The downside of upscale growth

I’ve been following the Los Angeles housing story for a few months because of its special relevance to the Jewish community.

It has been a story of skirmishes, of threatened apartment houses, of new high rises and old buildings converted into expensive lofts and even of profound ethical questions that confronted two of our most prominent synagogues, Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Both bought apartment houses — perfect examples of middle class rental housing — to be torn down to make way for expansion plans provoking long and anguished discussions at the temples.

The skirmishes are part of a much bigger question: What kind of Los Angeles do we want? Is there still room for apartments and homes for garment workers, gardeners, waiters, cooks, bus drivers, teachers, health care providers and social workers, for the millions of people who are not rich? Can they find places to live in a Hollywood suddenly restored as a playground and living space for the affluent? Will there be room for them in the new downtown aimed at fulfilling the builders’ dreams of a high-rise city extending to USC?

And what about the middle- and working-class Jews living in apartments in the West Valley, Pico Robertson, Venice, Fairfax, Silver Lake and other places? Will they be forced to move when their homes are wiped out along with their unique communities? Will the classic L.A. two-story duplexes and quadplexes south of Wilshire Boulevard give way to expensive condos, some of them ugly?

As I pursued the story, Larry Gross, an advocate for affordable housing in his job as head of the Coalition for Economic Survival, told me of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple situation. It seemed like a natural clear-cut story with a rich villain, the temple, tearing down an apartment house, and the downtrodden tenants as victims. But, as is often the case, when I dug into the matter I found it was much more complicated. The temple board discussions are an example of debates going on throughout L.A., with the added angle that colors all our fights:

What is our ethical obligation as Jews?

I called Howard Kaplan, the temple’s executive director, a native Angeleno from East Los Angeles. He had been dealing with the controversy for months, talking to the renters, even sending over his maintenance crew to help one of the tenants, an older woman, pack and move boxes.

“We bought it about a year ago,” he said. “Our intention was to build a nursery school there.”

He said the temple was concerned about the tenants from the start.

“The temple did everything possible in a difficult situation, including financial assistance. It was not something that was done lightly. It was thought through and done as best as we could,” Kaplan said.

He said the nursery school, with room for about 180 children, would be a key part of a restoration and redevelopment of the site on Wilshire Boulevard and Hobart Avenue. I had long wondered about the fate of that magnificent old sanctuary in Mid-Wilshire. The area had been in decline for years. But I learned that it is coming back, and young Jewish families are among those moving into residential areas around the temple, including Hollywood, Silver Lake, Glendale and elsewhere.

“We did demographic studies,” Kaplan said. “We found that Jews are moving to east of La Cienega, into Hollywood, Los Feliz, that whole area. People can’t afford the Westside.”

Providing these Jews with a vibrant place to participate in Jewish life, including convenient, up-to-date Jewish schools and worship facilities, is crucial in keeping our migrating population engaged in the Jewish community. People, particularly the young, are reluctant to drive long distances for religious participation, and congregations have found that they are most successful in keeping families involved if they engage them when the kids are starting school.

Understandably, the purchase of the apartment house and the evictions that followed — to make way for tearing it down — upset some of the tenants.

I have a copy of a letter sent to Kaplan by three of the renters. It said, in part, “While the temple promulgates its commitment to helping the most disadvantaged in our society and sets a fine example on the surface with innumerable and most generous contributions to the community, in the shadows, un-divulged to even its members at large, the temple forces those in the lowest of the economic classes out of their homes and into a housing market increasingly diminished of affordable low income housing to compete with only what the law demands they receive plus a mere pittance to soften what will most indubitably be a devastating economic blow.”

I was told that one of the tenants was paying $716 a month in the building bought by the temple for an apartment with a small, separate kitchen. The tenant moved to a smaller apartment with a counter, a sink and a small built-in refrigerator at a rent of $725 a month, found after two months of looking.

Kaplan said the temple “let them [the tenants] know by letter that we were going to do this, we followed the city process. We met with city officials … we provided way more in financial assistance than required. Neither side would say how much financial assistance the temple gave because of a confidentiality agreement.

The city requires owners of apartments who tear them down to pay relocation fees. Tenants who have lived in a rental unit for less than three years are entitled to $6,180 from the new building owner. Those who have been residents for more than three years receive $9,040.

In addition, the city law created a class of tenants called “qualified.” These are those who are seniors, disabled, families with minor children under 18 and residents who may have lived in a building for less than three years but whose family income is 80 percent of or below the Los Angeles area median income of $56,000. Qualified tenants have a year to move after they have received their eviction notice.

A qualified tenant who has lived in a unit for less than three years receives $14,850. Such a tenant who has been a resident for more than three years gets $17,080.