Historical subdivision?

I live near downtown L.A. in a beautiful reasonably well-maintained Victorian house (see photo). It really is lovely, and it makes me very happy to live here. Our lovely, well-maintained house, however, is flanked by two horrendously dilapidated houses. Since I don’t actually own property, the state of the neighboring houses is only a concern in the sense that for my own comfort I’d rather they not become home to squatters, etc. Actually one of the properties came preloaded with a squatter, a tenant who stuck around after the former owner was indicted for being a slum lord. He lives in an RV in the abandoned lot that adjoins the property and is a bit eccentric, but seemingly harmless.

Until recently the condition of the neighboring properties was not much of a concern. In the past few weeks, however, the new owner of the next door has started remodeling, or should we say gutting, the house. This is annoying due to the noise, but overall an acceptable thing to do with a dilapidated house that one owns. Except two weeks ago he began redoing the roof, at 7 a.m. on a Sunday. I wasn’t actually present for this event but apparently it was loud. Also, apparently illegal. I guess doing this sort of work on a Sunday is illegal (but yet Christians claim their beliefs are persecuted, no comment). The neighbor across the street called the police. Turns out the reroofing of the house hasn’t been approved. At this point the neighbor who called the police tells my roommates that we should show up at the planning meeting where the roof will be discussed.

And thus I found myself Tuesday night in the office space of one of the neighborhood realtors sitting on an uncomfortable bench with one of my roommates. Our house is in a Historical Preservation Overlay Zone, which I would have thought a priori would be something I would approve of. But I left the meeting rather troubled. Being in an HPOZ means that anything that’s done to the outside of one of these old houses has to be approved by the board (I don’t know what the date cut off is, but their authority extends at least to building built into the 1920s or 30s). It’s not like the system elsewhere where you only have to worry if your property is on the historic registry (which generally means its in reasonably good condition anyway, and someone in its ownership trajectory had a personal commitment to its historical value). No, the zones were established by the city. As near as I can tell there’s no way to opt out (short of selling off your property and leaving the zone). And while existing non-historically accurate features are grandfathered in, once you start doing any work on the exterior you’re stuck doing it in a historically accurate way.

The board is made up of architects and planning folks. Some of whom live in the neighborhood. The chair person described the whole process of board selection, but I don’t remember the details. Suffice to say, people with an interest in preservation, at least some of whom also have personal interest in the neighborhood itself. As she was pointing out the residency requirement she noted “so it has a very community feel.” Funny. The people sitting around that table didn’t look anything at all like how I think of this community. First, this community is not a majority white community. And it isn’t composed solely of monolingual English speakers (ok, to be fair some of the board might speak a second language, but I’m willing to bet that English is a first and dominate language for all except possibly the one of them with the Spanish-origin surname). Second, this community is not predominately middle-class, though the proximity to a University means there are incursions. So yeah, forgive me if I felt the only contribution of a “community feel” came from the non-board community members present.

First up on the agenda was the owner of the house next door. My first thought when he started talking was to wonder if translation is available for those homeowners in the area who are not capable of communicating with the board in English. Of course, economic realities being what they are, most of the actual property owners probably are at least fluent enough in English to get by. But one does wonder about provisions for those who are not (and while we’re talking about access, let’s note that the meeting was held in a second floor room accessible only by a set of stairs with an extremely flimsy handrailing that could not actually be used by anyone needing something they could put weight on). Now I’m not going to throw too much support in the direction of this man since it does strike me that he pulled down the roof without permit in a blatant move to guarantee that the board would let him reroof. And there’s something about the man that suggests to me that he might not be a significantly better landlord than the notorious slumlord before him. Still, I have to wonder about a process wherein you need to get permission for your choice of color and material for shingles.

I’m torn. I love these old buildings. I love our porch (which would have been replaced with something much less historically appropriate were it not for the intervention of the HPOZ board) but I have a bit of a problem with the level of control over private property. Usually I’m not of a rabidly individualistic bent. I have libertarian sympathies sometimes, but fundamentally I think for society to function as society there needs to be some attention paid to the good of the collective. But the problem here is that good that is in question is property values. And as much as I’m in favor of thinking about the well-being of the collective, and even the economic well-being of the collective, I have deep problems with the notion that I am obligated to follow certain aesthetic patterns on my property in order to increase the value of yours. I understand that this is, in part, about historical preservation, a love for the past. But the “quality” of a block was invoked at one point during the meeting. And it sent my hackles up.

The couple after our deroofing neighbor claims to have been unaware of the rules of the HPOZ. So they tore down their old porch and started building a new one, without a permit. Granted, had they pulled a permit the way they were supposed to they would have discovered the need to approach the board before doing anything. But right now they’re in the position of having to tear down the new porch they started and start over, in a more historically accurate (and much more expensive) way. It’s just a guess, but I’m betting their budget doesn’t have much room to allow that.

Throughout the whole thing I was a bit uncomfortable but it wasn’t until the third person on the agenda that I realized what it felt like. They were telling him that he had to get paint colors approved, was required to use three colors, etc. And suddenly I felt like I was in the sprawling subdivisions of suburbia, where the board determines that your ranch house (one of four possible designs) must be painted in one of the six community approved colors. And again, I have to admit that a priori I would think that I would be in favor of historical preservation. But there is something about a table of middle-class white people telling a room half full of non-middle class, non-white people what to do with their property that just doesn’t sit well. I can forgive the draconian subdivisions. At least there the boards choosing the range of allowable colors really are representative of the community as a whole. At least there you choose to buy that property with the knowledge of the rules. But here the board is not really OF the communi
ty even if some of them live IN the community. What’s more, at least some of these property owners didn’t opt in. And that strikes me as problematic.

I also wonder if the end goal is well-served by this strategy. It strikes me that the incentives get a little weird in this situation. If you don’t do anything to your property you’re not subject to the jurisdiction of the HPOZ board. But as soon as you start doing any changes, you have to face the board (which means all projects become dramatically more expensive). So basically what we have is an incentive to let your old Victorian house descend into disrepair. Now granted, it’s not that simple since there’s a built in incentive (in the form of your own property value) to make improvements in the ways that the board leads you. But ultimately there’s a payoff question, and particularly for the absentee landlord types (the vast majority of these houses are subdivided) the incentive not to improve is likely higher than the incentive to improve. And hence, the neighborhood retains its gritty slum character despite the gentrifying force of the HPOZ.

I know a middle-class white academic who owns property in the neighborhood. One thing she noted in a discussion about this is that her neighbors who are not middle-class whites don’t seem to have the same aesthetic appreciation for the old houses. And I think it’s worth pointing out that these are Victorian houses, hence by default this is a white upper class aesthetic we are attempting to protect. I’m just saying….

It’s not that I’m against preservation of history (though I’m not sure I believe there’s any inherent need to do so on a grand scale for reasons other than aesthetic ones). I just am suspicious of placing the cost for that preservation on individuals who don’t necessarily benefit from it. If we agree that this is a public good, the cost should be distributed. If we don’t agree that preservation is a public good, then it shouldn’t be legally required. Mostly, my issue is that this seems to be something imposed upon the neighborhood from the outside and the people enforcing the rules are not the ones subject to the cost. And I can’t shake the feeling that this whole thing was probably put together by politicians who wouldn’t be caught dead here.

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