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There was a letter from Dwayne Wyatt, a planning associate who worked with Reyes, urging his former colleague earlier this year to put pressure on Mayor Hahn to oust Howe and his top deputies, for his own benefit, and that of other minority planners who he said failed to advance because of discrimination. Wyatt said it was also for the benefit of poor and minority areas of the city, which must bear the burden of development without the protections enjoyed by wealthier areas, like historic-preservation zones and strategic plans that limit density and impose tough strictures on new projects.
Wyatt requested a meeting to discuss "a number of long-standing concerns many of the minority planners have" about personnel practices, including "manipulation, favoritism and racism."
Reyes understood. He had been there.
Meanwhile, Con Howe missed a couple of key meetings on the topic of inclusionary zoning, and Reyes’ staffers were incensed. They tried to push their boss to get tough with Howe. And the only way to do that was to get tough with the mayor.
To them, it’s clear that Howe’s priorities have little to do with affordable housing. In some sections of town, Howe is widely credited for using Planning Department programs and policies to make preservation of historic buildings a reality in Los Angeles. The city already had Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, or HPOZs, when Howe came in. But he gave them greater resources and rapt attention, and helped launch new HPOZs in many districts, including Reyes'.
"Con Howe has done a lot for historic preservation in this city," says Murray Burns of Angelino Heights, a neighborhood of restored Victorians and Queen Annes surrounded by the tiny bungalows and densely packed apartments of Echo Park. "I think his view is that there’s a possibility of Los Angeles being held in better regard by many people who don’t live in L.A. if we can preserve the truly wonderful architecture we have."
But to some political activists, that’s just the problem. Resources go to historic homes instead of new housing for the thousands who must commute for hours, or live in their vans, or pay more than half their wages for rent.
"The city needs an affordable-housing policy," says Assistant Professor David Diaz of California State University Northridge, "and the elected [officials] are not going to deliver it. I’m totally disillusioned with most of the minorities in city government, and the, quote, liberal mayor. Sometimes the bureaucracy has to take some flak, show some courage."
Diaz, whose field is urban studies and planning, labels Howe "an absolute wimp" who has failed to take account of the rapid increase in L.A. population. He says a good planning director would offer cowardly elected officials a certain measure of political cover, shielding them from necessary, but unpopular, decisions.
Howe’s image doesn’t help. A handsome man with a shock of white hair, he has a bearing that can come off as aristocratic. His wife was president of the board of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the West’s largest historic-preservation group. She is a principal project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute. Both organizations symbolize, to minority activists, a white liberal elite.
Howe declines comment on efforts to oust him, except to acknowledge that he has long had a handful of unhappy employees among the many planners in his department. But he expresses pride in his efforts to encourage affordable housing in the city.
"I’ve spent a lot of time in my career working with and trying to build affordable housing," Howe says.
As for inclusionary zoning, Howe says he has "no point of view that this is a bad thing." He points out that he worked with Reyes to increase the number of affordable-housing units that can be built near transit corridors.
"I really admire many of the things Ed Reyes has done," Howe says.
It’s not an easy call for Reyes to make to Mayor Hahn. Reyes has endorsed his re-election bid, but he’s also recently expressed dissatisfaction with the mayor's lack of support for inclusionary zoning. As Wyatt and others have argued that it is retirement time for Howe and several of his top lieutenants, Reyes struggles over whether to put his foot down and demand Howe’s ouster, or simply be the quiet staffer who finds different ways to get things done.
There’s another issue: Hahn opposes mandatory inclusionary zoning. That means the proposal must be sufficiently watered down to get the mayor’s signature, or council support must be significantly higher to overcome his veto. That last scenario is extremely unlikely.
Even among the proponents, there is little in the way of zeal for IZ beyond Reyes, Garcetti and, perhaps, council President Alex Padilla.
Villaraigosa joined Reyes and Garcetti a year and a half ago at a City Hall news event with ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, to jump-start the drive for inclusionary zoning. He combined the gravitas of Reyes with the cheerful charisma of Garcetti, and added the cachet of his own name and reputation for consensus building. Since then, though — and especially since last spring, when he began contemplating another run against Hahn — Villaraigosa has been very quiet on inclusionary zoning.