Joining the fight, L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin calls the status quo ‘a giveaway — a cornucopia grab bag for developers’

By Gary Walker

A state law that allows builders to exceed local size and density limits for residential developments in exchange for construction of affordable housing has become a call to action for many who say it threatens the integrity of Westside neighborhoods.

Community leaders in Venice, Westchester and Playa del Rey —where homeowners have struggled to stop large developments from utilizing Senate Bill 1818 density bonuses — are calling on local lawmakers to reform the law or counter its effects through city ordinances. Some intend to make it a campaign issue in upcoming state and neighborhood council elections.

Local activists complain that bigger projects mean more traffic congestion and loss of neighborhood character, all at a cost to quality of life.

Westchester resident Kimberly Fox got involved with the nascent movement to reform the state’s density bonus law, on the books since 2005, after Los Angeles City Council members voted in January to approve a five-story, 140-unit residential and retail project at the corner of La Tijera Boulevard and 74th Street, a short distance from Fox’s home.

Fox, a marketing consultant, rallied more than 300 neighbors to sign a petition against the project to no avail.

Council members, including local Councilman Mike Bonin, said they were forced to vote for a project they thought was too large because developers TriCal Construction could have used SB 1818 to make the building even larger had the council rejected its plans.

“TriCal woke a lot of people up about SB 1818,” Fox said.

Speaking to 200 constituents during a town hall meeting at Venice High School last week, Bonin also spoke in favor of reforming SB 1818, calling the law “a giveaway — a cornucopia grab bag for developers —  just because they say the password of affordable housing.”

The law, said Bonin, “is part of a B.S. system that games things for density and games things for more traffic. But the more serious part of [SB 1818] is that it is actually destroying affordable housing.”

In some cases, he said, developers can demolish an apartment complex where all of the units are rent-controlled and then build a larger project with many more units but fewer ones that low- and middle-income people can actually afford.

“These count as affordable housing because they are rent-controlled where a nurse, a firefighter, a teacher or a secretary could live. It results in a net loss of affordable housing and it’s an epidemic,” Bonin said. “It is destroying what is left of middle-class housing.”

Bonin said he and council colleagues Paul Kerkorian and Paul Koretz are drafting a potential amendment to the law.

“One of the fixes that I’m looking at is getting the state to change the formula to where there can only be a net gain in affordable housing in a project instead of eliminating existing rent-controlled apartments.  And to do that, rent controlled units would be counted as affordable housing,” said Bonin, who took office last year.

Alan Bell, a senior planner with the city, called pressing state leaders to revamp SB 1818 “a terrific concept” that would empower local planners.

“If such a change was made at the state level, that would certainly dramatically improve the ability at the city level to craft an ordinance that would respond to local concerns,” Bell said.

Fox said more officials should be as responsive as Bonin.

“I think that he’s heard the tectonic plates shift across the [council] district,” she said.

Fox said she and other voters in state Senate and Assembly races as well as this spring’s Neighborhood Council of Westchester – Playa election will confront candidates about their positions on SB 1818

“I will be watching them all, even at the neighborhood council level,” she said. “Our [neighborhood council] planning and land use committee tries to take a lot of credit on making projects better, but I hope [the attention on SB 1818] makes them ask deeper questions of developers in the future.”

Bonin said it is important to make changes before Westside neighborhoods lose more of their less-expensive housing that isn’t technically considered affordable by the state.

“Otherwise we will become the [council] district of the 1%, with no economic diversity,” he said.