Planning Enforcement Work Reveals Risky Dwellings and Invisible Housing Shortages

Unpermitted dwelling units are common in L.A. County's unincorporated areas. Done without planning approval or building permits, unpermitted housing units pose a danger to the inhabitants and others around them. CAPE members like Jonathan Pacheco Bell are part of the County's dedicated nuisance abatement staff that responds to code complaints, inspects properties, enforces County codes, and initiates code compliance.

Bell is a CAPE-represented employee at the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning. CAPE-represented Zoning Enforcement staff apply zoning codes to prevent neighborhood deterioration and maintain a high quality of life in the unincorporated areas. From 2006 to March 2014, Bell's responsibilities included zoning enforcement in several unincorporated communities. Unpermitted housing accounts for a large portion of Zoning Enforcement's caseload countywide.

Bell recently published an article on illegal housing titled "Converting Garages into a Dissertation: A Conversation with Jacob Wegmann" in the online urban planning magazine UrbDeZine. In the article, Bell explained that the problem of occupied garage apartments is ubiquitous throughout the Los Angeles area. "Informal dwelling units transcend all jurisdictions, demographics and geographies," Bell wrote. "If you live in L.A., there's an informal unit on your street."

The problem, Bell says, is that unpermitted dwellings are not constructed according to required building or zoning code standards. Unpermitted dwellings lack structural integrity, have poorly installed electrical or plumbing fixtures, oftentimes have no windows or smoke detectors, and pose a risk to anyone living inside or around them. The risk of a fire in an unpermitted garage conversion can easily endanger the inhabitants of the property's primary dwelling unit and neighbors. Converting the required covered parking that the garage provides also pushes additional cars onto the street, reducing street parking and congesting neighborhoods. Moreover, unpermitted dwellings are often turned into stealthily, income-generating rental units for which owners are not taxed. These issues negatively impact community quality of life, leading to neighbor complaints to the County.

Published on June 17, 2014, Bell's article explores the challenging issue of code enforcement and unpermitted housing. The article includes an interview with UC Berkeley PhD candidate Jacob Wegmann, who is writing the first doctoral dissertation on unpermitted housing and code enforcement in the U.S.

Wegmann argues that unpermitted housing has reshaped the housing market and local politics, even without being widely acknowledged. Unpermitted dwellings, according to Wegmann, are part of what fills the enormous gap when affordable housing fails to provide sufficient residences for low wage families.

Zoning Enforcement professionals, including those represented by CAPE, face opposition from "informality" advocates who argue local codes inhibit things like affordable housing and street vending in Los Angeles. Like many zoning officials, Bell contends that unsafe housing is not a viable housing option. County codes can be reassessed but should not be ignored.

Bell's current assignment is within Regional Planning's Advance Planning Division, Community Studies East Section, where he works on long range plans, policies and zoning code updates. "Working in the field for nearly eight years gave me indispensable experience that I will use to help write stronger codes and policies for the County."

Jonathan Pacheco Bell has been a CAPE member for nearly his entire career with the Department of Regional Planning. He was the 2014 recipient of the Robert "Bob" Remes Outstanding Volunteer of the Year Award presented by CAPE.

To read the entire article and Bell's full interview with Jacob Wegmann, please click here.

CAPE Member, Jonathan P. Bell.

Rear patio converted into an unpermitted dwelling unit in unincorporated South Central Los Angeles.

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