foundation, which provides money to community groups, including some fighting for housing for the low income. We started in an apartment house just west of downtown, where tenants have been evicted from 12 of the 39 units, and more evictions are on the way. Some ended up in East Los Angeles with higher rents.

We saw a couple of similar places and then ended up at a simple but elegantly designed apartment house on the fringe of Hollywood.

The building at Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue, convenient to public transportation and shopping, offers housing for the low-income and poor. It was completed in 2005 by the Hollywood Community Housing Corporation, a not-for-profit organization. Putting together public and private funds, the corporation has built almost 20 housing complexes in Hollywood, containing 600 units that house 2,100 people, 800 of them children.

More than 100 more units are on the drawing board. Two of the developments are reserved for seniors and disabled older people. More than 60 percent of the corporation's apartments are for families, 37 percent for individuals and 30 percent for the disabled and for those moving out of homelessness.

Bill Harris, who runs the Hollywood Community Housing Corporation, took note of Hollywood's big new high-end developments, but said, "Without affordable housing, there will be no workers. The key is that there should be room at the table for everyone. It is what's right. Affordable housing is an ethical question for all of us.... We don't need to live in Beverly Hills. But we all deserve a quality home that helps us move ahead."

At the apartment house I visited, four floors of light, airy units are built around a simple but attractive courtyard. The imaginative design by architects Barry Milofsky and Andrew Cox gives the place a spacious, open look, with big windows in the units. A third of them look out on the courtyard. There are English-language classes for immigrant residents, computers, job counseling and childcare.

"You need services, case management, after-school care, a food pantry for the unemployed," Harris said.

A commercial developer, Village Properties, purchased the land. Hollywood Community Housing put together a financial package with money from the private sector and state and city funds from bonds and other sources. Walgreens put a drug store on the site, along with space for another business, now occupied by a cell phone store. The addition of the commercial space made it all financially possible.

But it wouldn't have worked, Harris said, without the intense work of the councilman representing the area, Eric Garcetti, and his predecessors, Jackie Goldberg and Michael Woo. They and their staffs were instrumental in putting together the combination of public and private resources and guiding this and other Hollywood Community Housing projects through the City Hall maze of regulations.

Here, government worked, thanks to the three imaginative and talented council members who have represented the 13th District in recent years. But such skill isn't found everywhere in city hall.

"The housing crisis is the most extreme crisis we face in Los Angeles," Garcetti said. "We have the worst traffic in America because of housing. We have homelessness because of [a shortage of ] housing."

Garcetti persuaded the Walgrees chain to allow housing above the drug store. "They fought it because it was not the Walgreens way," he said.

The chain eventually went along with the plan.

Part of the collateral damage of the rush to expensive development in Hollywood, Garcetti said, is that the very people who demonstrated and lobbied to make Hollywood livable now may be forced out of their modest apartments.

I know what he's talking about. The hot developers on Hollywood Boulevard, with their theaters, hotels and condos, are taking credit for the new Hollywood, as are the operators of clubs.

But there were men and women of modest means engaged in the fight long before developers dared to venture there. As a reporter and a columnist, I covered the way in which courageous activists, working with the Los Angeles Police Department, drove the drug dealers and gangs from Yucca Street in Hollywood, risking assault by some pretty fierce and remorseless people. My daughter and son-in-law live on Yucca Street. The main disadvantage there today is the constant noise and dust from the luxury high rise going up nearby.

Hollywood is something of a test case in the affordable housing fight. Having wandered through its grim streets for years, I am glad to see it beginning to shine. Young people pack Musso & Frank, drinking martinis as if they had invented them. The Hollywood Roosevelt no longer looks dreary. The Pantages is great. The Hollywood/Vine subway station is a design classic.

But off the boulevards there are many old apartments, looking much as they did when Raymond Chandler wrote about them, as well as bungalows and old courtyard residences where, I bet, many a drunken screenwriter pounded a typewriter. But something must give way, as the two prominent Reform synagogues found when they decided to expand.

This is the dilemma of 21st-century Los Angeles.





Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

temple beth zion
A new housing project directly across the street from Temple Beth Zion in the Carthay Circle district neighborhood on Olympic Blvd. Photo by Dan Kacvinski
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