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L.B. Council Votes to Keep Law on Low-Cost Housing


LONG BEACH — A low-income housing law, which has been under attack from various quarters since its inception last year, has narrowly survived another assault.

The City Council on Tuesday voted 5 to 4 to reject an effort to repeal the ordinance, referring it instead to a committee for revisions.

The vote shocked a group of developers and some council members, who had expected a council majority to scuttle the bill after a court had thrown out a similar measure in San Francisco.

Councilman Jeffrey Kellogg, who led the effort to repeal the ordinance on the grounds that it is illegal, vowed to carry on the battle in committee. "We'll still repeal it," he said. "It will just take longer."

Councilmen Evan Anderson Braude, Tom Clark, Clarence Smith, Ray Grabinski and Warren Harwood voted to send the issue to commitee. Kellogg, Wallace Edgerton, Les Robbins and Douglas Drummond voted to repeal the law.

Harwood, who made statements favoring the repeal during Tuesday's meeting, shocked colleagues by voting to refer the matter to committee. Mayor Ernie Kell, described by Kellogg as one of the behind-the-scenes opponents of the law, even asked Harwood whether he was sure about his vote. Harwood said he was.

During a recess called minutes later, Kellogg threw up his arms as ordinance foes scurried down the aisle to confer with him. "What happened?" asked Rich Johnson, spokesman for the Long Beach Board of Realtors. "He must have pushed the wrong (expletive) button!"

Kellogg and Edgerton, red-faced and gesturing, rushed up to Harwood after the vote. They said later that Harwood had personally promised his support several times, including immediately before the council met.

Housing activists were ecstatic, but equally dumbfounded. Alan Lowenthal, president of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, put his hand to his heart. "I don't know how it happened, but it's a victory," he said.

Harwood said he was swayed by public testimony. "Counting on my vote with much certainty is not the best thing to do, because I'm listening to what's being said," he said after the debate. "I heard testimony that said 'let's fix it.' "

Housing activists told the council that the court case is being used as an "excuse" to destroy housing programs for the poor. Activists also argued that the ordinance could be revised to comply with the ruling, rather than being rescinding entirely.

"We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater," Lowenthal said.

The low-income housing law, also known as the city's one-for-one ordinance, was passed last year by the City Council and went into effect in February. It requires owners who demolish or convert low-income units to either replace them with other low-cost housing or to pay compensation fees to the city, which are to be put into a fund to build low-cost housing. The ordinance is the cornerstone of the city's low-income housing program.

There was little debate when it was enacted last year. At the time, councilmen and developers viewed the measure as a compromise, since more drastic measures to provide low-income housing were also on the table.

"We all crossed our fingers and hoped it would work," Kellogg said. "But Cinderella turned into a pumpkin."

Critics argued that the ordinance unfairly places the burden of providing housing for poor people on the private sector.

Landlord Iraj Ghane told the Council that the law will force him to pay $250,000 in fees and moving expenses for his tenants if he converts his dozen apartments to condominiums. Critics said that such expenses discourage landlords from renovating housing.

"It actually promotes slums in the city," Johnson of the realtor group told the council.

Nancy Ahlswede of the Long Beach-based Apartment Assn. referred to the recent court decision against a similar ordinance in San Francisco and warned the council: "You're walking on thin ice."

City Atty. John Calhoun told the council that he does not think the ordinance could stand up in court.

Councilman Ray Grabinski retorted: "I'm not willing to back up. We're talking about homelessness . . . and about a city trying to decide where they want low-income people."

The debate culminated months of closed-door talks among housing activists, developers and some city officials to hammer out a compromise.

Those talks, however, reached a stalemate this fall when developers insisted that the city abandon its policy of charging fees to demolish low-income apartments.

"They broke off the meetings and went the political route," Planning Director Bob Paternoster said of the developers.

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