Huizar bought the home on La Calandria for $157,000 in 1999, just before the region’s real estate market went through the roof. Yet finding the house in the city’s planning database is not easy. Type in the home’s address on ZIMAS, the city’s zoning mapping system, and no results show up. Yet every property that abuts Huizar’s La Calandria house appears in the same system.
Three campaign contributions sent by Huizar in 2000 and 2001 — one to mayoral candidate James Hahn, another to city attorney candidate Rocky Delgadillo, a third to council candidate Woody Fleming — identified Huizar’s residence as 4903 La Calandria Way.
In January 2001, Huizar changed his legal address, registering to vote in an upstairs apartment at 2312 East Second Street in Boyle Heights. The rundown eight-unit building, located a block west of Soto Street, wasn’t exactly a tony spot for a land-use lawyer at Weston, Benshoof, Rochefort, Rubalcava & MacCuish, the firm where Huizar worked in 2001. The dingy 1960s apartment was, however, located in the district where Huizar planned to run for school board — unlike his improperly expanded home on La Calandria.
Huizar won the school board election and took office in July 2001. And a year later, the Los Angeles City Council redrew the boundaries of Huizar’s school board district so that it included part of El Sereno — and Huizar’s house on La Calandria Way. Two months after the redistricting plan went into effect, Huizar and his wife changed their legal residence again, registering to vote at the bungalow on La Calandria.
Huizar was in his third year on the school board when Becker, the city building inspector, stumbled across the work at La Calandria Way. On October 24, 2003, Becker found workers carrying out a wide range of repairs to Huizar’s detached garage, removing key supports and rerouting the electrical system, according to his inspection report. Among other clear violations, “It appears that the new foundation has been poured into the required setback and up to the city sidewalk,” wrote Becker in his notes on the case, which were obtained by the L.A. Weekly.
Becker left a stop-work notice the same day. He also instructed Huizar to obtain a seismic shut-off gas valve — part of an ordinance passed by the City Council to make sure that buildings do not ignite after an earthquake.
On December 8, 2003, Becker stopped by Huizar’s hillside house again, and concluded that workers were carrying out more unpermitted construction — covering the wall with paper-and-wire lath and adding roof materials without approval. Becker told them to stop work again until plans and permits were on site. “I gave the workers my card and told them to have the owner call me,” Becker wrote.
Two days later, Becker went to Huizar’s home a third time and found workers again proceeding with work — identifying new drywall, unapproved framing, an unpermitted patio and the addition of a washer-dryer platform that prevented cars from using the garage. None of the work had permits. “I told them again to stop all work on the unpermitted areas,” Becker wrote.
Huizar disagreed with the city’s account, saying his workers stopped construction after the first visit. While he conceded that he did receive an order to comply, Huizar insisted that the construction crew was cleaning the job site — not performing illegal work — on two of the three occasions when the inspector showed up. “They told us to stop, we stopped,” Huizar said. “I specifically told those guys to stop work until I got my variance.”
The Department of Building and Safety ?sent Huizar an order to comply on December 16, saying he had “illegal, unapproved construction in progress.” Two months later, Becker learned from his boss — chief inspector ?Dave Keim — that Huizar was asking a city zoning administrator for forgiveness of any unpermitted work.
“Dave Keim has stated that the owner is applying for a variance,” Becker wrote in February 2004. “Wait for more direction from him.”
Before he went to the zoning administrator, Huizar asked El Sereno’s neighborhood council to support his project. Sitting on that council was Parra, the man now seeking to unseat Huizar. Yet Parra said Huizar never bothered to tell the council that he had been caught red-handed by inspectors — or that he had racked up three different stop-work orders.
“They made it sound very innocent, like he was being held up by the bureaucracy,” Parra said. “They said, ‘We want to get the neighborhood council’s support before we proceed, because José is an elected official and we want to do everything on the up and up.’?”
Huizar did not appear before the neighborhood council himself, instead sending Christopher Murray, a City Hall lobbyist then working with the firm Weston Benshoof, Huizar’s old law firm. Huizar said he paid Murray to get his project through the neighborhood council and the zoning administrator. “I’m a very busy person,” Huizar said. Parra recalled it slightly differently: “[Murray] told me, ‘I’m doing this as a favor for José.’?”
Murray has left Weston Benshoof. But the firm retained its ties to Huizar, organizing a re-election fund-raiser for the councilman this coming Tuesday. In its invitation, the firm asked each co-host of the event to collect $5,000 on behalf of Huizar.
With Murray’s help, Huizar persuaded the zoning administrator to legalize the unpermitted addition. Although city law requires a buffer of five feet between any single-family house and its side yard, Huizar was allowed to reduce that buffer, known as a “setback,” to as little as four inches in some spots. As he forgave the unpermitted work, associate zoning administrator Albert Landini said that the city’s setback requirements did not take into account the curvy lot — and the need for more space to house Huizar’s two young children.
“Denial of the request would unfairly prevent [Huizar] from enjoying reasonable use of the subject site, accommodating the needs of a growing family,” Landini wrote in his July 2004 letter approving Huizar’s project.
Osinski, the architect, questioned whether Huizar’s request would have been granted had he lacked connections. Even when builders ask for exceptions to the building code, they don’t always get the kind of leeway that Huizar received, Osinski argued.
“These guys would not sign off on that variance without an order from above,” Osinski added. “His problem got fixed quietly.”