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Crowded Out by Luxury Lofts, Poor Seek Relief

The City Council considers protections for low-income housing in downtown L.A.

October 12, 2005|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council moved Tuesday to impose the first limits on the luxury loft and condo boom that is transforming downtown Los Angeles, giving tentative approval to a moratorium on turning low-priced residential hotels into expensive apartments.

The action comes amid growing concern that available housing for the poor in the downtown area is rapidly dwindling amid the gentrification of the historic neighborhoods around skid row.

The vast majority of L.A.'s subsidized single-room-occupancy housing is downtown and in recent years, officials said, the number of available units has fallen by more than 1,200 -- nearly 8% of the total. An additional 2,000 units are under consideration for conversion.

The decline comes as downtown's residential real estate market has exploded, with dozens of derelict bank buildings and decaying hotels in the urban core being refurbished as high-end lofts and condos selling for as much as $1 million. The population of downtown rose from 18,000 to 24,000 in the last few years, according to the Central City Assn. New construction is scheduled to bring more than 30 additional high-rise residential towers to the area in the next few years.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 20, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 86 words Type of Material: Correction
Residential hotels -- An article in the Oct. 12 Section A about a proposed moratorium on the demolition of low-priced residential hotels in downtown Los Angeles reported that developer Kate Bartolo said the city should consider building housing for the poor in the warehouse district. Bartolo said the housing could be built in outlying areas but did not name a specific location, although others have talked about the warehouse district. The article also said the Bristol Hotel was built in 1927. It was built in 1906.

The council unanimously approved a motion to create a citywide ordinance that would place a one-year moratorium on the demolition or conversion of any single-room-occupancy or residential hotels into market-rate rentals and condos. During that year, the city would draft a housing preservation ordinance.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who proposed the moratorium, said the motion is "an attempt to provide a layer of protection for housing that is quickly going to be extinct. It's a recognition that a balance needs to be achieved."

Several hotels that for years served poor residents have gone upscale recently. In addition, plans call for the loft conversion of the El Dorado-Pacific Grand and transformation of the Bristol into a boutique hotel. Several others could be converted to lofts, including the 512-unit Alexandria, once one of the city's grandest hotels with its 60-foot-high lobby of Italian and Egyptian marble and extravagant gold leaf ceilings.

Such architectural details and rich histories appeal to loft developers, but advocates for the homeless worry that the poor are being pushed out.

"When you take these hotels and you convert them into high-end apartments or dwellings, [the city must] think about those people who are living there," said Anita Nelson, executive director and chief executive of the SRO Housing Corp., a nonprofit housing agency. "They have to go somewhere."

Some developers behind the downtown revitalization said they supported the moratorium in principal -- but worried about the housing preservation ordinance's details.

Tom Gilmore, one of the architects of downtown's revitalization, said a housing preservation ordinance, "if done properly," can be "extremely valuable. But if done improperly, it does more harm than good."

Gilmore questioned some of the housing department's figures -- saying that the department is "making it look as if the major threat to SROs is yuppie housing." He argues that commercial development is a more serious issue than housing gentrification.

Kate Bartolo, senior vice president of development for Kor Group, whose company is renovating the Eastern Columbia Building, said developers and activists "need to elevate ourselves beyond white hat and black hat" when it comes to issues regarding downtown housing.

Bartolo said downtown's rising property values require the city to reexamine where low-income housing should be located.

Given the high cost of fixing aging buildings, Bartolo questioned whether residential hotels could ever be brought up to code for use as low-income housing. She suggested that the city consider building housing for the poor farther east in the warehouse district, where it would be less expensive.

"We need to bring in developers, the [Community Redevelopment Agency] and others and start siting locations [for SROs] in non-concentrated areas that offer opportunities for affordable housing," Bartolo said. "It may be less expensive to build ... new SROs in an outlying area with access to buses and social service providers."

But housing advocates say that many hotel dwellers have lived downtown for years and should not just be pushed aside when well-heeled residents move in.

"This is our community," said Becky Dennison, co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, an advocacy group for the homeless that monitors tenants at downtown residential hotels. "You can't just uproot an entire community and push people out.... We're all for building more housing. But not at the expense of what we have."

Cloletta Brown is one of those tenants Dennison is concerned about. Until a year ago, she lived in the Bristol Hotel -- a 1927 Art Nouveau landmark near 8th and Olive streets.

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