|by Sam Roudman
As the sun burned away any hope of meteorological reprieve in Century City on Thursday, July 13, more than 100 protesters converged outside the Hyatt Regency to demonstrate against the loss of affordable housing in Los Angeles and the Ellis Act. The controversial state law facilitates the conversion of rent-controlled apartments.
Atop the crowd, a sea of umbrellas bobbed with posters affixed to them reading, “Would Jesus have converted?” and, “Would you Ellis your own mother?” Inside the hotel, the two-day West Coast Condo Conversion Conference was just getting down to business. The conference, sponsored by the New York-based Information Management Network, aimed to offer investment advice on the topic.
Although some real estate experts expect the condo conversion boom to soon slow as interest rates rise, 11,000 affordable housing units have been lost to condo conversion and housing demolition in the last five years alone, according to the Los Angeles Housing Department. Many projects, in the works for months, have reached the eviction stage, pushing thousands of renters out of affordable housing. This loss has been especially damaging to low-income workers and those on fixed incomes who lack the savings to buy their unit once converted.
Many of those who showed up Thursday were tenants like Frida Marlin, an elderly resident of Venice’s Lincoln Place, who has been evicted under the Ellis Act. Marlin says she will be forced out next month after living there for 25 years. “The mayor promised us, and also the city attorney promised us. The only people left are old people. There’s nowhere to go. The city is doing nothing.”
Thursday’s demonstration was organized by the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES), whose organizer Larry Gross said, “We have every major tenants rights and affordable housing organization—plus what’s unique about today is for the first time we’re seeing organized labor join us. We have AFSCME (American Federation of State County and Local Employees), SEIU (Service Employees International Union), and the County Federation of Labor is considering this today.”
Chris Christenson, founder and president of condoconversions.com, was one of the speakers at the convention last week, who sees the conversion trend very differently. He said condo conversions are “the first step on the ladder to home ownership,” helping people move up to the middle class and build equity. Christensen also argued that conversion is a better option than demolition because it sends far less material to the landfill. What’s more, he said, conversions provide benefits to their former tenants because “somewhere between 75 and 95 percent of people who buy a converted unit were previously renters.”
Gross called the condo convention an affront to the community. “We’re living in a city that has one of the worst affordable housing crises in the nation and condo-mania is running rampant, destroying more and more communities. These converters only care about making more and more money on the backs of low-income people, on seniors with fixed incomes, and families.” He also said, condo conversions and rental demolitions are “changing the face of L.A. so we’ll end up being a city only of the rich and the wealthy,” because “wages are not keeping pace with rents.”
Tenant advocates have called for a moratorium on the conversion of rent-controlled units, but many recognize that freezing development alone would not be enough. Gross said he supports “a joint approach that incorporates both housing production with housing preservation, otherwise we’re just spinning our wheels.”
Christensen doesn’t offer any direct answers to the housing crunch, but sees part of the problem as a result of the rent control system itself “[Rent control] takes away the economic incentive for the owners of those buildings to maintain and properly manage those buildings, to respond to tenant complaints, and the buildings deteriorate that much faster.”
“These people that organized this protest…they take advantage of the low and moderate income renters more than we do, because they try to give them this false sense of security that continuing to rent, continuing to fight, and continuing to protest is somehow benefiting them, and it’s really not,” added Christensen.
Last Wednesday, L.A. City Council unanimously endorsed putting a $1 billion dollar bond measure on this fall’s ballot. If passed, it would provide around 1,000 new affordable housing units each year for the next 10 years, and enable many to become first time home owners.
The bond measure could be an important step toward solving the current crisis, but in the meantime Frida Marlin has more pressing concerns. “August 30, we have to be out. We keep canceling so we can stay and keep fighting because there’s nowhere to go, there’s absolutely nowhere to go.” LAA