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Jewish Journal

City Voice: Condo conversions cause casualties

by Bill Boyarsky

August 30, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Late one afternoon, I visited an apartment house in Pico-Robertson, where the tenants are uneasily contemplating a fate increasingly familiar to renters - the conversion of their building to condominiums.

I talked to Mary Ellen Satterfield, Brenda Lara and Rachel Minkove, who rent apartments in the building and will have to move if it turns condo.

They are perfect examples of how the middle class is being squeezed out by the wave of condo conversions sweeping through the city, particularly in areas with large Jewish populations. Larry Gross of the Coalition for Economic Survival, which represents tenants, said the highest rate of conversions are occurring from Pico-Robertson through the Westside and in the southwest San Fernando Valley. These areas are the heart of Jewish Los Angeles.

Satterfield is a portfolio administrator for a financial company. Lara is assistant principal in a Los Angeles public elementary school in Echo Park. Minkove is a fifth-grade teacher at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy. Their rents range from $850 to $1,680 a month.

"It's affordable housing," said Lara, about what they can afford. She's lived there 13 years, Satterfield 10 and Minkove one.

The apartment house, located on Holt Avenue just north of Pico Boulevard, is a Los Angeles classic known as a "dingbat."

You've seen them. Perhaps you even live in one. The dingbat is so typically Los Angeles, that in 1971 it attracted the attention of the famous architectural scholar Reyner Banham, who wrote of them in his book, "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies."

He described the form as "a two-story walk-up apartment block developed back over the full depth of the site and stuccoed over.... Round the back, away from the public gaze, they display simple rectangular forms and flush smooth surfaces. Skinny steel columns and simple box balconies and extensive overhangs to shelter four or five cars."

The apartment house where I interviewed Satterfield, Lara and Minkove fit the description perfectly, except the cars are in front, just as they were at the Brentwood dingbat our family lived in many years ago.

Some of the dingbats are really weird, especially the embellishments on the facades. "Everything is there," Banham wrote, "from Tacoburger Aztec to Wavy-line Moderne, from Cod Cape Cod to unsupported Jaoul vaults, from Gourmet Mansardic to Polynesian gabled and - even in extremity - modern architecture."

Many a ranch house and bungalow have been torn down to make way for the dingbats. Odd as they are, they became part of the L.A. scene and, as more people flooded in and open space gave way to density, the dingbats provided a home for those uninterested in home ownership or unable to buy one.

In the case of the apartment house on Holt, as with others in Pico-Robertson, the building provided a sense of community, ethnic diversity and a mixture of young and old.

"Our building is a melting pot," Lara said. "It's a nice feeling. You come here, and you feel a sense of community." Or as Minkove put it, "Everyone looks out for each other."

That sense of community didn't help when the tenants received a message from the city Planning Department, informing them that the landlord had applied for permission to tear down their building and one next door to permit construction of a 15-unit condominium project.

The tenants had to read through the 24 pages to figure out the message, and even then they were still not quite sure, because the heading on the document said that it was for approval "of a tentative tract map."

Figuring out the Planning Department language is difficult even for someone like me, who used to write about city agencies for a living. But the tenants soon realized that this one meant their building would be torn down. They tried to find out what was going on and how they could protest.

"We all started out in a state of panic," Satterfield said. The tenants contacted the office of their councilman, Jack Weiss, and groups representing tenants.

The tenants wanted to know when they would have to move and what they could do to prevent it.

A Weiss staff member asked for a delay in the approval process. Satterfield and other tenants called City Hall.

"You can get six different people in the city and get six different answers," she said.

I wasn't surprised. That's City Hall. Big campaign contributors get an answer in minutes when they call City Hall. And they usually get the answer they want.

As of now, the tenants are in limbo. The project apparently is headed for approval. It may or may not happen, depending on the whim of the building owner.

This is happening all over the city. Each project is examined by the Planning Department, Building and Safety, the Fire Department, the school district, the Department of Water and Power, the Bureau of Street Lighting and the Bureau of Sanitation. As long as a project follows their rules, it's OK.

Instead of letting these projects coast through the bureaucracy, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council should make preservation of middle-class and low-income rental housing a top city priority. The priority should be written into law.

I often write about this issue because it is determining the shape of our Jewish community. Pico-Robertson is a great neighborhood, with its mixture of young, middle-age and older renters who shop in local markets, eat at local restaurants and pray in neighborhood synagogues. Condo conversions are threatening this way of life.

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.

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