Westside councilman suspects law that allows developers to increase density in exchange for affordable units is being misused
By Gary Walker
Months after city approval of an unpopular five-story building in Westchester prompted public outcry over a state law that allows developers to increase housing density in exchange for building affordable units, L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin is calling for an audit of the law’s local impacts.
California Senate Bill 1818, which supersedes city height and density restrictions, came into play with the council’s January approval of the 140-unit residential/retail complex on South La Tijera Boulevard. Bonin had opposed the project but voted for approval to prevent the developer from seeking an even larger building under SB 1818, he said at the time.
The Westside councilman is now seeking council support for two motions that would put SB 1818 — and the developers who utilize the law — under a microscope.
“This is an issue that I have been hearing about in a lot of neighborhoods. I’m a big advocate of affordable housing and of protecting neighborhoods, and some developers have been putting neighborhoods in jeopardy and eliminating affordable housing,” Bonin said.
The first motion calls on the city’s Housing Dept. to produce an audit detailing all existing affordable housing units that have been built in Los Angeles since SB 1818 took effect in April 2008 compared to the number of rent-controlled units that have been demolished by new developments invoking SB 1818.
The idea is to determine whether the city has seen a net gain of low-income housing under the law.
The audit process would also examine income levels of those who moved into the new affordable units and explore any regulations governing who qualifies, or doesn’t qualify, for the newly created housing.
Bonin’s second motion calls on the city Planning Dept. to require that developers who invoke SB 1818 submit financial documentation demonstrating that incentives granted under the law would be necessary to make a project’s affordable housing components economically feasible. It would also have the city enlist a third-party audit of developers’ documentation to justify exemptions from local development requirements.
The council is expected to vote on both motions later this summer.
In addition to Westchester, neighborhood activists in Playa del Rey and Venice have been particularly vocal about high-density developments approved under the auspices of SB 1818.
Del Rey Residents Assn. President Elizabeth Pollock said organization leadership has been calling on Bonin to initiate similar audits since January, she said.
Earlier this year, Pollack contacted the councilman’s office when a Del Rey resident saw an advertisement for the sale of a 28-unit building on Courtleigh Drive that claimed units would no longer be subject to rent control.
“We knew that the owner had been given a density bonus so that the building could have 28 units, rather than 21. The entire city needs an audit and strong enforcement when benefits are provided because a builder claims to be providing ‘affordable housing.’ It is extremely important to make sure that new construction does not displace existing housing that is more affordable,” Pollock said.
Benjamin Reznik, a land use attorney at the Century City law firm Jeffer, Mangles, Butler & Mitchell, said he believes most of the recommendations in Bonin’s motions have merit.
“He is trying to hold the city accountable on density bonuses. These audits might allay the fears that some neighborhood residents have about SB1818,” said Reznik, who is the attorney representing the controversial Legado mixed-use project in Playa del Rey.
There is one aspect of Bonin’s motions that concerns Reznik — the financial documentation to substantiate any planning incentive requests.
“The real issue is at what point do you have to justify the need for incentives? If a developer cannot show at least a minimum return on their project, a bank will not agree to finance a project, which means that it would be dead in the water,” the attorney said.