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Activists Protest Projects' Lack of Low-Income Units

Housing: A group decries a deal that let the builder avoid a requirement for setting aside 15% of the units. The developer's lawyer says the rule is unfair.

February 18, 2001|SARAH HALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two new luxury apartment complexes intended to help rejuvenate downtown Los Angeles have prompted a protest from an advocacy group that condemns the developer for not providing any low-income units.

For months, the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, has organized protests against Brentwood-based developer G.H. Palmer and Associates, which the group says sidestepped a city development regulation requiring low-income units.

The city regulation, adopted in 1991, says residential developers in the Central City area must devote 15% of new apartment units to families with annual incomes of $22,500 or less.

The developers have said the projects are being built on land formerly occupied by businesses, not housing. They declined to be interviewed about the controversy. Their lawyer, Benjamin M. Reznik, contends that the low-income apartment provision is not fair because it is applied only in the Central City, not across Los Angeles.

ACORN's protests, while generating little public attention, have highlighted a lingering tension between city officials' desire to attract affluent residents to downtown and the long-criticized shortage of affordable apartments for the working poor who populate most of the area.

On Thursday evening, more than 100 members of the group rallied in front of the developer's nearly completed Medici complex at 8th and Bixel streets, stopping traffic and holding signs with such messages as "Palmer Give 'Em Up." Angry drivers yelled from their cars, unable to pass through the intersection for nearly half an hour. A cardboard model of a house was propped up in the center of the intersection.

Two years ago, city planning commissioners modified the 15% requirement for the Medici complex's developers, Geoff Palmer and Peter Novak. Commissioners said the two could satisfy the requirement by building 60 moderately priced apartments--9% of the Medici's 658 units--on land within about three miles of the project.

ACORN members said moderate-income apartments could rent for $300 a month more than low-income units, making them unaffordable to many.

'Poor People Are Getting Pushed Out'

"The poor people are getting pushed around and pushed out of the community because we can't afford the housing," said Abdullah Muhammad, 53, a group member and South Los Angeles resident. "Where are we supposed to go?"

The group, which organizes residents of poor neighborhoods in a number of U.S. cities, opened an L.A. office five years ago and says it has 2,000 dues-paying residents in half a dozen poor neighborhoods, including Pico-Union, which is near the Medici project.

Two weeks ago, the city's Central Area Planning Commission voted to uphold the 15% low-income requirement on a second, nearby Palmer project. The developers said they would be unable to find financing to build the low-income units, and commissioners last week agreed to meet on the issue again March 27.

"The new housing going up is an insult to the people living in the area," Guadalupe Gonzalez, one of the group's most vocal leaders, said in Spanish. "These two buildings are out of reach for most community residents. We feel ignored, and nobody cares."

G.H. Palmer and Associates has rented 75% of the completed units in the Mediterranean-style Medici complex, west of the Harbor Freeway. The proposed Visconti site is four blocks away.

The apartments, targeted for downtown professionals, range from $1,300 a month for a studio to about $8,000 for a penthouse. The complex has a 24-foot waterfall, one-acre private park, tennis courts, track and other amenities.

About 2,000 residential units have been built or renovated in the downtown area since 1994, says the Community Redevelopment Agency. Of the total apartments in the downtown area, about a third are government-subsidized to aid elderly or low-income residents.

Larry Friedman, hearing officer for the Planning Department, acknowledged that the city's handling of the Palmer projects could encourage other developers to seek exemption from the 15% requirement. But he said city officials are determined to push for housing development.

Peter Kuhns of ACORN said any policy change will hurt the poor. "The 15% requirement is the law, and the law was designed to protect the community. This never should have happened," he said.

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