Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Why Long Lines at Motor Vehicle Departments Never Disappear

Why Long Lines at Motor Vehicle Departments Never Disappear

When millennials stand in MVA lines, do they wonder what their experience will be when the government takes a more significant role in their lives?
The first time I stood in a long line at the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) in suburban Baltimore was 1979. Since then, much has happened in my life: I taught thousands of students, got married, raised a family, and moved away from Baltimore. Recently, my son, living in the Baltimore area, needed help with the subtleties of car buying, and I went to assist.
In a free market, consumers shape their experience by selecting products that serve them well, not offering or accepting bribes.

Compared to today, cars manufactured in 1979 were unsafe and unreliable. My ‘79 Volkswagen Rabbit developed a head gasket problem in the first 15,000 miles, but warranties in 1979 covered only one year or 12,000 miles. There were no airbags. Today, car manufacturers compete on safety; collision avoidance features, unimagined in 1979, shaped my son’s car choice.
The car-buying experience has completely changed, too. In 1979, buyers had limited information and often endured unpleasant negotiations with salesmen. Increased competition due to the ascendance of Japanese automobiles and a dramatic increase in information available to car buyers have made it simpler to get a great deal on a car without even setting foot in a showroom.
After completing the new car purchase, we drove to the MVA to turn in my son's old plates. The address had changed, but the bleak Soviet-style interior remained intact. Just as in 1979, one line almost out the door snaked toward a check-in counter. When you made it to the counter, you then sat in one of the long rows of chairs until it was your turn.
Like Soviet-era bread lines, you got in line, waited, and hoped for a favorable outcome.

There were few signs. No attendants were there to answer questions. Like Soviet-era bread lines, you got in line, waited, and hoped for a favorable outcome.
My son was anxious to return to his job and insisted we leave. His plan was to return the next day to get in line an hour before the MVA opened at 8:30 a.m. Well before 8:30, many supermarkets and home improvement stores are open to accommodate early shoppers, but MVA managers set hours without having to meet the demands of customers.
As my son stood in the early morning cold, he chatted with others. Some shared stories of previous attempts to obtain MVA services, having abandoned their positions in line after waiting for hours. One told of a three-hour wait. They are lucky; in California, all-day waits are not uncommon.
Support for socialism among millennials and Generation Z is on the rise. When millennials stand in MVA lines, do they wonder what their experience will be when the government takes a more significant role in their lives?
Dreaming of a revolutionary republic, do the millennials who support democratic socialists imagine they will be proclaimed heroes of the republic and ushered to the head of the breadline? Or, like their hero Bernie Sanders, do they believe that breadlines are a “good thing”? Will they feel true equality when, along with their neighbors, they share the heartache of not getting enough food to feed their starving children?
If the democratic socialists are successful, long lines, shortages, and bribes will become the new norm in America.

In short, why are some craving the MVA experience in more areas of their lives? Why do they not heed historical evidence of failed socialists’ regimes? Do they believe the next time it will be different? Do they believe the lines will disappear when the right people, with pure hearts like they imagine themselves to have, are in charge?
It’s fine to imagine the right people working at the MVA, but even the right people cannot create an efficient MVA.
Democratic socialists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez imagine a better world where decision-makers are not constrained by having to earn a profit. In his book Bureaucracy, Ludwig von Mises explains why decision makers can never make good decisions when they operate without the market signals of profit and loss:
It is true that under socialism there would be neither discernible profits nor discernible losses. Where there is no calculation, there is no means of getting an answer to the question whether the projects planned or carried out were those best fitted to satisfy the most urgent needs; success and failure remain unrecognized in the dark. The advocates of socialism are badly mistaken in considering the absence of discernible profit and loss an excellent point. It is, on the contrary, the essential vice of any socialist management. It is not an advantage to be ignorant of whether or not what one is doing is a suitable means of attaining the ends sought. A socialist management would be like a man forced to spend his life blindfolded.
The personnel at the Maryland MVA seemed indifferent; moving the line along did not seem to be part of their decision-making calculus. If supervisory personnel were on duty, they didn’t pitch in; they remained hidden in their back offices. In each of us is the capacity for empathy, as well as indifference and even cruelty. What makes one individual access the best qualities that humanity can offer while those qualities lay dormant in another individual?
At your local supermarket, if lines get too long, it is not uncommon to hear the “all personnel to the front” announcement. There is a palpable sense of urgency to serve customers. Mises explains that in successful organizations, managers understand consumer sovereignty:
[The manager] is not simply a hired clerk whose only duty is the conscientious accomplishment of an assigned, definite task. He is a businessman himself, a junior partner as it were of the entrepreneur, no matter what the contractual and financial terms of his employment are. He must to the best of his abilities contribute to the success of the firm with which he is connected.
Consider a buyer for the supermarket who often listens to the pitches of potential suppliers. Suppliers don’t offer her bribes; they know to offer her features valued by her customers. Does she set standards for customer experience and accept poor performance from her assistants? Again, Mises explains why the buyer’s decisions must respond to the needs of customers:
He will not waste money in the purchase of products and services. He will not hire incompetent assistants and workers; he will not discharge able collaborators in order to replace them by incompetent personal friends or relatives. His conduct is subject to the incorruptible judgment of an unbribable tribunal: the account of profit and loss. In business there is only one thing that matters: success. The unsuccessful department manager is doomed no matter whether the failure was caused by him or not, or whether it would have been possible for him to attain a more satisfactory result. An unprofitable branch of business-sooner or later-must be discontinued, and its manager loses his job.
The MVA manager is under no such constraints. Why try to fire an incompetent civil service employee when you’d be subjecting yourself to endless hearings? Why argue to open earlier and close later to accommodate customers when you’d be told: “That’s not the way it’s done here”?
“Consumers are merciless” when they are not well served, but only “in an unhampered market society,” writes Mises. At the MVA, those who wait suffer silently and follow the directives of those who care little about their welfare.
During my teaching career, I taught MBA classes on-site at a government agency. Many of those career employees were impressive. They held high-level positions; they were brilliant thinkers and dedicated learners. Yet, among these relatively young individuals was a running joke; they could recite exactly how many years and months they had until retirement. And to a person, they did retire at the earliest possible date. These individuals had far more autonomy than the government workers Mises wrote about in 1944. Nonetheless, core truths apparently remain:
Government jobs offer no opportunity for the display of personal talents and gifts. Regimentation spells the doom of initiative. The young man has no illusions about his future. He knows what is in store for him. He will get a job with one of the innumerable bureaus, he will be but a cog in a huge machine the working of which is more or less mechanical. The routine of a bureaucratic technique will cripple his mind and tie his hands. He will enjoy security. But this security will be rather of the kind that the convict enjoys within the prison walls. He will never be free to make decisions and to shape his own fate. He will forever be a man taken care of by other people. He will never be a real man relying on his own strength. He shudders at the sight of the huge office buildings in which he will bury himself.
How you do anything is how you do everything. In never learning to care for customers at the MVA, employees never learn to rely on their own best qualities. Because their own abilities and sensibilities lie dormant, they don’t know they are suffering along with those they “serve.”
In a free market, consumers shape their experience by selecting products that serve them well. In the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, citizens shaped their experience by offering or accepting bribes.
Next time it won’t be different. If the democratic socialists are successful in shifting more of the economy into government provision of services, long lines, shortages, and bribes will become the new norm in America.

LA Tenants Union Take on YIMBYism

Dropping the Hammer on YIMBYism

LA Tenants UnionFollow
Mar 19

This statement is from a group of organizers associated with the LA Tenants Union, DSA-LA, and/or the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, in response to an event hosted by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles on March 19, 2019 titled “The Growing YIMBY Movement.” We also organized a protest inside/outside of the event.

As Angelenos committed to housing as a human right, we are disappointed that the Hammer Museum would provide a fawning and uncritical platform to Sonja Trauss and other spokespeople of YIMBYism. It is not simply that we disagree with their ideology, or recognize it as an astroturf campaign; YIMBYs undermine the true movement for housing justice and tenant power.

“Yes In My BackYard” advocates a deregulatory, trickle-down framework for housing policy that does more harm than good. The thread uniting YIMBYs is that we should just “build baby build” to solve our housing crisis, despite abundant evidence — including studies by MIT academics and the Federal reserve, in addition to historical evidence from cities that have pursued this approach — showing that merely adding market-rate supply does not lead to lower housing prices, but rather spurs gentrification and displacement. By empowering the real estate industry, which has long served as a vanguard of structural racism and segregation, YIMBY policies hasten the construction of cities only accessible to the rich.

YIMBYs view the nightmares of housing and homelessness as a matter of supply and demand, ignoring the basic human right to shelter. Indeed, what they don’t fight for speaks volumes. YIMBYs do not support communities of color that have been fighting a permanent housing crisis for decades. YIMBYs do not support empowering and protecting tenants through policies like right to legal council, just-cause eviction, and rent control. They overwhelmingly ignore the possibility of increasing supply with public or social housing. They do not support redistributions of power and wealth. Fundamentally, they are not on the side of the working class and people of color, and they are not guided by a commitment to housing as a human right.

They have also been notably quiet on the subject of vacancy and speculation. They continue to ignore that there are 100,000 vacant homes in San Francisco and 268,000 vacant homes across the L.A. metro area. These staggering numbers can only fail to be relevant to those who are steadfastly committed to housing as a profit-making commodity.

Their deference to the free market is why someone like Ben Carson, Secretary of HUD in the Trump Administration, feels comfortable enthusiastically declaring himself a YIMBY.

With advocates in the Trump White House, the Governor’s Office, and the chair of California State Senate’s Housing Committee, the YIMBYs are not at all a “grassroots movement,” as the Hammer event ridiculously describes them. From the beginning, YIMBYs have benefitted from robust funding from the tech and real estate sectors. In 2015 Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman helped get YIMBYism off the ground with a $100,000 donation to a Sonja Strauss-led group. According to a more recent investigation by In These Times, among the YIMBY PACs that disclose their donors, over half their money comes from employees of tech or real estate firms.

Indeed, last March, the LA Times wrote that “California YIMBY has raised more than $1 million and has a registered lobbyist on its payroll. The group hopes to collect another $1.5 million this year, Hanlon says. He estimates that about 90% of the money has come from technology executives.” This was reported before a $1 million donation from the tech company Stripe.

Despite occasional claims to the contrary, YIMBYs do not support the burgeoning tenants movement, and do not take the problems of gentrification seriously. Last year the YIMBYs relentlessly pushed the upzoning bill SB 827 in the face of vehement statewide opposition from tenants groups and anti-gentrification organizations rooted in communities of color that were arguing the bill would intensify displacement. This year, they are again allying with anti-tenant groups like the California Apartment Association (the landlord lobby who have been leading the fight against rent control in California for years) and various Chambers of Commerce to push essentially the same bill.

Prop 10 is another good example. This was a massive priority for tenants and the biggest push for an expansion of rent control in California in decades, yet the YIMBYs were nowhere to be found. Instead, they ignore or downplay the need for tenant protections with their laser-like focus on increasing market-rate supply.

Sonja Trauss, the invited speaker to this event, has gone out of her way to represent the most nefarious qualities of the aggressively anti-poor, anti-immigrant, and anti-POC mindset of YIMBYism. She has claimed that gentrification is actually a net good for urban land equity because it’s “the revaluation of black land to its correct price.” She has also cited Edward Banfield, who popularized racist ideas like culture-of-poverty theory and broken-windows policing, as a “huge influence.” Even worse, Trauss has has compared Latinx anti-gentrification activists fighting to block luxury development in their neighborhoods to Trump supporters who demonize immigrants.

YIMBYs often claim that all opposing them are reactionary NIMBYs opposed to low-income housing and diversity. This framing forecloses and ignores — intentionally, we think — ideas from the volunteer-run, tenant-led housing movements who are often their critics. We support more housing, as long as it’s affordable for the poor and the working class. We want social housing for all, whether owned by the state or by communities. We thus call ourselves PHIMBYs, advocating “Public Housing In My BackYard.”

YIMBYism is a dangerous ideology that is funded by the powerful to serve the powerful. We, as advocates for tenants (not housing units), for the human rights of working, poor, and people of color, must push back and provide alternatives to their narrow views. We hope this statement and our action does so, and invite you to join us.

Who is the REAL race provocateur?

The more I think about it, the more it appears this march was an attempt to deliberately provoke a response at a community celebration of our Little League kids. Noah Griffin is very media savvy, having served Nancy Pelosi and other politicians. He knows the power of visual imagery. The desired effect didn’t happen though when people ignored them except for a few passing motorists. The news media must have been disappointed. There are no gangs of racists defending the Dixie name. The ONLY time I have seen a confederate flag in Marin is when Noah Griffin held one up for this photo for the Marin IJ and other news media.
Who is the REAL race provocateur? Have the Change the Name folks considered how trashing our neighborhood in the eyes of the world, actually CREATES the hostile environment that they claim to be against? I want to change the name of the district too but we must not allow the hateful rhetoric destroy our community.

Why is Noah Griffin wearing a white turtleneck that looks like a cleric's collar?  I don't think he is a member of the clergy.  Pure showmanship.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

WHITE ELEPHANT Maintenance Shed Plans are now online

See bigger size image HERE

Stop the White Elephant.  Sign the Petition HERE

The project is HUGE for our tiny park  
It is twice the size of neighboring homes and THREE TIMES the size of a similar facility at McInnis Park completed in 2018. McInnis Park is 26 times the size of Marinwood Park and employs triple the staff.

The Project VIOLATES the Miller Creek Watershed
The project violates the Miller Creek Stream conservation setback of 120' feet as required by Marin County.  The unusual side entrance requires a 15' corridor in the center of the building wasting 1/3 of the space.   It will require trucks to turn around in the meadow several hundred feet to the East.  Open space and recreation area will be needlessly destroyed by this inefficient design.  

The Project is Ridiculously EXPENSIVE
The initial estimate for this project was for $ 50K for a customized prefab unit as is the standard for maintenance facilities everywhere.  Once the Marinwood CSD hired former CSD Director, Bill Hansell as architect, the project ballooned in size and scope.  Already the CSD has spent an estimated $35 k in "consulting fees" for Mr. Hansell, the custom project is estimated to cost at least ten times initial estimate due to the custom architectural features insisted by Mr Hansell. The project will cost MORE than ANY PROJECT that the Marinwood CSD has undertaken since completing the park.   

And as of February 2019 according to the financal audit, the Marinwood CSD is FIVE MILLION DOLLARS in debt.

This is the most outrageous and expensive project in Marinwood CSD History.

Fortunately, we can still have a new Maintenance facility for far less if we scale back the project to a simple garage/workshop like McInnis Park. 

Let's spend our money improving Marinwood Park for seniors and children, refurbishing the trails  refinishing the pool, improving programs and paying our staff instead.

Sometimes ambition makes us blind to the reality we face.

Tracey Ullman - "Not Everyone Thinks Exactly the Same As You Do" Support Group

Marinwood CSD Meeting March 12, 2019

Monday, March 18, 2019

When Wall Street Is Your Landlord

When Wall Street Is Your Landlord

With help from the federal government, institutional investors became major players in the rental market. They promised to return profits to their investors and convenience to their tenants. Investors are happy. Tenants are not.
rSnapshotPhotos / andrea crisante / kai celvin / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

FEB 13, 2019

In 2010, at the height of the foreclosure crisis, the federal government watched nervously as hundreds of thousands of families lost their homes. Empty houses blighted neighborhoods, their shades drawn, their yards overgrown. Without some kind of intervention, federal officials worried, the housing market would continue in its free fall, prices would keep dropping for existing homeowners, and the economic recovery, already tenuous, would be imperiled.

But who would fill these empty homes? Few Americans were in a buying mood, and for those who were, mortgages were harder to come by than they had been before the crash. So the government incentivized Wall Street to step in. In early 2012, it launched a pilot program that allowed private investors to easily purchase foreclosed homes by the hundreds from the government agency Fannie Mae. These new owners would then rent out the homes, creating more housing in areas heavily hit by foreclosures.

“There was this glut of foreclosed properties in parts of the country, and inadequate demand from the traditional home-buying population and even traditional investors,” Meg Burns, who was at the time the senior associate director of the Office of Housing and Regulatory Policy, told me. “We were trying to influence demand.”

It worked. Between 2011 and 2017, some of the world’s largest private-equity groups and hedge funds, as well as other large investors, spent a combined $36 billion on more than 200,000 homes in ailing markets across the country. In one Atlanta zip code, they bought almost 90 percent of the 7,500 homes sold between January 2011 and June 2012; today, institutional investors own at least one in five single-family rentals in some parts of the metro area, according to Dan Immergluck, a professor at the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University. Some of the nation’s hardest-hit housing markets were finally stabilized.

The investors argued that they could be good landlords—better, in fact, than cash-strapped small-timers. According to Diane Tomb, the executive director of the National Rental Home Council, a trade group established in 2014, single-family rental companies “professionalized” a sector traditionally run by mom-and-pop landlords, bringing with them 24/7 responses to maintenance requests and a deep pool of capital they can spend on homes.

They also projected they could make money, which no one had done on a large scale in the home-rental business. “We wanted to rescue these neighborhoods and create a long-term, permanent income stream for our shareholders,” says Frederick Tuomi, who was until recently the president of Invitation Homes, which is now the largest single-family rental company in the nation. (Tuomi is currently on a temporary leave of absence to care for a family member.)

Wall Street analysts and potential shareholders, however, were skeptical. Maintaining thousands of homes of different sizes, ages, and conditions across an entire metro area seemed like a logistical nightmare. “How can you operate and create scale in that situation?” Sam Zell, the billionaire real-estate investor, told CNBC in 2013. “I don’t know how anybody can monitor thousands of houses.” When the new rental companies started offering shares to investors on the public market in late 2012, the response was tepid.

But housing trends were on the side of the investors: America was becoming a renter nation. According to census data, between 2007 and 2017, the United States added less than 1 million households in owner-occupied homes, but 6.5 million in renter-occupied homes. Many families wanted to live in a spacious house in a good school district, but could no longer afford to do so as owners. The homeownership rate bottomed out at 62.9 percent in 2016, down from a high of 69 percent in 2005.

Read: The never-ending foreclosure

Of course, the trends that favored these new landlords were largely produced by a financial crisis that Wall Street had itself abetted. That some of the same investment firms that had played a part in the housing crisis were now poised to profit from it made for a dismal irony. But if the new companies could deliver on their promises of making home rentals easy, affordable, and worry-free, perhaps everyone could win: The companies could return a profit, the housing market could be shored up, and houses that had lain fallow after the crash could once again be happy homes.

That’s not what happened. I talked with tenants from 24 households who lived or still live in homes owned by single-family rental companies. I also reviewed 21 lawsuits against three such companies in Gwinnett County, a suburb of Atlanta devastated by the housing crash. The tenants claim that, far from bringing efficiency and ease to the rental market, their corporate landlords are focusing on short-term profits in order to please shareholders, at the expense of tenant happiness and even safety. Many of the families I spoke with feel stuck in homes they don’t own, while pleading with faraway companies to complete much-needed repairs—and wondering how they once again ended up on the losing end of a Wall Street real estate gamble.

In 2011, rene and Erica Valentin were living with their two young children in a small two-bedroom apartment in suburban New Jersey. They had been saving for years to buy a house. But then Rene, now 42, was laid off as a district manager at Best Buy, and the couple decided that the only way they would ever be able to afford to buy was in a cheaper market.

Erica, now 34, applied to be an engineer at AT&T in an Atlanta suburb. When she got the job, the family picked up and drove south, moving into a two-bedroom apartment near the city center. They pinched pennies as Rene’s job search stretched into its second year. By the time he finally found a position in 2014—again at Best Buy—the family still couldn’t afford to buy. But their daughter, Sophia, was about to enter first grade, and the Valentins wanted her in a good school district and not to have to share a room with her brother. So they decided to rent.

A real-estate agent showed them around Lawrenceville, a sprawling suburb 30 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, where the homes are large and the schools are good. Every house they saw was owned by the same company, Waypoint Homes, which they told me the agent explained was a professional rental company, with 24/7 maintenance, quarterly check-ins, and deep pockets to spend on repairs.

They settled on a 2200-square-foot house on a quiet street. From the outside, it didn’t look like much—vinyl siding, black shutters, brick detailing. But it had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, walk-in closets, and a large, fenced-in backyard, all for just $1,373 a month. Soon enough, they were installing a tire swing in the backyard, hanging art on the walls, and putting up curtains in the kids’ bedrooms—dark blue for Antonio, light blue for Sophia. They paid their rent using Waypoint’s online platform, impressed by how far technology had progressed from the days of dropping a check in the mail. The property wasn’t theirs, exactly, but they finally felt like they could settle down.

As the valentins were nesting, America’s new corporate landlords were looking for efficiencies. The companies set about standardizing flooring and appliances, which would, in theory, lower costs and make life easier on maintenance workers. They established centralized call centers to handle tenant communication, and installed smart locks so that potential renters and maintenance staff could let themselves in to look around or do repairs.

At the same time, the industry was consolidating. Investment groups created companies to manage the homes: Blackstone established Invitation Homes; Cerberus created FirstKey Homes; Colony Capital created Colony American Homes. And then those companies started merging.

In 2015 alone, Colony American Homes merged with Starwood Waypoint Residential Trust, Cerberus Capital Management acquired more than 4,000 homes from BLT Homes, and American Homes 4 Rent said it was acquiring American Residential Properties in a $1.5 billion deal. By 2017, two major players, Invitation Homes and American Homes 4 Rent, controlled nearly 60 percent of the market.

On calls with investors, those two companies touted their cost-cutting measures, which often involved pushing responsibilities onto tenants. In 2016, Jack Corrigan, the chief operating officer of American Homes 4 Rent, told investors that the company hoped to reduce spending on repairs, maintenance, and “turn costs”—preparing a home for a new tenant—from $2,500 per home to $1,600. That same year, Colony Starwood cut property-management costs 25 percent from the previous year; one of its money-saving innovations was to use videos and chat software to show tenants how to fix minor problems, so they wouldn’t have to request repair staff for a clogged garbage disposal or a leaking toilet.

The obligation to repair their own rental wasn’t the only responsibility passed on to tenants. I reviewed one Colony Starwood lease from 2016; it was 34 pages long and specified that tenants were responsible for landscaping, “routine insect control,” replacing air filters in their central air systems once a month, repairing broken glass (regardless of how it was broken), and repairing and maintaining sewer and sink backups. American Homes 4 Rent started levying “trip charges” if maintenance staff were sent out to homes to assist with repairs that the tenants should have performed themselves, David Singelyn, the company CEO, explained at a 2015 investor forum. Some companies began requiring that tenants buy renter’s insurance to cover the property itself, rather than just their belongings, a clause lawyers in some states say is unenforceable.

As the industry started to grow, the major players all described their desire to standardize and improve the business of being a landlord. But even to the companies’ employees, the effort to become more efficient started to look more like craven attempts to squeeze tenants. “It shouldn’t be just about making money, but that’s what it turned into,” Shanell Hanson, who was a property administrator for Colony American Homes in an Atlanta suburb from 2014 to 2016, told me. Hanson said the company had six maintenance workers for 2,100 homes in the area she managed. Residents would frequently call with substantial problems: Sewage was overflowing, or the house was full of mold. But with such a small staff, Hanson could rarely deal with the problems quickly. And the law was on the corporations’ side: If tenants want to seek financial remedy for a landlord not keeping the property in adequate condition, under Georgia law, they have to take the landlord to court, a costly and lengthy process. “It’s almost impossible to do without an attorney,” Lindsey Siegel, an attorney at Atlanta Legal Aid who works on housing issues, told me.

Hanson said she was instructed by a supervisor not to answer the phone when certain tenants called. “Her response would be, ‘We’re not fixing that, just don’t call the tenant back,’” Hanson said of the supervisor. Hanson said she was fired when she reported the company to OSHA because she worried that the homes were in such poor shape that the conditions for the maintenance staff she supervised were dangerous.An Invitation Homes rental sign in a suburban Georgia neighborhood (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

In 2017, Invitation merged with Starwood Waypoint, the company that itself had merged with Colony American in 2015. Invitation said it could not comment on individual employees (or the alleged OSHA complaint), but that company policy protects whistle-blowers from retaliation, and that the company does not tolerate unsafe working conditions for maintenance workers. A spokeswoman added that the events Hanson alleges occurred when the company was under different ownership. (Fred Tuomi, the longtime Invitation CEO, was a senior executive at Colony American beginning in 2013, and headed the company as it merged with both Starwood Waypoint and Invitation.) Invitation also said that any employee not returning tenants' calls was not following its company policy.

Many other single-family landlord companies were cutting corners on maintenance and repairs. “As the corporation got bigger, it just got worse, in terms of what we had to work with and how we had to deal with problems,” a former Los Angeles leasing agent who worked for Waypoint between 2015 and 2017 told me. (She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she still works in real estate.) Regional teams received bonuses for keeping costs low, she said, which incentivized them to skimp on spending. Instead of responding to tenants personally, supervisors would send calls for maintenance to out-of-town call centers—which would in turn assign maintenance workers dozens of repairs in a day, not realizing that Los Angeles traffic could mean that relatively short distances could take hours to traverse.

Another former Waypoint leasing agent, in Florida, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is still in the real-estate field, told me that the company stopped replacing shower-curtain rods and changing locks when tenants moved out. When Waypoint learned that it was spending $5 million annually on paint, local managers were told to just touch up the walls rather than repaint them, giving the interiors a splotchy, unfinished appearance, she said. At one point, a mandate came down from a field manager that the company was going to do everything it could to not to return security deposits to tenants. “It wasn’t a company policy, and you will never find it in writing, but it was a verbal thing passed down to field project managers,” she said.

Charles Young, who was named the chief operating officer of Starwood Waypoint in 2015 and now serves in that position for Invitation Homes, told me that the company never told staff to avoid returning security deposits. Tuomi, of Invitation, said that while the companies may have been “horribly inefficient” at first, they’ve gotten better at responding to problems as they’ve gotten bigger, with the help of technology and more experience. Invitation launched an advance-scheduling and route-optimization program last year to improve the efficiency of its maintenance staff, according to Kristi DesJarlais, an Invitation Homes spokesperson. The company told me repeatedly that complaints about the early days of the single-family rental industry are no longer valid.

Rene and erica valentin’s problems with their rental home began almost immediately. Their pipes would periodically break, sending a stream of water onto their living-room carpet. Sometimes the water would be boiling hot—their kids once stepped in it and burned their feet, they told me. Getting someone to come fix the pipes was always a production. Erica said she would call, or file a complaint online, and it would take days, sometimes weeks, before she received a response. Repair workers would come and replace small sections of broken pipe, but Waypoint never investigated why the problem persisted. They didn’t replace the soggy carpet, either; a faint mildew smell started to permeate the house. The contractors Waypoint sent seemed, to the Valentins, unqualified—one didn’t have a car and had to call his mother to drive him to Home Depot to pick up a part. “You would expect this type of behavior from a one-person landlord who’s a jerk, but a big multimillion-dollar company—how do you treat your tenants like that?” Erica said. “They have the money to fix things.”

The Valentins thought about leaving, but moving is expensive, and they were still saving up to buy a house. They also worried that breaking a lease would ruin their credit. So they stayed, and the problems mounted. Their air-conditioning stopped working; the family waited eight sweltering Georgia summer days for a repairman, who told them that the

Finally, Happy News from City Hall: Council Motions Oppose Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill SB50

Finally, Happy News from City Hall: Council Motions Oppose Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 50


PLATKIN ON PLANNING-In 2018, Los Angeles, like most California cities, formally opposed SB 827, the YIMBY California/Senator Scott Wiener bill to upzone (i.e., unplanned unappealable increases in the height, size, and density of privately-owned parcels). Because their opposition to SB 827 was carefully supported by detailed studies, the bill went down to quick defeat.

As reported previously in CityWatchLA, YIMBY California, again working through Senator Wiener, has resurrected SB 827, but with a new name, SB 50, along with cosmetic changes that camouflage the bill’s even more threatening impacts on California cities.

City Hall’s response is not yet clear, but hat’s off to Councilman Paul Koretz for his Dec. 12, 2018, City Council motion directing the Department of City Planning to determine the impacts of SB 50 on Los Angeles, and his follow-up February 27, 2019, Resolution calling on the City of Los Angles to formally lobby against SB 50 in Sacramento.

So far, there is no evidence that City Planning has yet analyzed the impact of SB 50, although the City’s Legislative Analyst (CLA) submitted a two-page report to the Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee (PLUM) on March 7, 2019. This report concluded: “Opposition to SB 50 is consistent with the City’s policy to oppose legislation that constrains its local control.”

What remains, however, is a final action by the City Council on Councilman Koretz original motion and resolution. Furthermore, the December 12 motion identifies five specific research questions that may, or may not, be eventually answered by the Department of City Planning. These questions about SB 50 impacts on Los Angeles include the following:
LA’s land use regulatory process and zoning?
Historic Preservation Overlay Zones?
Affordable housing incentive programs, such as Transit Oriented Communities (TOC)?
Community Plan Updates?
Proposed concepts of major transit stops and job-rich areas?

There is no reason to dawdle in answering these questions, especially because the bill is quickly worming its way through the State Senate, supported by a sophisticated public relations campaign. This is why other cities – unlike Los Angeles -- are moving quickly to analyze and oppose SB 50: in particular San Francisco and Palo Alto.

Real estate scams, large and small: More importantly, the answers to Councilman Koretz’s questions also apply to the local versions of SB 50, in particular the Transit Neighborhood Plans that City Planning is now preparing, with support from Council Offices, including Paul Koretz’s Council District 5. These mini-SB 50s are based on the same free market logic of SB 50. They will, therefore, have similar, unintended impacts on Los Angeles neighborhoods: unplanned, over-height, over-sized “Wienervilles.” Like SB 50, these real estate projects will be disconnected from City Council-adopted planning goals and policies, including their basis in carefully documented demographic trends, large amounts of existing untapped zoning capacity, and nearly tapped out public services and infrastructure.

If the City Council adopts Councilman Koretz’s motion and resolution – which is likely -- it will place itself in the awkward position of simultaneously opposing and supporting legislation that awards the owners of private parcels highly valuable and untaxed up-zones for their commercial lots, without even a head fake to the legally required planning or monitoring process.

The bottom line is that SB 50 and its local counterparts, like Transit Neighborhood Plans, are fancy real estate scams based on the same spurious free market assumptions and the same beneficiaries: commercial property owners and real estate developers. Furthermore, if adopted, both SB 50 and its local counterparts will fuel gentrification, without ever meeting its three politically-concocted goals:

- Increasing transit ridership.

- Increasing affordable housing.

- Reducing Green House Gases.

The likely impacts of SB 50 on Los Angeles: Note: As SB 50 changes and more research becomes available, some of these findings may be updated. 

Land use regulatory process and zoning? Since most of Los Angeles qualifies as being transit rich or jobs rich, legally adopted land use regulations -- Plan Designations and Zone -- would become irrelevant under SB 50. Furthermore, Los Angeles General Plan Framework’s Goal 3.3, that changes in zoning must be contingent on a demonstration of adequate public services and infrastructure, would be cast aside. This requirement would be jettisoned, and since SB 50 real estate projects are not discretionary, they also would not be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). They would, therefore, sail through without public notices, environmental assessments, public hearings, debates and votes by the City Planning Commission and City Council, and appeals from the public.

Likewise, existing neighborhoods that are transit and/or jobs rich would be subject to similar de facto upzoning in which developers could waive existing restrictions on height, mass (FAR), and density. This would allow buildings with a height up to 55 feet, Floor Area Ratios as high as 3.25, with density restrictions (i.e. units per acre), and no or minimal parking requirements.

The current discretionary land use processes to allow carefully-vetted deviations from municipal laws regulating the use of land: zone variances, zone changes, and General Plan amendments, have already been compromised by SB 1818 and TOC Guidelines. In the case of SB 50, this process of land use deregulation will advance to the next step. Local parcels will become exempt from most zoning laws, including overlay ordinances, since developers could avoid land use regulations through an unappealable ministerial (administrative) process imposed on all California cities by the California State legislature through SB 50 and kindred “housing” bills. 

Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs)? SB 50 contains no protection for existing neighborhoods that have HPOZs, Residential Floor Area Districts (RFAs), or one of LA’s 16 new re:Code LA R1 anti-mansionization zones. Unless homeowners go through the laborious process to add their house to the California Register of Historic Resources, they cannot protect their historic neighborhoods from SB 50. 

Affordable housing incentive programs, such as Transit Oriented Communities (TOC)? SB 50 expands LA’s two density bonus programs, TOC Guidelines and SB 1818, by increasing the number of by-right bonuses, areas where these programs could be used, and removing any local right of appeal to communities or individuals who oppose SB 50 zoning waivers. Most importantly, however, SB 50 retains the same critical weakness of the two existing programs. It has no required inspection process to assure that pledged affordable units charge low-income rents and house low-income tenants. It is ripe for abuse, especially because landlords do not have easily accessible databases to determine who is eligible to rent their affordable units, and potential renters have no easily accessible database to determine where the SB 50 affordable units are located. Furthermore, low-income tenants who have obtained a Section 8 voucher cannot use their vouchers for affordable housing created through SB 1818, TOC Guidelines, and SB 50.

Another weakness is that SB 50 has no monitoring program to determine if its upzoning schemes create new housing, if the new housing is affordable or reduces the price of market housing, if the pledged affordable units actually exist, if future SB 50 tenants utilize transit, and if SB 50 apartments reduce Green House Levels beyond existing levels. Nevertheless, SB 50’s long list of incentives to private investors will remain intact, regardless of their actual outcomes, which, as I predict, will be increased gentrification, traffic congestion and air pollution, and economic inequality, supplemented by collapsing public infrastructure and services. 

Community Plan Updates. The New Community Plans program has been underway since 2005, and to push back against Measure S the City Council mandated that LA’s 35 Community Plans and two District Plans (Port and Airport) be subsequently updated on a six-year cycle.So far, however, this update process is listing badly for several reasons.

First, Community Plans apply citywide General Plan elements to local neighborhoods, and nearly all of LA’s mandatory and optional citywide elements are out of date. The program to update them has ground to a halt, and there is no evidence on City Planning’s website that the Department is updating these relics from the previous century. For example the mandatory Open Space element was adopted in 1973, and recent efforts to update it so far consist of several 2017 private and public meetings.

Second, since 2005 about six Community Plans have been fully updated and 16 are now going through an accelerated and truncated updating process. The deadline for updating the remaining Community Plan is 2024, but there is no public information on the update schedule and work program, assuming it exists.

Third, updated Community Plans are implemented through public improvements, called the Capital Improvement Program and appended land use ordinances (e.g. zoning). But, no capital improvement program are attached to any Community Plan, old or “new”, and adopted zoning laws are routinely by-passed through many real estate schemes, such as re:code LA, Transit Neighborhood Plans, density bonus ordinances, and SB 50, all independent of any local analysis or adopted Community Plan policies, goals, or land use designations.

The conclusion is unmistakable. If adopted, SB 50 will hammer the final nail into the coffin of LA’s faltering Community Plan update process. At that point, land use, as legally established through (General) plan designations and zones, will be permanently severed from a careful analysis of under-utilized existing zoning, population and transportation trends, infrastructure capacity, and the California Environmental Quality Act. Turbulent market forces will then become the de facto criteria determining the use of land in Los Angeles. Short-term business decisions will undermine zoning laws, and these actions, in turn, will supplant the General Plan elements and processes required by City of Los Angeles Charter Sections 554-558, and the State of California’s planning laws.

While some investors will undoubtedly make out like bandits, the quality of life in Los Angeles will plummet even more. 

Proposed concepts of major transit stops and job-rich areas. While we soon expect new maps identifying neighborhoods in Los Angeles that are jobs and transit rich (i.e., within a half mile of light rail, heavy rail, and frequent bus lines) maps prepared for SB 827 indicate that most of Los Angeles would be subject to the provisions of SB 50, including the historic core, East LA, South LA, and most of the Westside. In the case of the San Fernando Valley all major transit corridors would include at least half of its neighborhoods, with more folded once Senator Wiener identifies “jobs rich areas.” When this happens, many other Los Angeles neighborhoods will also pop up on SB 50 impact maps. Few Los Angeles communities will remain intact, only governed by General Plan Elements, Community Plans, and City Council-adopted zoning ordinances.

What comes next?

First, this legislation is rapidly moving through the State Legislature, buoyed by a well funded, carefully crafted lobbying campaign. Angelinos and their City Council do not have the luxury to wait for the Department of City Planning to eventually draft a report on the legislation’s impact. Instead, community groups and Council offices should undertake their own independent reviews, and I offer this column as a starting point. Please extend my analysis and make whatever corrections are warranted. This is the best way to determine what will happen in Los Angeles if the California State Legislature adopts SB 50.

Second, City Hall hypocrisy of opposing SB 50, while supporting its local equivalents, like the Purple Line Transit Neighborhood Plan, needs to go. In case anybody is still not clear on their similarity, let me spell it out. They both contend that existing plans and zones block increased transit ridership and the supply of affordable housing. Their solution is deregulation that circumvents adopted plans and zones with up-zoning schemes that increase the value of underlying properties, resulting in new market apartments whose upscale residents will miraculously ditch their cars and switch to buses and subways for most of their trips. Furthermore, both SB 50 and its local equivalents assume that the price, quality, and accessibility of mass transit is irrelevant, while supporting public services and infrastructure are so elastic that examining and monitoring them is unnecessary.

Third, both programs hide behind the same deception. Incentives to developers will “unleash” private investors, whose pursuit of profits will fix serious problems of low transit ridership and over-priced housing through a transit-adjacent building boom. Since this is self-evident to these density hawks, neither proposal contains any inspection and monitoring requirements. As a result, their up-zones would exist in perpetuity, regardless of their actual, as opposed to imagined, impacts.

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning controversies for City Watch. Please send any comments or corrections to Previous articles are available at the City Watch LA archives.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

FABLE: The Monkey and the Crocodile

The monkey has a sweet heart.

Once there lived a monkey in a jamun tree by a river. The monkey was alone - he had no friends, no family, but he was happy and content. The jamun tree gave him plenty of sweet fruit to eat, and shade from the sun and shelter from the rain.

One day a crocodile came swimming up the river and climbed on to the bank to rest under the monkey's tree. 'Hello', called the monkey, who was a friendly animal. 'Hello', replied the crocodile, surprised. 'Do you know where I can get some food?' he asked. 'I haven't had anything to eat all day - there just don't seem to be any fish left in the river.'

'Well,' said the monkey, 'I don't eat fish so I wouldn't know - but I do have plenty of ripe purple jamuns in my tree. Would you like to try some?' He threw some down to the crocodile. The crocodile was so hungry that he ate up all the jamuns even though crocodiles don't eat fruit. He loved the sweet tangy fruit and shyly asked whether he could have some more. 'Of course', replied the monkey generously, throwing down more fruit. 'Come back whenever you feel like more fruit', he added when the crocodile had eaten his fill.

crocodileAfter that the crocodile would visit the monkey every day. The two animals soon became friends - they would talk and tell each other stories, and eat as much of the sweet jamuns as they wanted. The monkey would throw down all the fruit the crocodile wanted from his tree.

One day the crocodile began talking about his wife and family. 'Why didn't you tell me earlier that you had a wife?' asked the monkey. 'Please take some of the jamuns for her as well when you go back today.' The crocodile thanked him and took some of the fruit for his wife.

The crocodile's wife loved the jamuns. She had never eaten anything so sweet before. 'Imagine', she said, 'how sweet would be the creature who eats these jamuns every day. The monkey has eaten these every day of his life - his flesh would be even sweeter than the fruit.' She asked her husband to invite the monkey for a meal - 'and then we can eat him up' she said happily.

The crocodile was appalled - how could he eat his friend? He tried to explain to his wife that he could not possibly eat the monkey. 'He is my only true friend', he said. But she would not listen - she must eat the monkey. 'Since when do crocodiles eat fruit and spare animals?' she asked. When the crocodile would not agree to eat the monkey, she pretended to fall very sick. 'Only a monkey's heart can cure me', she wailed to her husband. 'If you love me you will get your friend the monkey and let me eat his heart.'

The poor crocodile did not know what to do - he did not want to eat his friend, but he could not let his wife die. At last he decided to bring the monkey to his wife.

'O dear friend', he called as soon as reached the jamun tree. ' My wife insists that you come to us for a meal. She is grateful for all the fruit that you have sent her, and asks that I bring you home with me.' The monkey was flattered, but said he could not possibly go because he did not know how to swim. 'Don't worry about that', said the crocodile. 'I'll carry you on my back.' The monkey agreed and jumped onto the crocodile's back.

The crocodile swam with him out into the deep wide river. When they were far away from the bank and the jamun tree, he said, 'My wife is very ill. The only thing that will cure her is a monkey's heart. So, dear friend, this will be the end of you and of our friendship.' The monkey was horrified. What could he do to save himself? He thought quickly and said 'Dear friend, I am very sorry to hear of your wife's illness and I am glad that I will be able to help her. But I have left my heart behind on the jamun tree. Do you think we could go back so that I can fetch it for your wife?'
monkeyThe crocodile believed the monkey. He turned and swam quickly to the jamun tree. The monkey leaped off his back and into the safety of his tree. 'False and foolish friend,' he called. 'Don't you know that we carry our hearts within us? I will never trust you again or ever give you fruit from my tree. Go away and don't come back again.'

The crocodile felt really foolish - he had lost a friend and
a supply of good sweet fruit. The monkey had saved himself because he had thought quickly. He realised that a monkey and a crocodile could never be true friends - crocodiles preferred to eat monkeys rather than be friends with them.