By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
A similar “victory” was scored last year when the big topic in City Hall was a Police Commission plan to no longer have officers respond to unverified burglar alarms. The reversal of this program, too, was saluted on the City Council floor as a victory for neighborhood councils. But in this case it was actually a victory for the alarm companies, for their supporters on the City Council, and for the lobbying firm of Cerrell Associates Inc., which had the sense and creativity to make its pitch to the local councils and their boards full of homeowners and business leaders. Did the 70 percent of Angelenos who rent really care about police response to unverified burglar alarms?
Today, though, a new debate could well provide the biggest test for the young councils. Groups in Los Angeles that have long advocated for the disenfranchised — groups like ACORN, which activist leaders wistfully hoped would be the model for L.A.’s neighborhood councils — have joined forces with low-cost housing developers and a City Council core led by Ed Reyes to demand a housing program called “inclusionary zoning.”
“IZ,” as some call it, is a wonkish term for a mandate that homebuilders forgo market-rate profits on one unit of every five to 10 they erect in the city, creating subsidized homes to slow the advance of the city’s severe housing shortage and to encourage a mix of all economic groups within any given neighborhood.
It doesn’t sound like such a big deal until you hear some advocates exult that Brentwood, at last, will be required to bear the burden of low-income housing and that gardeners will now live next door to plastic surgeons. Real estate agents have been accused of spreading false rumors to scare people away from considering IZ. There is a need for some frank talk and soul-searching about Los Angeles, its character and its future. Such talks usually have been held in corporate suites or university classrooms, but the city now has a chance, perhaps, through neighborhood councils, to bring everyone in on the conversation.
If the strong influence of homeowners associations and chambers of commerce in neighborhood councils persists, though, inclusionary zoning may be doomed. Rarely do homeowners voluntarily take steps to change the character and feel of their residential communities, especially if the change means added density, more traffic and bringing in residents of a lower economic status.
But there have been some surprises. In Venice, where the council is run by a “progressive” slate, inclusionary zoning was endorsed unequivocally. In Silver Lake, a community already densely packed with multifamily dwellings, the council crafted a well-thought-out and nuanced response that calls for preserving the character of neighborhoods that are already built out while endorsing the idea of subsidized housing mandates — elsewhere.
“The point of neighborhood councils was to create venues for dialogue, dialogue about who we are and what we want and where we are going,” said a former council staffer. “They should be a place to ask and answer the big questions. But the level of discourse has been disappointing. The city hasn’t figured out whether it is there to serve neighborhood councils or vice versa. We were looking for civic engagement, but have we just created another level of bureaucracy, this time of council boards, while the rest of us still don’t know what’s going on in the city.”
In the Mayor’s Office, Jim Hahn touts the new access that community leaders have in formulating the city budget. Neighborhood-board members hobnob with elected officials, enjoy free parking in City Hall and are called by their first names when they walk into the Board of Public Works hearing room. Cynics wonder whether Hahn and the City Council haven’t ingeniously come up with a system that allows them to put their own ideas into the mouths of their neighborhood-board members and win political cover for the hard decisions they must still make.
“This is great for me,” Hahn acknowledges, “because I don’t have to do all the work now. I can have some other eyes and ears out there. You tell me how this general manager’s doing and how effective this general manager is.”
Many activists who are still clinging to the process are starting to complain that neighborhood councils have become City Hall’s system for training them, taming them, to become model, quiescent constituents.
In meetings all over the city, boards often play to empty houses as they struggle with process. The crowds balloon when Hahn plans a visit, or the City Council member, or Police Chief William Bratton. But when the city official walks out the door, so do most of the neighbors. The wide gulf that separated City Hall from the people may simply have moved over a bit, to now take in the vocal neighborhood activists and the student-government types that thrive on Robert’s Rules of Order.
In one sign of creeping co-option, neighborhood-council leaders have begun to get invitations to DWP tours of the agency’s historic Eastern Sierra waterworks. Jokesters often said that these Owens Valley jaunts for elected officials and moneyed opinion makers who formerly criticized the DWP seemed a little like a working wife and mother taking a quick weekend trip to the town of Stepford.