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A rare public fight over L.A. commissioner

Redevelopment official who angers builders is up for confirmation.

December 19, 2007|Duke Helfand and David Zahniser | Times Staff Writers

As he sought approval for three downtown high-rises last year, developer Sonny Astani promised the city's redevelopment agency that he would hire union workers, install expensive underground parking and donate $1.5 million to a skid row housing fund.

None of that was enough for Joan Ling, one of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's appointees to the Community Redevelopment Agency board. Ling also wanted Astani to provide money for affordable housing.

"I was about to say, 'How about my children?' " recalled Astani, whose downtown project was approved on a 6-1 vote with only Ling dissenting.

Downtown business leaders and some elected officials are pointing to such incidents as they target Ling, whose reappointment comes up for a vote at City Hall today, saying she has gone too far in trying to extract concessions from developers even when their projects receive no public subsidies.

Ling's case has evolved into a clash over the CRA's attempts at controlling the gentrification of blighted areas. And it has turned what is usually a routine confirmation vote into a rare public fight, with council members Jan Perry and Bernard C. Parks calling Ling -- who runs a nonprofit affordable housing corporation in Santa Monica -- an impediment to new investment.

"I am concerned that she has acted in a manner that is not only inappropriate, but may expose us to litigation down the road by . . . loading on her social agenda," Perry said.

Labor leaders and affordable-housing advocates have rallied to Ling's defense, flooding council members with letters of support that praise her real estate finance knowledge and call her one of the city's most important voices for working families and the poor. They describe her as a fair-minded commissioner who tries to ensure that developers pay their fair share once they receive tax breaks, zoning changes and other incentives.

"We are very concerned about how she is being attacked, as if she is doing something to harm our city," said Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who lobbied council members on Ling's behalf.

Ling says she is only heeding Villaraigosa's charge to balance the needs of the poor with downtown's rapid transformation into a high-cost district where rents exceed the reach of its indigent residents.

If developers "are getting all these land-use concessions that are worth a lot of money, they should be giving something back," she said.

Ling enjoys Villaraigosa's strong support.

"The mayor did not appoint Joan to be a rubber stamp on that commission," said Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo. "She has every right to advocate for affordable housing. She . . . asks tough questions and tells the truth."

Ling infuriated Parks in 2006 when, during a public hearing on a student housing project near USC, she asked the developer if he would be willing to accelerate property tax payments to help fund affordable housing. Parks said the concession -- which was repealed after he complained -- would have made it difficult to attract other investors to South L.A. Ling said the developer had offered the concession himself.

The 53-year-old Mar Vista resident also drew fire for comments she made while opposing a 210-unit apartment project planned for Chinatown. Lawyers for the developer produced a transcript of Ling warning that a "luxury" apartment complex would harm the neighborhood because such buildings have frequent tenant turnover -- a comment the developer believed went beyond the scope of her oversight duties with the CRA.

Perry, meanwhile, accused Ling of overstepping her authority by allegedly advising low-income tenants of a downtown hotel not to divulge their incomes to the property owner, who needed the information to qualify for public financing.

Ling said she gave no advice to the hotel tenants and only asked whether it was legal for the owner to demand income data. The commissioner also said she does not negotiate with developers and, as one of seven CRA board members, has only so much influence.

"I don't have the authority to cut deals," she said. "I simply ask questions. I think it has upset some people as a result."

Two other CRA commissioners are also up for reappointment today. John Perez, Villaraigosa's cousin and political director for the United Food and Commercial Workers in Orange County, faces no organized opposition, even though he often agrees with Ling. Business leaders say he is willing to listen to their concerns. No opposition has materialized for the other, Bruce Ackerman, president of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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