So, Whither LA’s Airbnb Ordinance?

EASTSIDER-I was going to write about what the City is doing regarding the Airbnb situation – as in, hiding in the basement.  And also what Airbnb is doing, as in, well -- spending billions and accumulating zillions of news articles. Then I realized that was a cop out -- the issues surrounding Airbnb are a big deal for the future of Los Angeles. We need a real dialogue, not mere reporting. 

Two overriding issues are central to regulating short-term rentals so that the residents of the city and these dot.com app companies can coexist. We must enforce existing zoning laws and codes; and we must ensure that new entities like Airbnb do not destroy the fundamental nature of LA’s fascinating and diverse neighborhoods. 

Enforcement of Existing Laws and codes has never been a strong point in the City of Los Angeles -- unless you are on the other side of something that the City Council wants to do. Witness the chopping down of 58 oak and sycamore trees in Sycamore Canyon or what happened in places like Venice where affordable housing is being turned into mini-hotels

It is a fact that Code Enforcement by the LADBS is not a happening thing. It’s that old LA story the City Council understands so well -- if you want to cripple a function, simply fail to fund it properly in the budget. And they did a good job of this. As for the Zoning and the Planning Department, when Deputy Planning Director Alan Bell wrote a memo confirming that there are serious legal questions about short-term rentals under existing Zoning codes, his memo disappeared. And suddenly, he took an early retirement. “These are clues,” as Inspector Clouseau would say. 

So it seems to me that if the LA City Council is going to pass a short term rental ordinance in order to receive the tax revenue, the first priority for the use of that money should be to pay for the necessary staffing to enforce our existing codes. If there’s any money left over, then it can be put into the general fund kitty for whatever. 

Preserving Our Neighborhoods is tricky since there is no “Los Angeles City,” as such – but rather a whole bunch of neighborhoods that together define LA. And those neighborhoods are precious, for without them, LA is simply a vast, obscene machine – a place that few are “from” -- and where the elite constantly tear down and rebuild structures to feed the maw called “reinventing Los Angeles” -- attracting all the suckers to come here so they can skim the profits. 

If you think about it, that was the genius of our flawed Charter Reform that created the Neighborhood Council system – designed to preserve and encourage our various neighborhoods to represent their uniqueness, to reverse the actions of the City Council that was turning our City into 15 Fiefdoms.  Through the NC system, we even have a rough outline of who our neighborhoods are since there are now 96 defined and separate Neighborhood Councils. 

Without that system, flawed as it is, I don’t think we would even talk to each other. For example, most of us still drive cars, Mayoral pronouncements to the contrary. From where I live in Glassell Park/Eagle Rock, it takes about an hour and a half to travel roughly 11 miles to Westwood, one way.  Heck, during rush hour, it takes almost an hour to go less than five miles from my house to downtown LA on surface streets!  

And using most public transportation, it takes even longer. Unless, of course, you live in a “transportation corridor” near a train or bus stop. But to do that, you have to be able to afford the outrageous rents charged by the owners of the buildings along the corridor. 

So, by and large, people from one neighborhood do not venture forth into other neighborhoods, except for work. I rarely see our friends in Mar Vista and Santa Monica anymore. Same for our friends in the Valley. I haven’t been down to South Central more than once or twice in the last five years.  Honestly, the only time I have any real contact with the greater Los Angeles community is at the LANCC meetings. 

That’s why the Neighborhood Councils are so important, and why the City needs to pay serious attention to allowing hi-tech, no-skin-in-the-game dot.com app designers like Airbnb just blow into town, pay a few bucks in taxes, skim off a bunch of money, and fundamentally alter the character of our neighborhoods. 

And if you don’t think that Airbnb and its ilk will change the character of our neighborhoods, think again. Talk to the residents of Venice, an area that is turning into the new “hotel row.” And watch as the folks who live there witness their affordable housing turn into rental hotels. Just talk to the Brentwood Homeowners Association about the McMansions popping up like mushrooms, turning into party houses and hotels, destroying the character of their neighborhood. 

Going Forward…please remember:  the reality is that even as we speak, the City is drafting a “Short-term Rental Ordinance,” and the fact that there has been a deafening silence from the Council members as to what they are doing is not a positive sign -- particularly when you consider that Airbnb has a huge bag of money to buy access to our cash-strapped City Council and Mayor. 

While it may sound harsh, Airbnb and its progeny have absolutely no interest in Los Angeles other than profit. We all represent the same pot of money -- be it New York, Paris, San Francisco…or LA. 

So what’s our guarantee that when the City passes a short-term rental ordinance they will use the tax dollars to enforce the laws and the codes to preserve affordable housing or maintain the character of our neighborhoods while regulating those short-term rentals? 

None, if history is a guide. Those taxes will go into the general fund for the purpose of balancing the unbalanced city budget and pay for the councilmembers’ pet projects.  

This is why it is so critical for people to get involved. Write, call and talk to our elected officials and their staffs, both individually and in groups. Weigh in. Try and effect an ordinance that will allow our residents to implement what Airbnb was originally advertised as -- a “sharing economy” mechanism whereby people can “share” an extra room for a week or so at a house while the owner is away. That kind of a “sharing economy” could actually be cool.

 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 15, 2016