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Why are McMansions, Luxury High-Rises, and Commercial Buildings Exempted from LA’s Coronavirus Closure Orders?

PLANNING WATCH-When I was a college student, one of my wisest professors taught us that deep crises were the best time to understand a society.

This is when previously hidden social processes suddenly reveal themselves for direct observation, analysis, and response. 

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and related economic crash, we are now in such a time.   Every day brings forth new revelations about what had been previously concealed from view. 

We can now applaud elected officials who finally realize that housing is a human right. They are calling for a no-nonsense freeze on rent increases and residential and commercial evictions as a response to the twin crises. They deserve our support, as well as additional recommendations, such as the prosecution of landlords who evict tenants during the pandemic and economic catastrophe.   

We should also demand our elected officials adopt another Interim Control Ordinance (ICO) to prohibit residential demolitions, similar to the ICO they adopted four years ago.  Such a blanket ICO would prevent the destruction of existing lower-priced housing, which is already in extremely short supply. For that matter, we can also ask them to emulate El Salvador, which has imposed a three-month freeze on all utility, mortgage, and credit card payments.   

After that, our elected officials can prioritize the construction of emergency medical facilities to care for critically infected Covad-19 patients -- instead of luxury apartments funded by real estate speculators. Our elected officials can also act on the proposals from the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union representing much of the City of LA’s work force, It's time for our elected leaders to come through -- to make sure public service workers have the supplies, equipment, and testing needed on the ground immediately.” 

Housing is a Human Right has also proposed these additional emergency actions to help local residents survive during an extended period of public health and economic crisis. 

  • An immediate moratorium on foreclosures and sheriff lockouts; 
  • A moratorium on encampments sweeps, closures, and vehicle tows; 
  • Emergency rental or mortgage assistance; 
  • Suspension of rent and mortgage payments, with debts on rent and mortgage payments accrued during the crisis waived; 
  • Prohibit utility shut-offs and rate increases, halt application of late fees, and reinstitute services immediately. 

At the national level we also have laudable elected officials who insist that all rescue package must prioritize employees, not major corporations – as happened during the Bush and Obama administrations. They are also clear that this country’s second-rate health care system needs an immediate Federal government infusion of money for the speedy construction of emergency medical facilities and purchase of vital equipment and protective gear, including ventilators, respirators, disinfectants, gowns, masks, and surgical gloves. 

A revealing closure exemption: According to the Los Angeles Times, there is a serious exemption to the City’s and State’s comprehensive closure orders. Yes, all museums, libraries, kindergartens and schools, colleges, universities, retail stores, most offices, and personal services are closed, while restaurants can only sell take-out and delivery orders. Yes, most people are sheltering-at-home, and when they leave for exercise or shopping for food, observe the six-foot social distancing rule, sometimes wearing masks and gloves if they find stores or on-line businesses that are not out-of-stock. 

But your lying eyes are not deceiving you. Work on McMansions, luxury high-rise apartments, and commercial buildings near you is continuing without a blip because the official shelter-in-place orders exempt them. (See photo above of Beverly Grove McMansion under construction.) This certainly makes sense for the construction of emergency medical facilities, homeless shelters, and vital infrastructure. But there is no credible reason to exempt speculative, privately financed real estate projects whose investors, buyers, and tenants, are drawn from the most affluent levels of society. In sharp contrast to California, Pennsylvania closure order includes construction. Other major cities, like Boston and Austin, have already halted all non-essential construction, while other cities, like New York, are considering it. So far, though, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council are holdouts. 

Like California Governor Newsom, Mayor Garcetti’s cover story is that housing is essential, and its construction must, therefore, soldier on. But this justification is transparent nonsense because the only housing construction that is essential is for low-income renters and the homeless.

Unfortunately, such housing projects are money-losers, so investors totally avoid them, while the government’s affordable housing programs have been on a 50-year starvation diet, beginning with the Nixon administration. It is laughable that the coronavirus exemption for this non-existent affordable housing construction is the rationale to allow non-essential construction to continue without a hitch.  

Work continues on a Miracle Mile luxury high-rise apartment during pandemic. 

Why? The truth that is floating to the surface in California, as well as in New York and in Illinois, where there are similar exemptions for construction projects, is that the urban growth machine still dominates local and state government. Apparently, a global pandemic as bad as the 1918-19 Spanish flu is not yet severe enough to limit non-essential construction activity. In comparison, the U.S. government stopped nearly all construction during WWII so building supplies and labor could be shifted to military industries, including emergency (but segregated) housing for their employees.   

This is the model public officials should now follow instead of repeating the construction industry’s tall tales that their lucrative, high-priced market housing is essential. It isn’t, which is why new luxury apartment buildings have high vacancy rates and unsold McMansions become party houses and Airbnb rentals. True, the investors and developers of this speculative real estate will take a financial hit, but there are consoling words for them, “The line forms at the end.” 

Pin the Tail on the Donkey? This exemption for real estate investors, developers, and contractors cannot be blamed on the Trump administration, even when they unabashedly favor banks, airline companies, and cruise lines in their Congressional bailout packages. In LA, behind the thin veil of non-partisan offices, the Mayor, City Attorney, and City Controller are all Democrats, as are 14 of the 15 LA City Council members. At the County and State levels, it is the same story. 

The sad truth is that they are so in synch with the real estate sector that they have given them a green light for non-essential construction, even when the rest of Los Angeles has ground to a halt, including the shuttered public offices where the same officials cut their deals and occasionally get caught with their hand in the cookie jar. 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch.   He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and is co-chair of the new Greater Fairfax Residents Association. Please send comments and corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.