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Are older rent-controlled buildings in trouble under LA’s new transit density policy?

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The new rules are being put to the test in one of Hollywood’s oldest neighborhoods

Whitley Heights triplex
This 1920s triplex is slated to be replaced with a new 24-unit complex.
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Plans to erect a small apartment building in one of Hollywood’s oldest neighborhoods is raising concerns among historic preservationists over a new policy designed to bring more affordable housing to areas near transit stops.

The project would add 24 new rentals near the intersection of Whitley and Franklin avenues—including three units set aside for residents earning under 30 percent of the area’s median income—but it would require the demolition of a 1920s complex that sits across the street from the Whitley Heights historic district.

“A historic neighborhood with those missing structures is like a broken smile,” says John Girodo, vice president of preservation issues at Hollywood Heritage.

Not only that, the new project will dwarf the low-slung multifamily buildings that have stood on the block for nearly 100 years, says Girodo, who lives across the street from the project site. A pair of taller structures does stand close by on Franklin Avenue.

A rendering of the 24-unit apartment complex planned near Whitley and Franklin.
via city planning department

Girodo plans to appeal the development, but that won’t be easy. Because the project was filed under the city’s new transit oriented communities program, it qualifies for a simplified approval process.

Plans for the development were filed in March and have already been given the stamp of approval by the city’s planning director. Any appeals to that decision will have to be submitted by next week, leaving project opponents little opportunity to meet with the developer or drum up support for their cause.

“Usually I’m working with the developer on preservation issues,” says Girodo. “But with the TOC policy, there’s no entry point to get to the table.”

That’s exactly the point, says housing advocate Mark Vallianatos. He says projects like this one, in which a handful of apartments are replaced with dozens, will help address LA’s housing shortage, and should not be held up by years of hearings and appeals.

“Mechanisms where anyone and everyone gets to veto other people’s homes is what led us to this affordable housing crisis to begin with,” Vallianatos says.

He says the TOC program has been a success so far. Created as a result of Measure JJJ, a ballot initiative that LA voters approved in 2016, the program offers generous incentives to developers who include affordable units in projects within a half-mile of major transit stops.

According to a report from the planning department, between September 2017 and June 2018, developers filed plans for 112 projects through the program. If those projects are built, they’ll produce more than 5,500 units of housing—roughly 20 percent of them affordable units, which are generally reserved for lower income tenants for 55 years.

But Girodo says the Whitley Heights project proves that the program’s incentives will lead developers to replace apartments protected by the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance—like the three units now slated for demolition—with pricy new housing complexes.

He points out that the developer is including the minimum number of affordable units required by California’s density bonus law, which mandates that developers taking advantage of incentives like those offered through the TOC program replace any rent-controlled apartments they plan to demolish with new affordable units.

In this case, those units will be offered at lower prices than what the city’s housing department requires. Because the units will be available to renters in the lowest income bracket, the project qualifies for TOC incentives that allow it to be taller by more than 20 feet and nearly twice as dense as what the neighborhood’s zoning typically allows

“You’re losing the historic fabric of the neighborhood, but there’s no gain of affordable housing,” says Girodo.

Vallianatos says cases like this one, in which the TOC guidelines give property owners such clear economic incentives to demolish an existing property, will probably be rarer than preservationists might fear.

That’s because it’s unusual to find buildings sitting on land zoned for projects significantly bigger than what’s already there. In this case, he points out, the developer could have replaced the existing triplex with a 14-unit building without tapping into the TOC incentives at all.

Ideally, Vallianatos says, the TOC incentives will mainly be used in commercial areas, rather than on properties with rent-stabilized units.

That’s cold comfort to Girodo, who says it’s been a headache just to figure out how the new program works.

“The projects that get through when everything’s not ready yet are always the most devastating,” he says.