Last Christmas, my brother and his new wife flew out from Florida to visit the rest of us.
My sister-in-law and I had a "girls' day out" - full day at the Huntington Library, side trip to the Plaza, and finally dinner at the Formosa.
The Huntington Library is, of course, tucked away in spotless, well-manicured San Marino. The Plaza is wedged between the Civic Center and Chinatown. The Formosa Café is in West Hollywood. In between those three locations, there's a whole lot of dirty, trash-strewn, maintenance-deferred LA - and believe me, it pains me to type that.
It also pains me to see human beings sleeping in tents while vacancy signs are posted all over town, even though I'm used to it.
My sister-in-law, who grew up in Florida, was horrified. Los Angeles County has a healthier economy than some countries - how was this possible?
She'd seen homeless people before, but not living in tents. And she was shocked and dismayed by the sheer number of signs advertising vacant buildings (both commercial and residential), quite a few of them on blocks with homeless residents.
"Why is that building empty?...Why is THAT building empty?...Why isn't that a homeless shelter?" (This conversation ran from Highland Park to downtown to Hollywood.)
"Greed," I explained.
I know I was oversimplifying, but it's largely true.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: developers (and many real estate investors) see "Los Angeles" and get dollar signs in their eyes. The vast majority don't build (or buy buildings) to better their communities, they build (or invest) to make money. And in Los Angeles, many of them build (or invest) to make LOTS of money.
Consider the fact that Holland Partner Group paid a whopping $12 million for the Taix property and its overflow parking lot nearby. They plan to make a lot more than $12 million by building on the site.
The few people arguing against preserving Taix in any way, shape, or form always fall back on "oh, we need the housing".
Here's why that's not a logically sound argument:
- Preservation and housing are NOT opposites. They can, and MUST, coexist for the good of the community.
- Preservation of historic buildings does NOT, as is commonly assumed, make neighborhoods more expensive. In fact, historic preservation overlay zones tend to be far more affordable than non-preserved neighborhoods (and tend to be more diverse).
- Neighborhoods with a mix of older and newer buildings offer a wide range of rents (generally speaking, newer buildings are more expensive and older ones are cheaper). That allows a wider variety of businesses, and a wider variety of renters, to thrive. Jane Jacobs explained this better than I can in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Also, the Preservation Positive Los Angeles study disproves a lot of myths (I watched the webinar, and if you care about Los Angeles, you should too).
- Adaptive reuse can and should be considered.
- Many older buildings in and around Los Angeles have been adaptively reused (consider all the older buildings downtown that now have loft apartments on the once-empty upper floors - my best friend's sister lives in one). This has provided thousands of new housing units without the delays, disruption, and sheer wastefulness of demolition and new construction.
- Think of all the municipal waste generated every day in Los Angeles alone. Very few people realize that construction and demolition account for MORE THAN TWICE the amount of municipal waste created each year. And of that, demolition accounts for a whopping 90 percent.
- The existing Taix building could be wholly or partially adapted to suit another purpose. Mike Taix says the building is now too big (fewer groups booking the banquet rooms, etc.)...but why not downsize the restaurant to part of the building and adapt the rest for other uses? Hell, adapt one of those banquet rooms into an apartment and I just might move in myself.
- Taix's parking lot is HUGE (for Los Angeles). It is possible to build housing units on the parking lot without losing the Taix building itself.
Still not convinced? Too bad, I'm not done.
- The developer, Holland Partner Group, has been building LUXURY units around town (look them up). LA already has too much luxury housing.
- Since the 1970s, Angelenos have been grousing - rightly - that there are too many high-end apartments and not enough affordable units. This situation shows no sign of improving because virtually no one in modern-day Los Angeles wants to spend the money to build inexpensive housing. Developers want a high return on their investment, not a low one (consider this case study). There was only one Prudent Beaudry, and we lost him in 1893.
- The proposed development for the Taix site will be 86% market rate.
- With 170 units planned, that means 146 will be market rate, leaving only 24 lower-priced units. Echo Park alone needs hundreds. And here's something most people don't know: in Los Angeles "affordable" units are typically only required to stay below market rate for 20 years. That means in the early 2040s, those 24 units would most likely rise to market rate, displacing 24 low-income households and making Echo Park even less affordable (if it's even still semi-affordable in 2040). And consider how expensive "market rate" is for luxury units (including HPG's) in the first place.
- Since the proposed development includes apartment sizes ranging from studios up to 3-bedroom units, I would very much like to know if the low-income units would all be studios, or if any of them would be larger units that can accommodate lower-income families.
- This is ESPECIALLY important in Echo Park, where gentrification has been driving out lower-income (and mostly Latinx) families for years.
- And speaking of gentrification (the elephant in the room)...adding new housing to a gentrified (or gentrifying) neighborhood can encourage existing landlords to raise rents. Which tends to push out longtime residents who simply cannot afford a pricey new-construction apartment.
- If enough landlords raise rents so that more than 24 households are displaced, the proposed development could ultimately end up harming the lower-income households that need housing the most.
- HPG uses the "housing" excuse to request modifications and exceptions for extra density...then allows an illegal hotel in their own buildings (see below). That ultimately doesn't help. There's a reason the city has had to crack down on short-term rentals...namely, housing!
- Former tenants have nothing nice to say about Holland Partner Group, which is vertically integrated (meaning they build and own properties and also manage them).
- On a personal note, I used to manage two apartment buildings. Bad landlords disgust me.
- Specifically, HPG has allowed illegal short-term rentals in their buildings.
- Two people I know worked with a production company that rented a one-bedroom apartment in HPG's STOA building...for one day.
- The Be LA building, formerly the Sofia, was being used for short-term rentals (according to Yelp reviews, former tenants, etc.) when HPG was managing the building (one reviewer states that some tenants were subletting their units on Airbnb and implies the tenants were not actually living there). This seems to have stopped after HPG ceased to be the property manager.
- Illegal hotels in general contribute to lower occupancy rates. Every short-term rental is a unit that isn't being rented to a long-term tenant.
- This has long-term implications for neighborhoods, since long-term tenants are more likely to contribute in some way to their communities. People who rent a space for, say, three days are unlikely to do very much for the surrounding area.
- HPG likes to blame this on corporate tenants. So...rent to real human beings and don't rent to corporations without checking them out first? Or at least don't allow tenants to run illegal short-term rentals and cancel their leases if they don't comply? (Again, I used to manage apartments myself, so I just might know a thing or two about this.)
- Should HPG someday allow illegal short-term rentals on the Taix site (and although I sincerely hope they never do such a thing, I cannot put it past them), it will drive occupancy rates DOWN in Echo Park.