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Fox in the Hen House 

A progressive for L.A.’s redevelopment agency

Wednesday, Sep 11 2002
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For much of the past decade, Madeline Janis-Aparicio has been standing on the outside, pushing local government and developers in Los Angeles to provide better pay and working conditions to the city’s working poor.

Now she‘s been invited to join the power players on the inside. Pending expected confirmation by the City Council on Friday, Janis-Aparicio will join the board of the Community Redevelopment Agency. With a staff of 200 and an annual budget of more than $400 million, it’s the largest agency of its kind in the nation.

From its inception more than 50 years ago, the CRA board has been the home of interested parties -- developers, real estate lawyers and labor bosses experienced in staging the kind of big-ticket development projects that redevelopment is designed to foster. Issue-oriented advocates like Janis-Aparicio might address the board from a podium during occasional public hearings -- but never had a voice in the agency‘s deliberations.

The prospect of an activist sitting on the CRA board has already generated consternation in the downtown business community and opposition from some members of the City Council -- particularly from Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose South L.A. district is home to the CRA’s largest single development project. But Mayor James Hahn was familiar with Janis-Aparicio‘s record, and met with her before nominating her to a CRA seat that had been vacant since November. Said Jonathan Kevlis, deputy mayor for economic development, “It’s healthy to have a board with a variety of perspectives.”

A lawyer who started out representing tenants and immigrants from Central America, Janis-Aparicio turned her attention to the working poor in 1993 when she helped found the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), where she serves as executive director. LAANE played a lead role in pushing Los Angeles and then Santa Monica to pass “living wage” ordinances, which require that local governments -- and the independent contractors who work for them -- pay better than the legal minimum to their hourly workers. The exact wage varies, but is usually pegged at the amount needed to keep a working family off welfare and other government subsidies.

The living-wage movement quickly went national, and many cities across the country used the L.A. ordinance as a model. But in Southern California, LAANE and Janis-Aparicio pressed ahead, seeking means to leverage the new wage benefits beyond local-government payrolls. At LAX, they demanded coverage for all airline, service and security contractors and their employees. In Santa Monica, they joined a coalition that won a living wage for the coastal zone -- extending living-wage rules for the first time to private entities not doing business with the government. (The measure has been held up pending a citywide referendum in November.) And in Los Angeles, LAANE pressed developers working with the redevelopment agency to agree to a living wage and other employee benefits in return for receiving public subsidies.

Those efforts produced some landmark agreements -- at Hollywood & Highland, developers promised that retail tenants would pay a living wage, and at Staples Center, the Anschutz Entertainment Group agreed to a slate of neighborhood improvements as well as relocation assistance for displaced residents. But targeting city-sponsored development brought Janis-Aparicio into conflict with the agency to which she has now been nominated, and won her sharp criticism before a City Council committee on Monday.

“We are concerned about LAANE‘s agenda,” said Carol Schatz, head of the Central City Association, a leading business group, during testimony before the council’s Economic Development Committee. “Madeline and I have been on opposite sides of many a table over the years,” Schatz told the committee, most recently over the question of a living wage for retail tenants in redevelopment areas.

“It‘s a question of short term versus long term,” Schatz said. “Do you get a few people better wages now but chill development, or the opportunity for development in the long term?”

Councilwoman Perry challenged Janis-Aparicio on the same grounds. She and Nick Pacheco, both members of the committee, said they supported the living-wage deals achieved for the Hollywood & Highland project, but said they were concerned that developers might flee from hiring rules in poorer parts of the city, which each represents. “I’m looking at Skid Row and south, and there‘s just not a lot that’s going on,” Perry said in an interview.

Perry said she wants to see jobs in her district, at minimum wage or even below minimum if necessary. Of LAANE, she said, “They need to put their imprint on development, which may or may not work in the real world -- particularly in districts like mine.”

Janis-Aparicio parried her challengers with the sort of diplomacy one might expect of a prospective appointee, assuring the committee that “I‘m realistic” and that “We need to take baby steps” in the drive to foster economic justice.

It was left to her champions to introduce the rhetoric of political activism before the committee. In a letter to the council, the county Federation of Labor backed Janis-Aparicio as “an incredibly effective advocate for jobs, economic development and affordable housing.” And addressing the council committee Monday, the Reverend James Lawson, the president of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, denounced the current minimum wage as “a hangover of plantation capitalism,” and said that while he sympathized with the “anxieties” of the Central City Association and the Chamber of Commerce, “the truth of the matter is that historically in the United States such agencies have never been supportive of workers receiving their due wages.”

More important to Mayor Hahn, however, and critical to her appointment, is the sense that Janis-Aparicio and LAANE have carved out a new path for activists. By engaging developers early in the process and establishing public priorities, they gain living-wage and other concessions and avoid last-minute conflicts that can drive costs up. “Uncertainty is the enemy of investment,” Deputy Mayor Kevlis said in an interview. “Rather than get blind-sided late in the game, groups like LAANE are getting in up front.”

That endorsement was echoed by Cliff Goldstein, a partner in J.H. Snyder Co., developers of NoHo Commons, a $220 million redevelopment project in North Hollywood. Goldstein said LAANE was instrumental in developing a “community-benefits package” that includes a day-care center, a health clinic and living-wage guarantees, all before the project was presented for government review.

“These are not the first things a developer focuses on,” Goldstein acknowledged. But adopting the package simplified the approvals process. “As a developer we’re looking for a win-win,” Goldstein said. “It‘s self-interest. We’re being realistic.”

Kevlis expects that Janis-Aparicio will institutionalize that sort of deal making at the CRA. “The overriding goal is to improve the quality of life,” he said.

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