Amid L.A.’s Housing Crisis, Developers Are Demolishing Affordable Homes to Build Upscale Hotels

As hotel-driven displacement surges, tenants’ advocates are pushing the #HomesNotHotels movement

In December 2016, plans to build a new luxury hotel on a half-acre lot at 1719 N. Whitley Street were filed with the City of Los Angeles. Featuring 156 rooms, 122 parking spots, and a rooftop pool, the beige, ten-story Daryoush Safai-designed structure would join a growing cluster of upscale hotels in the Hollywood area, which has added nearly 1,500 hotel rooms to its stock since 2000. The only problem? There are already 40 rent-stabilized apartments on the site.

For nearly two years, residents of the Whitley Apartments have been organizing with the Los Angeles Tenants Union to halt the development, which would result in the demolition of the complex, pricing many folks out of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

But despite months spent forcing their landlord to bring the building up to code, a dramatic standoff involving the removal of the tenants’ ovens, and an appeal filed against the development earlier this month, there’s still a good chance these 40 units—and the tenants’ homes—will eventually be lost.

“These conversions, for the most part, are legal,” says Annie Orchier, an organizer for NOlympics L.A., which launched the “#HomesNotHotels” campaign earlier this year to raise awareness of this kind of hotel-driven displacement. “There might be small moments where landlords fuck up the process, allowing organizers to intervene. But overall the system is designed for them to be able to do this.”

The Ellis Act—a controversial state law that went into effect in 1985—has long allowed California landlords to evict tenants if they want to convert apartments to hotels or condos, or otherwise “go out of the rental business.” But as L.A.’s robust tourism industry has fueled a hotel boom in recent years, the practice has grown increasingly common.

According to Atlas Hospitality, there were 37 hotels under construction and 246 hotels being planned in Los Angeles as of 2018. The city is expected to add a total of about 10,000 rooms in the next three years. Despite rising construction costs, which developers claim have factored into a slump in housing construction, hospitality development has continued to surge and shows little sign of slowing down.

This is particularly true downtown, where city officials have offered generous tax breaks and incentives to developers in an effort to increase the number of hotels within walking distance of the convention center. #HomesNotHotels advocates fear this city-endorsed development will increase in the buildup to the 2028 Olympics, as officials scramble to expand the region’s tourism infrastructure. They say this would result not just in more hotel conversions, but also in gentrification, and the increased criminalization of homelessness in the surrounding areas.

“Because of how spread out the Olympic bid is, we anticipate that places like South L.A., Inglewood, Hollywood, and Chinatown, which are already targets for gentrification, are going to be used,” says Orchier. “In some cases, like in Inglewood, it’s already happening, with hotels being planned and developed in conjunction with the stadium.”

Hotel development was ramped up in past host cities as well. Prior to the 2016 Rio Olympics, which were sharply criticized for spurring gentrification and displacement in the city’s poor communities, Rio’s hotel stock rose by 37 percent prior to the games. Many hotel owners were given tax breaks by the government to make their rooms “tourist friendly,” only to experience a massive surge in vacancy rates after the games ended.

Doane Liu, executive director of the Department of Convention and Tourism Development, denies that Los Angeles developers are building hotels just because of the Olympics. “You don’t make that huge investment just for this ten day event ten years from now,” says Liu. But at least one development—a massive, USC-adjacent mixed-use hotel and housing complex called “The Fig”—has already used the games to necessitate its existence.

“This community requires additional hotel rooms…to prepare the City for the growing tourism sector…at Exposition Park, as well as the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games,” read a motion about the project presented to City Council. The development is slated to receive $103 million in tax breaks from the city, and would result in the destruction of 32 affordable units.

Currently, the #HomesNotHotels movement is focusing its campaign on Hollywood, where tenants advocates say they have organized at least eight buildings slated for hotel conversion in the past three years. Orchier says #HomesNotHotels plans to expand its canvassing efforts to a number of other neighborhoods in the city as well.

In the organization’s petition to Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who represents Hollywood, advocates urge him to pledge to protect tenants from being evicted for hotel conversions, and request an updated community plan for Hollywood that “limits hotel development instead of incentivizing it and prioritizes the preservation of rent-stabilized housing.”

O’Farrell declined an interview request for this story, but a spokesperson for the councilmember’s office said he is supportive of changes to state housing laws: “Housing production—including covenanted affordable units—far outpaces hotel rooms under construction in the 13th District. Councilmember O’Farrell is also urging state lawmakers to repeal or amend the Costa Hawkins and Ellis acts, both of which are affecting the rental market in our city.” The Costa Hawkins Act currently freezes in place an L.A. law that restricts rent control to units built before October 1978.

In the meantime, Tenants at the Whitley Apartments continue to face an uncertain future. Le’Ander Nicholson, who has lived in the complex for 12 years and is president of the Whitley Tenants Association, says the only option right now is to take things one day at a time. “That’s why we formed the union, to prolong this project as much as possible,” he says. “At this point we’re just fighting the good fight to see how much we can do to try to stop it.”

RELATED: As L.A. Experiences Double-Digit Spikes in Homelessness, Officials Are Finally Endorsing Tenant Protections

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