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2 Beach Cities Plan Effort to Lock Out Bootleg Apartments

October 27, 1985|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

In separate but similar efforts to rid their cities of illegal apartments, officials in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach will launch aggressive enforcement programs aimed at making it more difficult for landlords to conceal the illegal units from authorities.

The programs, expected to get under way next month, will consolidate enforcement duties under one full-time inspector in each city and increase the money and time spent tracking down and eliminating the illegal units. The crackdown will cost about $65,000 for one year in the two cities.

The new programs represent the most dramatic effort in recent years in the two cities to eradicate the irksome apartments, which city officials say have caused overcrowded living conditions and parking shortages in residential neighborhoods for decades.

Busy With Other Duties

Currently, enforcement in the two cities is handled by building inspectors and other city employees, many of whom are too busy with other responsibilities to keep up with complaints about illegal apartments. The new programs will enable inspectors to pursue violations aggressively without being sidetracked by other city business, city officials said.

The illegal units, commonly known as "bootleg" apartments, typically are added to houses through new construction or the conversion of garages, basements, offices, laundry rooms and other spare rooms in violation of residential density ordinances. Officials say the apartments often are substandard--meaning they also violate health and safety standards.

While city officials in both Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach say it is impossible to know how many bootleg apartments exist, they say the illegal units are numerous and onerous enough to warrant the new offensive and the unusual hiring of full-time inspectors. Building officials in Hermosa Beach said they receive an average of four complaints a week about bootleg apartments. Manhattan Beach officials said they do not keep comparable statistics.

Traditionally, most enforcement efforts have been prompted by complaints from neighbors who often must compete with bootleg tenants for scarce parking spaces on neighborhood streets. Numerous violators also have been discovered when building inspectors spotted suspicious-looking apartments while inspecting other buildings.

Concern Fades With Time

"We have been operating on a complaint basis because we don't have anybody to go out and look for them," said William Grove, Hermosa Beach director of building and safety. "What tends to happen is, once it has been established for a few years, nobody realizes that it is an illegal unit, and you don't get the complaints anymore."

Manhattan Beach Planning Administrator Robert Kastenbaum said: "We do it, but it has always been tough devoting the time, considering all of the other things that need to be done."

City officials say that the illegal conversions make a mockery of city planning and zoning ordinances by transforming single-family neighborhoods into multiple-family neighborhoods, and multiple-family neighborhoods into pockets of near anarchy. They also say that bootleg residents place an extra burden on public services such as police and fire protection, as well as on water supplies, sewage service and public roads.

"It is a form of cheating and it irritates people," said Hermosa Beach City Councilman Tony DeBellis, who is a city planner in Inglewood. "It annoys people who obey the law to see others who are taking advantage of the fact that there aren't enough people around to enforce it. The frustration level is extremely high."

No Big Economic Benefit

Terry Stambler-Wolfe, director of community development in Manhattan Beach, agreed. "I don't think there are any significant economic advantages to the city" in eliminating the units, she said. "I think it is a quality-of-life question for the residents."

Bootleg apartments are not unique to Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach, but city officials, real estate agents and law enforcement authorities say the problem is greatest in those two cities because of the high percentage of houses and small apartments for rent near the beach.

About 64% of all housing units in Hermosa Beach and 44% of those in Manhattan Beach are rental units, with the majority clustered in areas relatively close to the beach, officials in the two cities said. A small one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan Beach several blocks from the ocean can cost $750 or more a month, with similar rents not uncommon in Hermosa Beach, local real estate agents said.

"It is a question of money and greed," DeBellis said. "Just look at the rents these people are getting. Even if you are only getting $300 for a converted garage, you weren't getting anything for it when it was just a garage."

Half of County's Complaints

Grove said: "Near the beach people are more willing to live in a converted garage or a dinky one-room apartment and pay outlandish rents."

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