Tuesday, July 24, 2001
No EIR Needed for Apartment Inspection Program—C.A.
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Los Angeles apartment inspection program that levies a $1 fee on nearly every rental housing unit in the city can continue without an environmental impact report, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
In the latest victory for the city’s inspection program over challenges from apartment owner groups, the court rejected a writ petition by the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles. The association claimed the code enforcement program would severely reduce the city’s affordable rental housing stock and, by extension, undermine “the environmental setting of the city’s neighborhoods.”
The plaintiffs first took their case to the City Council, and when they were rebuffed there they sued under the California Environmental Quality Act to require an EIR. Housing experts offered by the association testified that the inspections would generate so much repair work that the removal of so much lead paint, asbestos and pesticides could do significant environmental damage.
Besides, the experts said, required repairs would lead to changes in historic buildings.
For those reasons, an EIR was needed, they said.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe rejected the arguments and denied the writ.
In a 17-page opinion, the Second District agreed. Justice Earl Johnson Jr. of Div. Seven said the rental housing inspection program falls into a CEQA exemption for “restoration or rehabilitation of deteriorated or damaged structures, facilities or mechanical equipment systems to meet current standards of public health, safety and environmental protection.”
Johnson rejected claims by the association that the city’s program was far too “proactive” to fit with an exemption that it said was meant for small, owner-initiated improvement projects.
The justice noted that the association’s expert predicted widespread displacement of tenants, but that no such thing materialized during the interim phase of the program.
Instead, abatement orders were issued on 269 properties out of the first 7,200 inspected, taking in 99,000 units. At the time of the study, 100 already had been brought into compliance.
Out of the 99,000 units, only 33 tenants were displaced.
Johnson said it was worth noting that the apartment owners “failed to submit a single declaration from a member who claimed the interim enforcement program forced her to abandon her property or withdraw it from the rental market or that the interim program imposed a financial hardship.”
It is the second major court defeat this year for the association in its quest to roll back the apartment inspection program. In Janurary, the state Supreme Court ruled that the monthly inspection fee program does not require a require a public vote under Proposition 218.
The city established the slum housing program in July 1998, but it was quickly attacked by property owners under the 1996 initiative.
Div. One of this district’s Court of Appeal sided with the property owners, saying the impost, while “well intentioned” could not be construed as “anything other than a user fee or charge for property related service.”
But Justice Stanley Mosk, writing for the high court, agreed with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles W. McCoy Jr. that the suit should be dismissed because the fee is not a tax on property.
The fee was imposed as part of a series of actions recommended by a blue-ribbon citizens commission on slum housing. The panel was formed in 1997 after several newspaper stories exposed the declining quality of many apartment units in the city.
The inspection program originated with a series of newspaper articles in 1997 detailing the woeful condition of much of the rental housing in Los Angeles and the city’s failure to hold owners accountable
Apartment inspections, which previously were conducted by Department of Building and Safety officials only in response to complaints, were transferred to the city’s Housing Department. New inspectors were hired and charged with conducting regular inspections of every single apartment unit in the city. The $1 per-unit fee, which was widely expected to be passed on to tenants, was to pay for the new program.
City officials then suffered a series of embarrassing setbacks, including revelations that officials virtually ended answering complaints to concentrate on the new monthly inspections. Inspectors now also respond to tenant complaints.
The case is Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles v. City of Los Angeles, B1443355.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company