Casey Maddren, July 2, 2018
Every day we see more proof. Families being evicted from their homes. People living on the streets. Low-income workers leaving for other cities because they can’t afford to live here anymore. And of course, the folks at City Hall are constantly telling us we need more housing. They use this argument to justify both the construction of shelters for the homeless and luxury skyscrapers, and they’re ready to castigate anyone who opposes them as a clueless obstructionist or a selfish NIMBY.
But while the Mayor and the City Council are railing against those who oppose their agenda, these same elected officials are allowing gentrification and displacement to ravage communities throughout the city. There is no more stark illustration of this than their failure to regulate short-term rentals (STRs). In neighborhoods across LA, landlords are taking apartments off the rental market and turning them into hotel rooms. The folks at City Hall have known this is happening for years, and still they’ve failed to take action.
Scores of cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Santa Monica, have already passed laws to regulate STRs. But LA is dragging its feet. The City Council has been talking about doing something since 2015, and a draft Home Sharing Ordinance (HSO) has been prepared. Many proponents of regulation were enthusiastic when the Planning & Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee considered the draft HSO back in February, thinking the Council would vote on it soon after. But while Councilmembers approved the PLUM report in May, they also introduced a slew of amendments, some of which could substantially weaken the HSO. And the ordinance has been sitting in limbo since then.
This is ridiculous. The City Council needs to act. A quick look at Inside Airbnb, an independent, non-commercial website, shows that thousands of units across LA are being used as STRs, and currently 57% of the listings are entire homes/apartments. While some of these are being offered by individuals who are just trying to make a little extra money, many are being posted by commercial operators that list multiple units. In other words, they’re running illegal hotels. This means that desperately needed housing stock is being handed over to tourists instead of tenants. And while the Mayor insists that he really cares about providing housing for Angelenos, he’s shown zero leadership on this issue.
You can’t find a better example of the damage that STRs are doing to our communities than the Ellison in Venice. A lovely, old, rent-stabilized building, the Ellison was home for decades to renters who appreciated its beauty and charm. But as short-term rentals became popular, owner Lance Robbins gradually started converting the apartments to hotel rooms. Out of 58 units, only 12 are still occupied by tenants paying rent. The rest are being used by vacationers, many of whom come to Venice to party.
Losing the housing is bad enough, but the impacts on the remaining tenants are awful. I got my first inkling of this when I was invited to participate in a conference call organized by Trinidad Ruiz and Bill Przylucki of POWER. They’ve been working with the tenants at the Ellison to try to help them get action from the City. Over the next few days I spoke to some of the tenants individually, and the stories they told about their experiences were disturbing.
Brian Averill has lived at the Ellison for almost 15 years, and he says it was “pretty much paradise for the first 10.” But then Robbins started posting vacant units on STR web sites, and things started to change. As the owner realized that he could make more money by turning the units into hotel rooms, the building was gradually transformed into a hotel, and tourists started to dominate. Many tenants left, unable to deal with the disruptions. The owners started physically altering vacant apartments without obtaining necessary permits, and construction noise became a daily problem. The Ellison began offering live entertainment on weekends, with amplified music that Averill says was sometimes “loud as hell.” And since free food and alcohol are now available to guests on weekends, Averill says he’s heard people vomiting outside his window.
Other tenants confirmed what Averill reported and added more details. Mary Campbell says that since the Ellison started welcoming tourists, maintenance for tenants has become a low priority for the management, and this has resulted in code violations. Bruce Kijewski says that spaces which used to be available for the tenants to enjoy are now used for other purposes. “The back courtyard is used for noisy construction and fancy marble cutting for illegal hotel rooms during the day and for weekend concerts […] at night.” He also says, “The front courtyard is the daily staging area for the exit of the current guests before 11 a.m., and the collection point for the new influx of tourists at 3 p.m.”
A former tenant I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous, said they had to leave because life became unbearable. The noise from both the constant construction and the weekend entertainment made daily life miserable. And everyone I spoke to said they believe this is part of the owner’s strategy. Making life difficult for the renters encourages them to depart, leaving more rooms available to post as STRs. The remaining tenants have been filing complaints with various City agencies for years without getting relief. They’re running out of options.
The Ellison is an extreme case, but there are buildings all over Los Angeles where tenants are being harassed and displaced by the proliferation of STRs. Badly needed housing is being taken off the market. Buildings zoned for residential uses are being illegally converted to hotels. Neighborhoods are being invaded by weekend partygoers. Meanwhile, the Mayor and the City Council, who claim to be concerned about the lack of housing, have been kicking the HSO around for years without adopting the ordinance.
City Hall needs to approve the HSO ASAP. But we need to apply pressure to make sure that it really makes a difference. Airbnb and other STR companies have donated generously to the Mayor and the City Council. They’ve also spent a lot of money on lobbyists. If the folks at City Hall cave in and weaken the ordinance, it will just be a lot of empty verbiage added to the Municipal Code.
The HSO must:
- Set a cap of 90 days per year for use of an apartment or home as an STR.
- Prohibit the use of rent-stabilized units as STRs.
And most important:
- Include enforcement.
Just passing the law isn’t enough. It must include a mechanism to fund the hiring of dedicated staff to monitor activity and respond to complaints. Other cities have found that property owners will still cheat if they think they can get away with it. Once the HSO is in place, LA needs to aggressively crack down on those who are illegally removing rental units from the market.
This is not a simple task. There are conflicting ideas about how to structure the ordinance, and Airbnb will almost certainly file a court challenge, as it has done in other cities. But our elected officials can and mustact now. The HSO can be refined later on. We can no longer afford to have tenants displaced to make way for tourists. The Mayor and the City Council are always talking about building new housing, but they’re not doing nearly enough to protect existing housing. If you believe your elected representatives need to take action on the HSO, give them a call today.
And while you’re at it, contact the Mayor’s Office and ask why he’s been silent on this issue. Here’s his Chief of Staff’s email: Ana Guerrero, Chief of Staff to Mayor Garcetti ANA.GUERRERO@LACITY.ORG.
(Casey Maddren is President of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) a grass roots group advocating for better planning and a CityWatch contributor.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.