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Issue: Illegal Garage Apartments

March 12, 1992

In a crackdown on substandard housing, Whittier officials recently decided to force landlords of illegal garage apartments to pay tenants' moving costs and rent increases

for up to a year. Should owners of overcrowded, illegal housing throughout the area be required to help tenants move to better homes?

Nancy Ahlswede, Executive Director, Apartment Assn. of California Southern Cities I find it unfortunate that the city would pass a law like that, as opposed to educating the owners as to what is legal and what is not legal. We absolutely, positively do not support landlords renting garage conversions.

But I don't see how expecting owners to pay a rent differential is going to help the problem. To attack the problem means you must stop the usage. I would think that the appropriate way to handle people renting a non-acceptable housing unit would be to just not allow it or to fine the owner. To make a landlord responsible for a rent differential could become a very difficult burden in an already tough economy. We try to educate and protect landlords as they try to do business. I would think that what we want to do is to establish good, affordable housing for people. In order to have decent public housing we need to have good relationships between the public and the private sectors.

Dick Gaylord, President, Long Beach Board of Realtors

The problem is much easier to cure if the units are just substandard. Repairing some wiring, repairing some plumbing, that's easy. If the city contacts you about a substandard unit, you're not going to want to lose the unit. The landlord is going to want to keep the rent coming in. But the garage units are illegal. And in most cases there is nothing you can do to make them legal. Most cities are not going to allow that. The foundations in most garages aren't suitable. I think the landlords have a responsibility. When they leased or when they rented, they were not being upfront with the tenant. They're bringing in more people, and that also adds to the parking shortage. During these tough economic times we have a higher vacancy rate in legal apartments than usual right now. Basically, all these illegal garage units do is add to the vacancies.

Bob Henderson, Whittier city councilman

It's the typical slumlord approach to take the most vulnerable group and milk them for everything they can. The city has got to meet this danger to the community head-on and make those who are profiting from these illegal conversions pay to remedy the situation. The problem is that when you do this, No. 1, you endanger the tenant. I've seen some horrible examples where the only source of heat in a garage unit is a stove, completely unvented. We're talking about gas lines that are improperly used without any kind of proper attachments and unvented fire and cooking areas. The potential for that is just terrible. No. 2, you have an impact on the neighborhood. In some cases you've doubled or tripled the number of occupants on the property. It increases the garbage. It immediately puts more cars on the street. If you have a nice little single-family residence and all of a sudden you have a large number of people living on either side of you, it does tend to drive people out of those neighborhoods.

Jim Stratton, Housing activist

If the landlords don't pay, the rest of the taxpayers are going to have to. However, this whole thing, if it was going to happen, should have been part of the Comprehensive Housing Affordability Study which was recently approved by the city instead of taking place as an isolated event. The reason that I say that is because such a large percentage of the population could be affected. No one is talking about less housing, but that's what this amounts to. I'm not saying the law should not be enforced, but it should be part of a long-range plan. If you're talking about 1,400 garages in a city of 70,000 people and there are maybe five people in each garage, you're talking about 10% of the people that are going to be homeless. What place are they going to go to? The city is not 10% vacant. How are you going to provide for this?

Fernando Tarin, Santa Fe Springs director of housing I really think the owner has an obligation to relocate the tenant because he should not have rented the unit, knowing it was not done properly and not done legally. When you are a renter, you are assuming everything is fine. Based on that assumption, you are going to pay this man funds. You have people out there who are desperate for housing, and they'll take anything. They don't take time to ask. And when you have someone so desperate to get into any kind of shelter, the owner, knowing it's not proper and in accordance with the laws, should have some responsibility. I think it's something that's well needed. Most cities are finding they are having foreign investors acquiring properties, getting the money and taking it out of the country. They really don't care. They do not address the needs of the community.

Compiled by Kirsten Lee Swartz, Times community correspondent

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