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Plan Would Allow Some Garage Housing

Apartments: Task force will ask council to allow legalization of units, despite zoning, after safety hazards are fixed. Strong opposition is predicted.

May 03, 1997|SHARON BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Acknowledging Los Angeles' chronic shortage of affordable housing, a city task force on illegal garage apartments plans to recommend legalizing at least some of the tens of thousands of bootlegged units that many poor families call home.

The task force, formed after the recent deaths of eight people in garage apartment fires, will recommend next week that the City Council adopt a plan enabling homeowners to make the dwellings safer without penalty and then get them legalized--even if they are located in neighborhoods zoned for single-family housing.

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The program to make existing units safer, however, would be coupled with stringent enforcement efforts against landlords who refuse to cooperate.

The task force, made up of 13 safety and planning officials, also plans to urge that city employees, from meter readers to garbage collectors, keep an eye out for illegal apartments as they work in the field and report them.

Their proposals also include $227,500 in city funds for a publicity campaign to alert residents of the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 garage apartments to common hazards including faulty wiring, unvented heaters and, most important, lack of escape routes in case of fire.

"It's not going to solve the problem of people not having enough money to pay rent," said Sally Richman, manager of policy and planning for the Los Angeles Housing Department and author of the task force report. "But I think it will certainly go a long way toward reducing hazards. And that is the primary focus here--not having any more people die."

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The recommendations, particularly those calling for legalizing at least some units, are sure to infuriate homeowner groups, who for years have jealously guarded the single-family zoning of their neighborhoods.

"What they're doing is basically gutting the Los Angeles zoning code through the back door," said Gerald A. Silver, president of Homeowners of Encino. "It's creating a whole class of substandard housing."

Councilmen Richard Alarcon and Mark Ridley-Thomas, who set up the task force after the deadly garage fires in their districts, praised the group's efforts but predicted difficulty getting the City Council to approve its ideas. The task force, agreeing that its mission was an urgent one, met three times in the last month.

"I am extremely pleased that they have taken very swift action and have laid out several different ways to approach the problem," said Alarcon. "But I'm sure the recommendations will be modified."

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The task force is suggesting that the process work like this:

First, city workers whose jobs take them into residential neighborhoods would be asked to document the addresses of any homes where it looks like people are living in illegally converted garages.

Then city inspectors would visit the property. If the units are deemed extremely dangerous or unsanitary, they would be shut down, and the owners forced to pay relocation costs to the tenants.

If conditions are more moderate, the owners would be given an undetermined length of time to put in certain basic safety and sanitation features, like smoke detectors, windows, doors and plumbing.

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That's where the new zoning rules would come in. The task force is recommending that the city create a new type of building permit to allow owners to fix up the apartments--even if they are prohibited in their neighborhood by existing zoning laws.

Then, once the units have been brought up to minimal standards and pass inspection, owners could apply for a temporary occupancy permit. This would allow tenants to remain in the apartments for up to three years. After that time, the units would be shut down unless the owners apply for special permits, to be granted on a case-by-case basis, to make them permanent.

The task force is also recommending that permanent approval permits, which would cost about $1,300, be made fairly easy to apply for and that they take only about four months for approval.

"It's a pretty good start," said William Fulton, publisher of the California Planning and Policy Report and an expert in affordable housing issues. "The question is, how motivated are any landlords going to be to do it?"

Jan Breidenbach, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Non-Profit Housing, said she doubted landlords would bother to fix up the apartments.

"You've got people who are living on the edge renting to people who are also living on the edge," she said. "Landlords are not going to have the money to pay relocation fees or to fix the apartments up, and tenants won't have the money to move elsewhere."

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Ridley-Thomas, who has opposed changing zoning laws and building codes, said the recommendations start the city down a slippery slope toward accepting substandard housing as the norm.

"If you compromise the standards, where does that end?" asked Ridley-Thomas. "Do you now lower the standards for new construction?"

A better option, Ridley-Thomas said, would be to eliminate the garage apartments in favor of affordable housing built to code.

The task force recommendations will be presented to the council's Housing and Community Redevelopment Committee, chaired by Rudy Svorinich.

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