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LA OKs Beverly Grove condo conversion over appeals from affordable housing advocates

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Tenant advocates said the project was approved using faulty vacancy data

Mendel Mabel Meyer apartments
The project will convert nine 1930s-era apartments into eight condominiums.
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After a contentious hearing Friday, the Los Angeles City Council voted to reject a pair of appeals from affordable housing advocates over a Beverly Grove project that will convert nine rent-controlled apartments into eight condominiums.

The appeals, filed by land use attorney John Henning and the Los Angeles Tenants Union, argued that the city should never have approved the project because LA planners relied on faulty vacancy calculations in recommending it.

Under the city’s planning guidelines, condo conversions like this one are not generally permitted when the vacancy rate in the area falls below 5 percent—indicating a competitive rental market.

In reviewing the project, planners noted that the area’s vacancy rate was six percent, satisfying this requirement. But the methodology used by the department to calculate that figure came under scrutiny when the appeal went before the City Council’s Housing Committee, as KPCC reports.

During the hearing, planning staff acknowledged that the vacancy data used by the city used to come from the Department of Water and Power, but that reliable data from the utility company has recently become unavailable.

The tenants union presented the council with an estimate from Silvia Gonzalez, a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA, based on statistics from the U.S. Census. By Gonzalez’ reckoning, the vacancy rate in the area is around 4.4 percent.

“This matter is as clear as mud,” Councilmember Gil Cedillo said at Friday’s council meeting.

The project’s developer, Guy Penini, initially planned to raze the two apartment buildings, located at 118-126 North Flores Street. Known as the Mendel and Mabel Meyer courtyard apartments, the two 1930s-era buildings were saved from the wrecking ball in 2015 when the city designated them as a Historic-Cultural Monument.

A representative for the developer told the council that converting the buildings into condos represented a compromise between the developer’s interests and the desire of preservationists to see the complex restored.

Cedillo, however, argued that the council’s first priority should be addressing the city’s shortage of affordable housing. With city staff lacking the tools to properly measure the vacancy rate, he proposed that the council accept the appeal in the interest of preserving rent-stabilized units.

Councilmember Paul Koretz, who represents the area in which the project is located, admitted that he suspected the vacancy rate to be lower than 5 percent, but said it was important for the council to be consistent when evaluating projects.

“We have to use the information that we have,” he said, before “very reluctantly” recommending that the appeal be denied.

The council ultimately sided with Koretz, but the vote was not unanimous. Cedillo and Councilmember Mike Bonin both voted in favor of the appeal.

Activist Sylvie Shain, who represented the Tenants Union in the appeal, tells Curbed she’s disappointed by the council’s decision, but cautiously optimistic that the appeal could lead to reform in how the council tracks vacancy data.

Last month, Koretz put forth a motion calling on the planning department to update vacancy rate calculations yearly, and to disallow condo conversions if those calculations have not been made in the last 12 months.

Shain says those rules would be a step in the right direction, but that the city should take more steps to protect existing rent-stabilized housing.

“Right now, the burden is on people opposing a project to prove that it will have an impact on the rental market,” she says. “The way the planning department operates, you practically have to be destroying 1,000 units before they decide there are cumulative impacts [to the housing supply].”