WeHo Council, Planning Commission Hold ‘Joint Study Session’ on Housing

Council meets on housing

Everything from constructing so-called “micro-units” to limiting conversion of apartments to condos to encouraging the construction of co-ops was on the table at a meeting Monday between the West Hollywood City Council and the city Planning Commission.

Housing was a major topic of discussion Monday night as the West Hollywood City Council and the Planning Commission held a joint study session on housing as part of a required report for the state.

That hour-long discussion also included talk about incentives for landlords to upgrade their buildings and opening dialogues between tenants and landlords.

“We need to move from making affordable housing to making housing affordable,” said Councilmember John D’Amico.

The Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) report shows the city must add 77 affordable units in the next decade to meet the state-mandated number of new affordable units. That number will easily be met with projects already underway.

Many young people want to move into the city but can’t afford the high rents. More than half of the city’s 34,000 residents are between the ages of 20 and 44. One suggestion brought up at the study session was to allow “micro-units,” tiny apartments generally smaller than 350 square feet.

Councilmember John Heilman said micro-units may be successful in cities like New York and San Francisco, but he doesn’t think they’re right for West Hollywood.

D’Amico said the city should be focused on the people who already live in West Hollywood.

Also discussed was how to protect the existing rental units from converting to condominiums. Seventy-eight percent of the city’s residents are renters.

Commissioner John Altschul said creating more barriers to condo conversion would be needed, perhaps stricter guidelines for conversion or requiring a condominium Environmental Impact Report.

Councilmember John Duran suggested the city could encourage building co-ops (tenants buying a share of a corporation whose only asset is the building), something that has been successful in New York City. Co-ops make up 70 to 80% of the residential real estate market in New York City, although there is a trend now toward building and buying condos because of the restrictions many co-op boards place on purchases and sales of units.

Since 2008, 84 percent of new residential units have been built in the commercial zones, according to Duran. He noted the biggest change in the city will be along Santa Monica Boulevard between Fairfax Avenue and La Brea Avenue as more mixed-use developments (retail and residential in the same building) are constructed.

The city’s existing housing stock is aging quickly. Ninety-one percent of all residential units are over 30 years old, half are over 50 years old. As these buildings age, they require more maintance and upkeep, something that can be quite expensive for some of the older buildings.

The city can issue fines when a mandated repair is not done. “Code compliance is police power,” Duran said.

However, the study group agreed that the city has to find other, non-punitive incentives to get property owners to do the upkeep and upgrades.

“Part of the charm of West Hollywood is the old buildings,” said Duran. “I don’t think we want to give that up.”

The city’s rent control laws are often blamed for preventing landlords from making enough profit on buildings to do expensive upgrades. Rent control laws cover any building built prior to 1979, but the state’s Costa-Hawkins Act allows a landlord to raise the rent on rent-control units to market rate once a tenant moves out.

A staff report shows that 68 percent of the city’s rent-control units have reset to market rate at least once since 2001. When a new tenant moves in at market rate, the rent control laws again govern any rent increases for that unit.

D’Amico said that landlords make up the single largest number of small business owners in the city. He suggested that outreach to those landlords should be a priority.

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