CAPITAL & MAIN INVESTIGATION - Thousands of affordable apartments lay hidden like easter eggs inside brand-new, often luxurious apartment buildings across Los Angeles.
Developers can save money by building taller and denser buildings under the city’s two inclusionary housing programs — Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) and density bonus — if they agree to reserve some of their units for people who earn between $24,850 and $67,200 a year (for a single person household).
TOC is the only city program that creates housing that is affordable to people at the bottom end of the income scale. But renters have to be lucky and persistent to score these elusive spaces, like 60-year-old Kalani Whittington, who moved into her Westside apartment after a 10-year search and a yearlong application period.
“The increases in my Social Security were not keeping up with the increases in rent, and I would be priced out of my full market rate rental unit if I didn’t find affordable housing,” Whittington says. “I said no way I’m going to live under the 405.”
Instead, Whittington, a former executive assistant who lives on Social Security after becoming disabled in her mid-40s, began combing the neighborhood for potential apartments.
A Capital & Main investigation has found searches such as hers are more difficult because there is no centralized listing of affordable homes in mixed-income buildings and no standard selection process for prospective tenants. Affordable units are supposed to be listed on an online housing registry, but many such apartments don’t appear there.
The bigger problem is that it’s likely the city doesn’t know how many such units it has, despite millions of dollars paid to a private contractor to keep an inventory of the properties and ensure they are occupied by income-eligible tenants. City officials have dodged questions about their tracking of the units.
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The city’s inclusionary housing programs — especially TOC — are an increasingly popular boon to developers: A building that would accommodate 30 units under existing zoning can suddenly fit 50, producing significantly more rental income.
Since 2015, the city planning department has approved 12,998 affordable units through inclusionary housing programs. However, the city substantially inflates its numbers by counting exclusively affordable buildings developed with federal and state assistance; the vast majority of those units would have gone up without the minimal help they received from the city’s density bonus programs.
Demand for such housing at below market rents far exceeds supply. More than a half million people in Los Angeles County lack access to housing they can afford, the nonprofit California Housing Partnership reports.
When a local pastor recently contacted City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas about how would-be tenants could rent affordable apartments in soon-to-be-constructed buildings, Ridley-Thomas’ chief of staff Karly Katona said, “It was a rabbit hole to figure out how we could ensure constituents could apply.”
It’s likely the city doesn’t know how many affordable units it has, despite millions paid to a contractor to keep an inventory of properties and ensure occupancy by income-eligible tenants.
On Aug. 25, the city council approved a motion by Ridley-Thomas that requires the city to list available apartments on a city website, as well as on each developer’s website, and to establish an open process for prospective tenants to apply to rent the affordable units.
Ridley-Thomas is the latest of a handful of city councilmembers who have raised issues with the TOC program, but at least until now, neither the councilmembers nor other city officials have followed through or taken additional action.
“If the city is failing to make extremely low income people aware of this, then the program is not fully achieving its goals,” says Doug Smith, a supervising attorney with the public interest law firm Public Counsel. Smith worked alongside activists who pushed for the ballot measure JJJ, which was passed by voters in 2016 and created the TOC program.
Ann Sewill, the general manager of L.A.’s Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID), wrote in an email that her department will report to the city council on a marketing plan for the affordable units in two or three months.
Kalani Whittington, an activist with her local neighborhood council, found hunting for affordable apartments to be an extended exercise in frustration — even though her civic engagement gave her a leg up on most apartment hunters.
A manager at one newly built apartment building told Whittington its affordable units were located elsewhere in another building, which Whittington later learned is not permitted. (Building owners who benefit from TOC or density bonus programs must sign covenants with the city agreeing to provide affordable units “on the property.”) At another, she was told that affordable units had already been rented, even before the rest of the building was fully leased. She kept up a running email correspondence with aides to her city councilman, Paul Koretz, but they seemed to know little more than she did.
Finally, in September 2020, she learned she’d finally been selected to rent an apartment set aside for lower income senior citizens in a luxury Westside complex. “It’s beautiful, and I love it,” Whittington says. But the search “left a bad taste in my mouth.” Los Angeles, Whittington says, allows managers to “dispense units as they see fit.”
Kay Hartman of the Palms Neighborhood Council says she’d hear tenant complaints that they didn’t know when applications would be accepted and rumors about tenants who got apartments because of their connections.
“People were saying they couldn’t find where the units were,” says Kay Hartman, an elected member of the Palms Neighborhood Council in West L.A. Hartman says she’d hear tenant complaints that they didn’t know when applications would be accepted, and rumors about tenants who got apartments because of their connections. Brittanya Murillo of HCID, who monitors the program, dismisses those concerns, saying managers are barred from renting to family or friends.
But the TOC and density bonus programs’ problems are not limited to the difficulties potential tenants have in finding housing under them. Murillo and other officials also seem to have trouble tracking affordable units.
Nothing makes this clearer than the inconsistencies the city reports in how many affordable units it has. Ann Sewill, the HCID general manager, told Capital & Main that she considered the city’s housing registry complete. But It lists just 1,047 buildings, fewer than HCID reported to the city council that it had in its inventory in 2016, when it reported 40,000 units in 1,340 buildings.
“We need to dig into this to understand if there truly is a discrepancy,” says Councilman Ridley-Thomas’ chief of staff Karly Katona. “Because at the end of the day, folks that live in the community deserve to know what units are available and be able to benefit.”
HCID spokeswoman Sandra Mendoza promised to address the disparity but has not yet done so.
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Under the city’s $2 million contract with Orange County-based Urban Futures Bond Administration, the latter is supposed to maintain an inventory of the city’s entire affordable housing portfolio, ensure landlords rent only to those who meet income guidelines and charge allowable rents. But, when Capital & Main requested lists of TOC- and density bonus-assisted buildings that include affordable apartments, the city provided lists that omitted large numbers of units. For instance, HCID provided a list of six buildings constructed under the TOC program, but it’s missing five others. (TOC launched in 2017, so relatively few buildings have been completed to date.)
When asked about one of the apartments clearly missing from the list — at 966 South Kenmore Ave. — a department spokeswoman said in an April email that it was still under construction. But it wasn’t; the city’s building department had issued it a certificate of occupancy six months earlier, and Tripalink, its management company, reports the building is nearly full. (Spokeswoman Sandra Mendoza later acknowledged the error.) An HCID list of 130 buildings developed under the density program, which has operated since 2007, was also incomplete.
Capital & Main compared the HCID list of density bonus units against density bonus projects approved in 2016. Of the 20 buildings certified for occupancy as of June 1, when HCID provided its list, the HCID list omits 12 of them. Mendoza did not answer an email inquiring about the missing units.
The city’s affordable housing database contains multiple inaccuracies — several buildings listed as “in development” are completed and occupied, and several are omitted altogether.
Earlier this year, Kay Hartman joined Budget Advocates, a citywide watchdog group that makes annual recommendations to city departments, and tried unsuccessfully to get an answer to her question about whether the city has a database to track its affordable units and ensure they go to eligible renters. This even after she and others interviewed the agency’s deputy director and other officials and followed up with an email last March.
Among the Budget Advocates recommendations for HCID: “Fund the update of computer systems and create a database of all affordable units including in density bonus buildings; improve on efficiency; ensure public funds meet their intended purpose.”
Such a database has long been required under the Urban Futures contract. In a May interview, HCID’s Brittanya Murillo insisted Urban Futures was in compliance with its contractual obligations.
UFBA officials didn’t respond to calls or emails.
HCID spokeswoman Sandra Mendoza said several months ago that searches for affordable housing would be smoother as of July 1 with the launch of a new affordable housing database. “It’s all about improving the user experience,” she said. However, the city’s database still contains multiple inaccuracies — several buildings listed as “in development” are completed and occupied, and several are omitted altogether.
Still, the tenant selection process, which Kalani Whittington felt was unfair and lacked transparency, remains the province of individual landlords. “We don’t want to say who to rent to. It’s up to them to screen for their tenants,” HCID’s Murillo says.
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It doesn’t have to be this way. In San Francisco, the city has a uniform process for marketing affordable apartments and selecting renters. “We started seeing cherry-picking of tenants,” said Maria Benjamin, a deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.
“We’re really engaged in making sure resources coming to the city are used for the purpose they were intended,” Benjamin says.
New units must be listed on the city’s website, in newspapers and online sources for a minimum of three weeks. Then, 10 potential tenants are selected to apply by lottery. Apartment managers can consider credit scores, but must also take into account other measures of creditworthiness like on-time rent, utility or child care payments.
The cities of Santa Monica and West Hollywood also oversee the tenant selection process for their inclusionary housing units by allowing residents, or in Santa Monica, those who live or work in the city, to sign up for affordable units on city websites.
On several occasions, the L.A. City Council has approved resolutions calling for HCID to report on the tracking and marketing of affordable units and how tenants are selected, but the reports haven’t been drafted and there’s been no follow-through.
Conrado TerrazasCross, spokesman for City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who chairs the council’s housing committee and reviews the Urban Futures contract, wrote in an email to Capital & Main, “The Housing Committee has a strong interest in matching qualified tenants with units coming on-line but has not been given a briefing on progress to date. If there are legitimate concerns, then it would be important to ensure accountability.”
TerrazasCross didn’t answer questions about whether the councilmember had concerns about Urban Futures’ compliance with its contract, or whether he had expressed them to HCID.
(Robin Urevich is a journalist and radio reporter whose work has appeared on NPR, Marketplace, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Las Vegas Sun.). This article was produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main.