City-Sanctioned Speculation: How a ‘Major Remodel’ Becomes a Demolition

WHAT’S IN A NAME?--You live in a lovely, single family neighborhood, tree-shaded, consisting mainly of single story homes. Sadly, your elderly neighbor, who raised her family in the home next door, dies, leaving it to her children. 

The “For Sale” sign goes up. It's bought by a friendly man who says it's the perfect home for his mother-in-law. You welcome him to the neighborhood, looking forward to meeting his family. 

Because a McMansion went up on another street in your neighborhood, to be on the safe side you check the building plans. To your relief, you see that the new owner has shown where he plans to make the additions and what will remain -- which is the bulk of the home. 

But, to your shock, the bulldozer comes in. You anxiously speak with the new owner who tells you he's simply doing a major remodel. But the entire house goes down, save for one foot of one footing.  This is not a demolition, you learn, but an approved permit, sanctioned by the Department of Building and Safety. The South Valley Area Planning Commission agrees with you that this practice shouldn't be happening but also denies your appeal, claiming it's not their responsibility to stop the illegal building. A McMansion goes up, mature trees go down, and there's no mother-in-law in sight as the “For Sale” sign once again appears on the property. 

So, what is this major remodel permit that allows a home to be demolished without giving abutting neighbors 30 days notice, allowing speculators to pay less in permit fees while the Department of Planning denies your permit appeal, insisting this permit is allowable? 

The Los Angeles Planning and Zoning Code defines a remodel for R1 Zones as "the alteration of a building or structure provided that at least 50 percent of the perimeter length of the contiguous walls and 50 percent of the roof are retained." Major remodel is not defined in the Code and is only used when referring to hillside construction. 

Calls and emails to the Department of Building and Safety result in different answers, depending on the inspector who responds. One inspector will tell you the "major remodel" permit is based on a City of Los Angeles Inter-Departmental Correspondence, dated January 16, 1992 in which Stuart Tom of the Building Bureau clarifies a memo dated December 3, 1991. These memos sign off on issuing a #3 permit if "any of the existing building remains, even it its 1 sq-ft of footing." However, this applies to non-conforming conditions only. It is also not part of the Zoning Code. 

Another inspector will say a portion of the original foundation is allowed in a major remodel. This is not defined in anycode. 

A third inspector will refer you to the City of Los Angeles Building Code, volume 1, chapter 2, Definitions, section 202...alterations to existing structures. There is, however, no definition for "remodel." Instead, you will be referred to ALTERATION [DSA-AC], which is as follows: 

Any construction or renovation to an existing structure other than repair or addition. … "Alteration or alter" is any change, addition or modification in construction or occupancy or structure repair or change in primary function to an existing structure made by, on behalf of or for the use of a public accommodation or commercial facility that affects or could affect the usability of the building or facility or part thereof.”  

When did your neighbor's house become a public accommodation or commercial facility on a nonconforming property? When was an existing structure defined as 1 sq-ft of footing or part of the foundation?  

The Department of City Planning has drunk Mayor Garcetti's Kool-Aid, and, along with the Department of Building and Safety, gives the speculators anything they want, at the expense of single family homeowners who end up losing their light and privacy when these so-called major remodels go up next door. The permits are the City's ingenious way of ignoring the Zoning and Municipal Codes in order to make it less costly for speculators to build new, cheaply built homes.  

The Departments of City Planning and Building and Safety are illegally issuing permits to speculators.  Councilman David Ryu has put a motion before PLUM to stop this egregious practice, which at their last meeting has ordered the Department of Building and Safety and City Planning to investigate themselves.  Given that their orders come from Mayor Garcetti and that the speculators who contribute to his election campaigns will pay for his run for United States President, changes are good nothing will be found wrong.  

Some days, I'd rather vote for Trump.


(Lisa Seidman is a resident of Sherman Oaks and can be reached at Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.