A group of about 15 people with fists raised, standing and kneeling in a living room. Some hold signs saying "Los Angeles Tenants Union"
Toland Way tenants, with fellow members of the LA Tenants Union, gathered recently in the front house of the RSO units where many have lived in for more than 15 years. (Photo by Elizabeth Chou, LA Public Press reporter)

The LA City Council moved forward Tuesday on a proposal that would slow down some affordable housing projects that could displace residents from affordable rent-stabilized units in and around Eagle Rock and Chinatown.

Some of the tenants who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting say an otherwise well-meaning program to build affordable housing may lead to the loss of already existing affordable, rent-stabilized housing. Protection from steep rent increases has enabled them to stay in their long-time neighborhood, where market-rate rent has leapt up beyond the means of many people, including people who are elderly or disabled.

Johanna Olivares, who lives in a rent-stabilized unit in Eagle Rock, says that one such project would displace her from a home she has lived in for more than 20 years, and potentially make her and her family homeless. 

She called on the City Council to protect her home. “We were born and raised here in California,” Olivares said. “We do not want to change the faces in our … black and brown community. I’m a stay-at-home mother. I’m on a fixed income. We love Los Angeles.”

While the rent-stabilization program offers relocation fees to tenants who are displaced, she said those are not enough to allow people to stay in their current community without risking homelessness.

The affordable housing projects Olivares and others spoke about at Tuesday’s City Council meeting are being proposed under a program by LA Mayor Karen Bass that calls for fast-tracking projects that propose 100% “affordable units.” 

Affordable housing projects often face extraordinary hurdles – including intolerance from some community members and burdensome administrative requirements – that can raise their costs and increase the time it takes to complete those projects. 

So Bass launched a program through Executive Directive 1 at the start of her term in December 2022 essentially as a way to cut the red-tape on such projects, with the hope that more units would be available to house people currently caught in a severe homelessness crisis in Los Angeles.

But faced with outcry from residents like Olivares, one councilmember, Eunisses Hernandez, recently called for an exception to be made on behalf of tenants in her district who now live in units that are already shielded from steep rent increases by the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO).

The demolition of RSO-protected units to construct new housing is a long-standing complication to Los Angeles’ attempts to build new housing. Most new housing construction is concentrated in neighborhoods where zoning already allows for building apartment buildings. Meanwhile, close to half of Los Angeles’ land is zoned for so-called “single family” detached houses, and those areas are exempted from Executive Directive 1 projects.

In justifying her proposal, Hernandez pointed to more than 40 residents in her Eastside district who were recently blindsided by a project proposed by their landlord, under the Executive Directive 1 program, to build more than 100 units in the property where they currently live.

The residents live in 17 rent-stabilized units on Toland Way in Eagle Rock, as part of a couple of complexes that include traditional apartment units around and behind a single-family-style front house. They are protected from unpredictable rent increases from their landlord, and have other protections such as relocation subsidies if they are ever evicted, through the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance which apply to properties built before October 1978. 

Hernandez’s motion points to a high number of the residents being elderly, disabled and living under health conditions that make them vulnerable if they are displaced.

Herhandez had initially wanted to carve out all such Executive Directive 1-related projects proposed for rent-stabilized properties within her district, which includes several Northeast Los Angeles communities such as Glassell Park, Cypress Park, Highland Park and Mount Washington, as well as Echo Park, Westlake, Chinatown, Pico Union, Koreatown and MacArthur Park. 

A narrowed version of a motion authored by Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez was approved by the council, and an interim control ordinance is expected to return to committee for consideration.

The amended motion, which Hernandez proposed and was seconded by Councilmember Monica Rodriguez, only calls for two areas in Hernandez’s district to be put under what is known as an “interim control ordinance” to temporarily remove certain projects proposed at rent-stabilized properties from Bass’s Executive Directive 1 fast-tracking program. One of those areas surround the Toland Way units, and the other surrounds an area that includes Chinatown.

An interim control ordinance is a legal tool often used to halt a particular policy in a specific situation, and in a limited way. It had also been used by some cities to put a hold on the opening of medical marijuana dispensaries, despite it being generally legal to do so in California.

The verbally read amendment further calls for the interim control ordinance to “prohibit” projects from being streamlined if they displace people from properties with five or more occupied RSO-units, and for there to be an exploration of provisions to require projects to to include more deeply affordable units.

Chelsea Lucktenberg, a spokesperson for Hernandez, says that the amendment “ensures that the units are truly meeting the needs of the current community who are at-risk of displacement without these protections.”

Hernandez’s motion says that affordable housing projects are now eligible to be fast-tracked under Executive Directive 1 as long as the proposed units are affordable for people who earn 80% to 120% of the median area income — but what is actually needed to keep residents in their community is to have units be affordable for people who earn 30% to 50% of the area median income.

In more lay terms, people living in rent-stabilized units in her district’s Northeast Los Angeles communities are paying median amounts of between $1,100 to $1,500. Meanwhile, the median market-rate rent in those areas is often more than double that, at $2,657.

There are more than 50,000 rent-stabilized units just in the 1st District, and more than 650,000 such units citywide, according to Hernandez’s motion. Data on these units can be found at the LA Housing Department’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance dashboard.

The agenda item was pulled for City Council member remarks by the chair of the Housing and Homelessness Committee, Nithya Raman, who ultimately was not present when the amended motion was unanimously approved.

Hernandez, who authored the motion, said that in putting out the proposal, she was not trying to be “anti-development … in fact, we want to see a lot more development.”

She pointed to an ongoing lack of protections and truly affordable housing for Angelenos, including for those living in rent-stabilized units but may find themselves displaced at some point.

She says that lessons can be learned from social housing programs in Vienna, and there is advice from economic experts that point to a “need to build deeply affordable housing, and that’s what we want to see in our district. And so we want to streamline affordable housing. All of it. But the ‘missing middle’ cannot come at the expense of our most affordable units.”

A screen capture of the Los Angeles City Council feed, showing a graphic vote count and the council chambers in the background.
A screen capture of the vote on Item 21. At the beginning of the meeting, Councilmember Nithya Raman, who chairs the Housing and Homelessness Committee, had called for the item to be pulled out for City Councilmember remarks. Later, Raman, as well as Councilmember Katy Yaroslavsky were absent when the vote was cast 13-0 in favor of Hernandez’s amended motion.

Elizabeth has been on the local government beat since 2006, and likes making her friends take public transportation for her birthday.

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