The major issue raised at last night’s forum for candidates in the March 7 West Hollywood City Council race was development.
It dominated the discussion in the two-hour forum, which was sponsored by the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the L.A. League of Women Voters. However, given that nine of the 10 candidates were present, there was little time for any of them to offer more than fleeting thoughts — the limit was 45 seconds each. Carla Romo was the only candidate who didn’t participate.
Some challengers in the race, notably Cynthia Blatt, a local activist who works for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that new development is important for the growth of the community but that it must be better managed. “Planned development is okay. Unplanned development is not,” she said. “We have not planned our development and that is a problem, it is why we have so much traffic.”
Blatt was joined in that view by challengers Nate Clark, Amanda Goodwin and Reed Stillwell. Each of them runs his or her own business in the entertainment industry.
“Development is inevitable,” Goodwin said. “We have to have development to thrive as a city, to grow… but I think we need to put a moratorium on height and setbacks… For any of us to say we have to stop development would be disingenuous”
Clark, referencing complaints about a shortage of affordable housing, argued that the only way to “solve a housing crisis in a metro area is by increasing the inventory.” He, like others, said that shouldn’t be done at the risk of losing existing affordable housing.
Steve Martin, an attorney and former city council member, criticized what he called a “pay to play” culture in West Hollywood, alluding to the fact that real estate developers are major sources of contributions to the election campaigns of incumbents. Martin said an example of that is exceptions the city allows developers to its General Plan, which is an overall guide to city development. “We spent eight years putting together the general plan, and four years taking it apart,” he said.
Incumbent John Duran said that development is an issue in every city. He noted that when West Hollywood was first incorporated in 1984 many predicted it didn’t have a big enough tax base to generate the revenue required to run a city and provide social services. The growth of the city in terms of development did generate that revenue he said. “Overall I think development is beneficial to a community, it’s just important that it be responsible development,” he said.
Incumbent John Heilman, who has served on the city council since it was formed in 1984, noted: “We all live here because of development. Somebody developed the buildings we live in.” Heilman noted that not all proposed developments are good. But he cited as a positive example the soon-to-open Domain project at 7141 Santa Monica Blvd. which features apartments and shops and will replace the Faith Plating building, which sat on toxic soil.
Several candidates contended that new real estate development has taken a lot of affordable housing off the market in West Hollywood. Under the state Ellis Act, an apartment building owner can evict the tenants from his rent-stabilized building if he plans to take it off the rental market, perhaps by erecting a condo building.
“We have so many of our residents being forced out by irresponsible development,” Martin said.
However Duran, apparently citing a recent city study, noted that only 764 rent-stabilized apartment units have been removed from the market since 1986, which represents about 5% of all rent-stabilized units in the city. About 70 of them later were put back on the rent-stabilized apartment market. He and Heilman also noted that the city requires developers of buildings with 10 or more units to add affordable apartment units.
Candidate Michael Cautillo, who is division manager for Bloomingdale’s, said the city needs to do a better job of protecting rent-stabilized housing from those who want to develop other properties such as hotels.
Heilman noted that a challenge faced by West Hollywood is a state law that allows only residential buildings constructed in 1978 and earlier to be covered by local rent-stabilization laws.
Another issue that emerged in the illegal renting of apartments and homes on a short-term basis through services such as Airbnb. Goodwin said that Airbnb clearly is taking available apartments off the market as owners of them realize they can make more money renting to tourists.
Martin criticized the city’s enforcement of its ban on renting an apartment for few than 31 days. “The city’s ban is just a joke, and there’s no real enforcement,” he said. Martin said he supported allowing homeowners to rent out a room on a short term, as did Duran. But Duran noted that renting out a room in one’s apartment makes the apartment tenant vulnerable to eviction for violating his or her lease.
Michael Cautillo said he is opposed to such short-term rentals because they create safety issues with strangers in the building and rob the city of tax revenue that is generated by hotel room rentals.
Other topics raised by Robert Kovacic, the forum moderator, and by residents included how to deal with homelessness, what to do about the lack of parking in WeHo and whether the city poses too many restrictions on the opening of new businesses.
Most of the candidates argued that building more housing is essential from getting homeless people off the streets. However Blatt, a former social worker, said that alone won’t work. She suggested temporary solutions such as offering a warming center for the homeless in the West Hollywood Park Auditorium. Candidate Joel Quaresimo, who runs his own tech firm, agreed. “Homeless people do not want to live together,” he said. “We need micro units”
Council members Duran and Heilman and challenger Cautillo all stressed the importance of mental health and drug addiction services to deal with the issues that leave many homeless. The city has contracted with several agencies that currently provide those services to people on the streets.
In the discussion about parking several challengers said the city hadn’t required enough spaces for new hotels. The complexity of the city’s process for approving new businesses is a result of its concern about the impact businesses might have on nearby residential areas, Heilman said.
Blatt argued that the city should offer grants to support small business start-ups. And Clark noted that any incorporated business, whether large or small, is subject to city taxes. Martin recommended creating a task force with half of its members from the chamber of commerce to develop solutions.