In Los Angeles, at the end of World War II the city’s leaders expected a huge population boom. As a result of these expectations; the city decided to increase the allowable unit density of land. This ultimately led to the rezoning of a substantial portion of the city to R-4. This allows for one dwelling unit for every 400 square feet of lot area. In other words, R-4 is a relatively high intensity residential zoning category. After the zone change, real estate developers proceeded to build units. Among the types of units that were built were so called hotel guestrooms. Guestrooms were an attractive unit type for developers because the code allowed for even greater density of units per lot area and less stringent parking requirements. Guestrooms differ from an apartment or dwelling unit in that the occupants of a guestroom are expected to be of a transient nature, whereas, the occupants of an apartment are expected to use the unit on a longer term basis. This has implications for the program of the unit, in that where an apartment must have a kitchen; a standard guestroom is forbidden by law to have a kitchen. This would eventually pose a problem for owners, tenants and regulators of hotel guestrooms.
Due to Los Angeles’ steady population growth over the last six decades; the actual use of hotel guestrooms slowly morphed from short to long term. In effect the units were being used more like apartments and less like guestrooms. This transformation manifested itself in two ways; the first being that these units were being rented on a long term basis, and the second being that provisions were made for cooking, which means that stoves were added within the units. Over the past few decades, The Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety and the Los Angeles Housing Department have turned a blind eye to their unapproved use, because they were aware that these units play a vital role in accommodating some of the city’s most marginalized citizens. Their knowledge of this is evidenced by the creation of the Residential Hotel Unit Conversion and Demolition Ordinance, which was passed by the Los Angeles City Council in 2008. This ordinance inhibits the demolition or conversion of buildings that the city has determined to be a residential hotel.
The shift from short to long term use of these buildings creates regulatory problems in that; long term use requires cooking, and cooking is restricted in guestrooms. In many cases the LAHD has conducted multiple inspections of residential hotels as part of their Systematic Code Enforcement Program, and has been charging the residential hotel owners for, and providing them with registration of rental units. Yet, recently in spite of their previous inspections and implicit acceptance of these units; the LAHD has decided to enforce the unapproved use. The LAHD is issuing “orders to comply” to owners of residential hotels with guestrooms that have stoves. The “order to comply” compels the building owner to do one of the following: either remove the stove, or attain a change of use from the LADBS. This poses challenges to building owners and architects in that since the building is technically a hotel the plan checker at LADBS is likely to treat the building as a public accommodation, which means that they would hold the building to a higher accessibility standard than a typical apartment building. I recently dealt with an issue where the owner of a hotel with 12 guestrooms was issued an “order to comply” by the LAHD. They were cited for unapproved use because the units had stoves. I attained a change of use from LADBS and the owner was able to keep stoves in all units.
The Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD) is coming down hard on owners of buildings that lack clear documentation regarding the legal building use. This is a serious problem for the owners of apartment buildings constructed prior to 1923, because in those days the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) was not required to issue a certificate of occupancy. The certificate of occupancy or “C of O” is the governing document used by stakeholders to substantiate the legal use of a building. I have recently been resolving issues relating to missing or inaccurate C of O’s with the LADBS. One of these projects is a historic 8 unit apartment building located just north of the University of Southern California. The building was constructed in the early 1900’s and as such a great deal of important documentation was missing or unavailable, and the documentation that was available often contained conflicting or inaccurate information. The owner’s problem began when the LAHD issued an “order to comply” demanding the removal of 3 units. After inspecting the building and researching the permit history I was able to put together a package for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety that ultimately led to a determination by the LADBS that the correct unit count was 8 units. This meant that the owner could keep all their units.
Is the Los Angeles Housing Department’s policy geared towards improving living conditions of renters, or is its primary goal to increase local GDP by stimulating aggregate demand for services and products relating to construction? As an architect with graduate level training in economics, I’m inclined to conclude that the LAHD appears to be engaged in a mutated form of Keynesian economic policy. John Maynard Keynes is widely regarded as the father of modern macroeconomics. Essentially Keynesian economic policy involves the government spending during recessions in order to stimulate the economy. The main difference here is that the LAHD is compelling building owners to do the spending. The LAHD’s systematic code enforcement program or SCEP involves LAHD inspectors visiting residential units and pointing out code violations and issuing an “Order to Comply”. Anyone that has had the recent misfortune of being issued an order to comply by the LAHD is likely to have wondered “why am I being cited”? Those employed by the LAHD will no doubt tell you that they are protecting the life, safety and welfare of the public, but what else is going on? Is it merely coincidence that the apparent increased intensity of SCEP inspections is taking place while this country is experiencing “The Great Recession”?
Although inspector’s citations are supposed to be limited to those which are supported by city code, anyone with sufficient construction experience will concede that there is always an aspect of discretion. In other words, what one inspector considers a code violation might not constitute a violation in the eyes of another inspector? This can be problematic in that if an apartment owner is compelled to devote resources to resolving citations made by the LAHD inspector, then that means those resources cannot be spent on other building improvements. This is what economists call an opportunity cost. It is difficult to determine whether the issues cited by the inspector are of greater value to the tenant than the improvements that the building owner would have otherwise made. Hence, it is not a foregone conclusion that SCEP benefits renters. Let’s consider for a moment who this does benefit? It benefits the LAHD by way of inspection fees and other penalties; it also benefits architects, engineers, construction contractors and other specialized consultants in addition to building material suppliers. Is it fair for building owners to be taxed for the benefit of others?