Mansionization ordinances are indiscriminant nose swinging
Should the size of houses be regulated to fit within the character of the neighborhood, or should owners have the right to build what pleases them?
By Russ Wetherill, May 10, 2014
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor (both physically and metaphorically). America was founded on the principle of individual rights, but how do we resolve disputes when one man is jumping both on his own floor and his neighbor’s ceiling? One man’s right to swing his fist ends where another’s nose begins; but, the indiscriminant swinging of a nose into a fist can’t be the fault of the fist, can it?
It’s hard not to think of the Mansionization ordinance as indiscriminant nose swinging. The word mansionization itself acts as its own hostile witness, impeaching the motives of its sponsors.
Emily Alpert Reyes, May 4 , 2014
Six years ago, Los Angeles politicians imposed new limits on the size of new and renovated houses, promising to rein in what they called “homes on steroids” dwarfing blocks of smaller buildings.
How big is too big? Who decides? On the one hand, property owners should have free rein to put their property to the best economic use possible; on the other hand, certain uses impact the quiet enjoyment of the properties of nearby homeowners. Does the size of the home itself impact adjacent neighbors’ enjoyment of their own property? I seriously doubt it unless the home is so large that it blocks the sun or a view.
But as the housing market rebounds and construction picks up, many homeowners complain that “mansionization” has revved up — reigniting long-standing policy battles and sometimes bitter fence fights over the face and feel of L.A.’s neighborhoods.
Builders are snapping up smaller, older homes, razing them and replacing them with bigger dwellings. Increasingly, sleek, square structures are popping up along streets known for quaint bungalows.
“None of us are opposed to expansion and development — when it’s respectful of the neighborhood,” Traci Considine says, showing a “before” photo of a home under construction in Faircrest Heights that she believes demonstrates “mansionization.”
Neighborhoods evolve over time. When older neighborhoods were built in LA in the 50s, a two bed one bath house, with a detached one-car garage, was a standard starter home. Some people want things to stay the same, others want progress. Who is right? Is there a reasonable compromise somewhere between houses built lot-line to lot-line and 1000 sf bungalows on ¼ acre lots?
Architects and designers behind such projects — and the buyers and homeowners they build for — argue that larger homes are needed to meet the demands of modern families.
But neighborhood groups have begun mobilizing, asserting that rules meant to control building sizes are still too porous. Critics argue that builders have exploited loopholes — bonuses that allow extra square footage — to erect homes too large for their lots. The recent surge of complaints prompted Michael LoGrande, director of the Department of City Planning, to tell lawmakers that more stringent controls might be needed.
So, normally property law would control this via Covenants, Codes and Regulations (CC&Rs). I assume that the problem with a lot of these homes is that the community plan with attached CC&Rs wasn’t filed when the first house in the subdivision was built. Therefore, no subsequent CC&R can be enforced against any home in the neighborhood. This ordinance is an end-run around the want of covenants for the use of property. The city is using the building code to enforce a quasi-covenant against otherwise unencumbered property. I guess this is legal, but I really don’t know. It sure seems like the government is taking value from current owners without just compensation, though. A large part of the value of any property is in the zoning. Depending on whether the area is zoned commercial, residential, or agricultural, the value of property can vary dramatically. Zoning changes have dramatic impacts on property values, and so do ordinances that change the size of homes built there.
In Hollywood, for example, members of a neighborhood group objected to a spec home exceeding 3,000 square feet, being built on a Stanley Avenue block lined with older, smaller homes — most of them under 2,000 square feet. Aggravated by the “out of place, enormous” residence, Amy Aquino of the Sunset Square Neighborhood Assn. said the group hired a land-use consultant to examine how it was allowed.
“Everything they were doing, hideous as it is, is all completely legal,” Aquino said.
I don’t doubt the fact that she genuinely dislikes the new home. But, she is right that Ordinance 179,883 allows larger homes to be built. It does limit the size however, so she should be happy that it is 3,000 and not 5,000 sf. And there are enough silly restrictions in the law that make the home owners unhappy too, like: the square footage for >100sf areas with ceilings over 14 feet tall are counted twice; and, areas of attics over 7 feet tall are included in square footage.
The builder behind the home, Amnon Edri, said that as long as his project meets requirements, it shouldn’t be a problem.
“If the city code allows it, and you want a bigger house, you have the right to a bigger house,” he said. “This is America. It’s a free country.”
“Sir, this is California, freedom doesn’t really enter into it. While this is “technically” the Republic of California, majority rule strips the rights of the minority on a daily basis. “ – said the Zen master.
Neighbors pushing for stricter rules fear that outsized, out-of-character buildings will drag down their home values. Edri and others maintain that bigger homes boost prices for their neighbors.
The tensions also reflect clashing expectations of Los Angeles living.
For decades there was “kind of a consensus about what a Southern California house should look like” — low, rambling and open to the landscape, cultural historian D.J. Waldie said. That philosophy, along with requirements imposed by builders, gave rise to uniform neighborhoods lined with homes of similar sizes and styles, Waldie said.
But in a growing city with scant undeveloped land and changing tastes, some Angelenos see things differently. They look at older neighborhoods and think, “‘this is where the good life is lived,'” Waldie said. “‘But I don’t want to live in a 1,300-square-foot house.'”
Change isn’t always for the worse; it can also be for the better. My advice is to talk with your neighbor before you make any renovations. Discuss their concerns and try to incorporate them into your plan. Not all concerns can be addressed and not all should be addressed. Some people are just irrational and won’t agree to anything. But at least you made the effort. And if you can’t please everyone, at least please yourself. This is America after all. Isn’t it?
The Baseline Mansionization Ordinance was approved in 2008 as the city was slipping into the housing slump. It was meant to stop homes from expanding, as Councilman Tom LaBonge put it, “like the Pillsbury Doughboy.”
The Pillsbury Doughboy stands for all that’s good and holy in this world. How dare you, sir, poke fun at his waistline. You can take issue with houses being too large, but obesity is genetic. That is terribly insensitive of you, and I demand a prompt public apology to all your weight challenged constituents. Shame, shame, shame.