A wave of protest from community activist groups threatens to kill a proposed neighborhood renewal plan that could evict 3,000 predominantly low-income Latinos from a crime-ridden, run-down cluster of apartments in otherwise fashionable Northridge.
Support for the unprecedented measure, which was approved last week on a preliminary 9-4 vote of the Los Angeles City Council, has eroded in the wake of criticism that it is racist, unconstitutional and morally wrong. A final vote is expected on the measure in September.
"I would be shocked if the thing came back and was approved," said Councilman Ernani Bernardi, the most vocal opponent of the plan. "I have to be confident that the City Council and the mayor will not permit this kind of action."
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Coalition for Economic Survival, the Mexican American Political Assn., the Concilio of Chicano Affairs and San Fernando Valley Legal Services are among the groups that have opposed the measure.
"If this is allowed to happen in Northridge, it will happen in East Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, Fairfax," said Larry Gross, coordinator for the Coalition for Economic Survival. "It sets a dangerous precedent for every low-income renter in the city."
The backlash has thrust Northridge residents and civic leaders who support the plan into the uncomfortable position of responding to charges of racial and economic discrimination.
Caught in the middle are the mostly Latino residents, many of them illegal immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador. Unorganized and isolated because of language and fear, most of them are unaware that they may be forced out of their homes.
The measure proposed by Councilman Hal Bernson, who represents the Northridge area, would grant landlords of 30 apartment buildings near Bryant Street and Vanalden Avenue a one-time exemption to a provision in the city's rent-control law.
Would Lower Costs
The exemption would make it easier for landlords to evict tenants for the purpose of renovating apartments and improving the three-block area. Apartments could then be rented at higher prices to a "new class of tenants," according to a report from the council's Governmental Operations Committee.
Specifically, the legislation would lower to $7,500 the per-unit minimum expenditure required under city rent-control laws if landlords want to evict for the purpose of renovation. Currently, landlords may evict tenants only if they spend at least $10,000 per unit on renovation.
The legislation would require landlords to pay evicted tenants $1,000 or three times the current rent, whichever is greater, as relocation assistance. No such aid is required under current law.
If approved, Bernson's plan also would seek council approval of a $40-million, tax-exempt bond issue to help finance renovations, including landscaping, fencing and construction of a swimming pool and other recreational facilities. Bernson said the bonds are needed because apartment owners cannot afford to finance needed improvements.
Units for Low-Income Tenants
The plan would reserve 20% of the units for low- and moderate-income tenants. But critics said most of the current residents would not be able to afford the renovated units or find apartments in the Valley in the $350- to $500-per-month price range they now pay for three- and four-bedroom apartments at the complex.
Several activist organization leaders said the month's interval before the next vote will give them time to organize tenants and lobby city officials.
"It might be that Wednesday's vote was just a test balloon that the council put out," Gross said. "But it is important to let them know from square one that there is going to be a fight if they continue this course of action."
The Bryant-Vanalden complexes have long been a problem because of high crime and slum-like conditions in many of the 650 units. Previous law enforcement and safety and health department efforts to clean up the area have failed, according to the measure's supporters.
A report from the city's Community Development Department, which oversees the rent-control law, stated that singling out Bryant-Vanalden could be justified because the conditions there are "clearly below the level of the immediate neighborhood" and the crime problems "appear unsolvable unless there is a total removal of all present tenants."
Supporters, mostly nearby residents and apartment owners, maintain that renovation would be in the tenants' interest because it would clean up the severe crime and blight that plague the area.
"Housing for the poor should be in an area that is safe and clean and not dirty, and in an area that is compatible to the other surroundings," said Shirley Forsch, who has lived near the area for 24 years. "I don't think it should be in the center of single-family homes."