By Dick Platkin
After sitting on the sidelines for at least a decade, the Los Angeles Times has finally begun to report on the mansionization of Los Angeles neighborhoods, (Return of ‘mansionization’ leaves some homeowners grumbling, May 4, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-mansionization-20140505-story.html#page=1),as well as City Hall’s halting–and sometimes disingenuous–efforts to control it.
For those unclear on what mansionization is, it is a business model of real estate profiteers and contractors who pay cash for small homes in older neighborhoods that have reached a profitability tipping point. Once purchased, the contractors quickly demolish the homes, sidestepping legal requirements to remediate asbestos and lead paint. They then build a large, suburban style tract house by exploiting convenient loopholes in the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance (BMO). To avoid taxes and deductions, they also handle almost everything in cash. The entire process takes less than a year and can net the mansionizers a half million dollars per house. Once sold, the owners and investors then usually flip the McMansions every two years for additional tax benefits.
The LA Times promises to keep on top of this story, especially since LA Councilmember Paul Koretz recently submitted a Council motion directing the Department of City Planning to eliminate the bonuses and exemptions that allow the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance to turn reasonably sized houses into monsters.
If the City Council adopts the Koretz motion and the Department of City Planning quickly implements it, the amendments will restore the original intent of the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, preventing the mansionization of Los Angeles’s neighborhoods. The BMO would also finally implement–not undermine –the official anti-mansionization policies of the Los Angeles General Plan and the City Planning Commission’s Do Real Planning document.
The neighborhood activists who have worked hard to put a lid onmansionization strongly encourage the L.A. Times to carefully follow this story, including coverage of the many Los Angeles neighborhoods now formally requesting protection from mansionization. As the BMO’s amendments are prepared, adopted, and implemented, press coverage should zero in on the central question: Will the amended Baseline Mansionization Ordinance finally stop mansionization in Los Angeles, or will City Hall’s reflexive support for real estate speculation dilute these amendments and perpetuate the charade? To assess the effectiveness of the amended ordinance, the Times should scrutinize it for these five features:
1. Simplicity. Following the spirit of Re-Code LA, the City’s five-year program to simplify LA’s cumbersome zoning code, the BMO’s amendments should produce a short, simple ordinance that stops mansionization. The bonuses and exemptions that allow the Department of Building and Safety to surreptitiously increase the size of a house by 45 percent above what is allowed by-right must be jettisoned. As it currently stands, local residents who want to stop mansionization have no alternative but to seek special zoning overlays that are nearly impossible to obtain and properly enforce. Los Angeles already has hundreds of special zoning districts designed to compensate for the deficiencies of the City General Plan, and we don’t need anymore. Instead, we need to fix the citywide mansionization ordinance, not slap new band-aids on dozens of neighborhoods.
2. Enforceability. A city awash in even more special zoning districts for many small areas, each with its own unique formula to halt mansionization, will exceed the capacity of the City’s bureaucracy to understand and properly enforce these one-of-a-kind zoning ordinances.
3. Consistency. As far as we can determine, except for McMansions, the Department of City Planning handles ALL other municipal land-use processes that add square footage to a structure beyond what is granted by-right. And these processes are treated as discretionary actions that require public notification, an environmental review through the California Environmental Quality Act, written determinations, open access to files, and rights of appeal. The BMO’s amendments must end this unique treatment of McMansions once and for all, and if not, any building and related demolition permits based on exemptions and bonuses must be routed through the Department of City Planning.
4. Transparency. As already noted, the Department of Building and Safety reviews and approves building permits for McMansions behind closed doors. To make things worse, on-line data for individual building permits exclude any information on the exemptions and bonuses that permit McMansions. Short of making an appointment with Building and Safety downtown, the public has no way to know how the City granted a specific house up to a 45 percent increase in its legal size. If the amended Baseline Mansionization Ordinance retains any bonuses or exemptions that expand the size of a house, these bump-ups must be carefully itemized on all on-line, publicly accessible building permit records.
5. Sustainability. The City of Los Angeles is bound by California state law to reduce Green House Gas emissions, and this mandate should apply to land use and building permits. Despite their adoption of some trivial “green” features, McMansions have a huge carbon footprint. They consume lavish amounts of materials and energy, not counting their large cars and what is wasted during demolitions and construction. Since smaller houses have smaller carbon footprints, the BMO amendments to stop mansionization would also have the additional benefit of compliance with State laws reducing the generation of greenhouse gases.
6. Finally, instead of reflexively repeating the assertions of the mansionizers, we trust the LA Times will subject these self-serving justifications to a critical review. To cite just one example, the claim that legal restrictions on mansionization violate personal freedoms certainly needs to be debunked. To protect public health and property values, the Supreme Court ruled nearly a century ago that local municipalities have the right to control land uses through zoning, including the height and size of buildings. Your freedoms do NOT include a right to damage the quality of life, health, and property values of your neighbors.
Is the Los Angeles Times up to the challenge of accurately reporting on mansionization in Los Angeles? Time will tell, but either way, watch this space for the latest on mansionization.
Editor’s Note: Dick Platkin is on the board of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association, and also teaches and writes on planning issues in Los Angeles. He welcomes questions and comments on this article at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Dick Platkin