Housing Policy

L.A. Considers Honoring Civil Rights-Era Housing Activist by Making It Harder To Build Housing

Preservationists hope to make the one-time home of Loren Miller a historic landmark. That it would make it nearly impossible to redevelop the $1.4 million two-bedroom home.

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Loren Miller was a crusading civil rights activist and lawyer who upended racist restrictions on black people owning homes. Los Angeles preservationists want to honor his legacy by preventing the redevelopment of a single-family home he once lived in.

On Thursday, Los Angeles's Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) voted to take up an application from preservationist Teresa Grimes to landmark a two-story, two-bedroom house in the city's Silver Lake neighborhood that Miller lived in from 1940 until his death in 1967.

It was during that time, per the application, that Miller worked on a number of landmark civil rights lawsuits.

That includes his work successfully defending black homeowners in Los Angeles' Sugar Hills neighborhood who'd been sued by their white neighbors for violating expired restrictive covenants that barred the sale of homes to non-whites. Later, Miller was a co-counsel, alongside future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, on the landmark 1948 Supreme Court case Shelley v Kraemer, in which the Court ruled that government enforcement of racially restrictive covenants was unconstitutional.

His work on housing issues earned Miller a reputation as a leading legal light of the civil rights movement. Curbed says he was dubbed "Mr. Civil Rights." Less august is his modest Silver Lake home, a fact that commissioners candidly acknowledged at Thursday's hearing.

"The architecture isn't the governing factor. I don't think any of us would say this is architecturally significant," said CHC Commission President Barry Milofsky. Nevertheless, Milofsky said the history that happened inside the home "needs to be recognized, commemorated, and memorialized."

Representatives of the L.A. Conservancy and the Silver Lake Heritage Trust both spoke in favor of landmarking Miller's former home at the meeting as well.

Absent from the proceedings were Edgar and Eugenia Gonzalez, which commission documents list as the current owners of the house through a family trust. Should the Miller house be successfully landmarked, the couple's rights as property owners to alter or redevelop it will be severely constrained.

(Commission staff said on Thursday that the Gonzalezs had been notified of the hearing. Grimes also said she reached out to the owners prior to filing the landmarking application but received no reply.)

L.A. law requires demolition permits for "Historic-Cultural Monuments"—something that would be needed if one wanted to redevelop the property—to be reviewed by the heritage commission. The commission can also choose to delay the issuance of those permits by up to 180 days (or 360 days with city council approval).

An FAQ from the city's Office of Historic Resources also says that monuments are presumed to be a historic resource under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), meaning any application for a demolition permit might require the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report.

Those reports can take years to complete and often require expensive studies costing tens of thousands of dollars (or more). Third parties are also empowered to sue if they believe an environmental impact report wasn't thorough enough, which can stretch things out for even longer.

All of that would obviously be a major barrier to redeveloping the Miller home into a duplex or triplex, something that's allowed by the property's zoning. On property rights grounds alone, that's a reason to oppose historic preservation laws that don't require the owner's consent (which L.A.'s doesn't).

Preventing that redevelopment appears to be a partial motivation for landmarking Miller's old home. On the section of the application where one is supposed to list physical threats to the property, Grimes just wrote "zoning."

There's a particular irony in the possibility that Los Angeles officials might impose these restrictions on a home once owned by Miller.

Redeveloping his one-time home, which Redfin lists at $1.4 million, into a multi-unit development would allow several families to split those high land costs between them—making the property more affordable to more people.

The potential for two- and three-unit homes to be cheaper than the single-family homes they replace is why a number of city councils and state legislatures have passed or proposed legalizing this kind of "missing middle" housing.

When doing so, zoning reform proponents often note the racist legacy of "exclusionary" single-family-only zoning. By making neighborhoods more affordable, they argue, you'll make them more racially diverse and inclusive as well.

But landmarking a house once owned by Miller—who spent his career agitating for more inclusive housing—would make it much more difficult for its owners to convert it into this kind of more inclusive housing if they wanted to. Preserving the physical structure he lived in seems to violate the animating purpose of his work.

The CHC has until mid-May to vote on whether to landmark Miller's home. If approved, it then goes to the city council for a final vote.

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  1. Are we no longer going to replace any buildings in the future?

    1. Need to clear more space for the homeless. The existing sidewalks are getting crowded.

    2. The future of housing is tenting.

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        1. "That's why we're here today because we have the ability to see what can be, unburdened by what has been, and then to make the possible actually happen."

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  2. The home is such a valuable cultural icon that those who want to preserve it are willing to spend any amount of other people's money on their cause.

  3. I once worked in an historic building. Really historical, and old bank with marble edifice dating from 1880. A storm caused a lot of damage and getting that damage repaired was a major nightmare of bureaucratic nonsense. Had to order special plaster moldings to match the original plaster moldings.

    A neighboring building was an old opera house form the same time, and had embossed tin ceiling, which was quite historic, but a major pain to maintain.

    At some point the historical buildings rules just go too far. On one hand you don't want someone tearing down Paul Revere's home to erect some condos, but neither should private home owners be subject onerous restrictions governing repairs. At some point the regulations turn into takings and the government needs to be compensating.

    1. Simple solution: those who want to preserve them can buy them. Otherwise this is a taking, and the taxpayers should buy the building. It's a worse solution, still putting that decision in the hands of people with no skin in the game, but at least it's less unfair to the property owner.

      1. Even arbitration between the property owner and the people living in the historic district. If the homeowner is unwilling or unable to restore the building, let the district residents pony up the dough or officiate over a historic pile of rubble.

        1. That's no good. The owner still loses his property's value.

          1. Admittedly, I don't do a ton of business with a ton of different historic districts. My understanding is that, by and large, the property is crumbling and in need of repair, i.e. the loss of value is incurred either way and, presumably, neither side wants to see the arbitration end in "This building shall be condemned."

            I don't see buying the land for a condo high rise in a historic district as distinct from opening a Nazi bookstore in a Jewish community except that the broker is generally compelled to tell you that the property is in a historic district before you buy.

            I don't believe developers have an unfettered right to devalue their neighbors' property as they see fit any more than the other way around.

            1. The central thing is that you don't own the other properties. You have no ownership rights in what others do with their property. The complaint that someone's action will lower you property value is bogus without prior agreement.

    2. A storm caused a lot of damage

      Did Doc still get the 1.21 gigawatts he needed to get the DeLorean up to 88mph?

      1. Hardly. This town also has apparently historic transformers. During the course of summer dust would settle on the transformers and the first rain in autumn would cause short out. When I was there they had finally got it into their heads to replace them with new transformers rather than repair them, but every year would result an a few shorting out.

        So no, he never did get the 1.21 gigawatts.

    3. Except Paul Revere's home was purchased by an association dedicated to maintaining it and it now serves as a museum. Also known as the proper way to preserve historic buildings.

  4. There are a few historic properties around here that are dying of disrepair because fixing them up according to the rules costs more than they're worth.

  5. "That it would make it nearly impossible to redevelop the $1.4 million two-bedroom home."

    That sounds aligned with the $750k that LA spends per new homeless housing unit. What's the problem?

    1. $750k to buy a $500 tent and pitch it. That is pentagon level waste.

      1. No, to match Pentagon-level waste, you need to pay several overpaid, unfireable, high pension GSxx Fed employees to produce a multi-page document detailing all the (VERY) specific changes needed to satisfy the state/county/city historical preservation rules.

        This not only provides top-down directions for the waste, but the document itself IS wasteful. It's kind of recursive, even beautiful in it's sophisticated implementation of waste.

  6. Looks like a big lawn, for LA.
    Lots of room to put up tents.

  7. a covenant on the house of the anti-covenant guy is cute.

    1. Like putting Andrew Jackson the 20-dollar US Federal Reserve Note.

      1. exactly. delicious ironing.

      2. Andy wanted state banking monopolies, not a national bank monopoly. Imagine 50 central banks! Pretending that he was some sort of proto-libertarian is beyond silly.

        p.s. We didn't actually get branch banking across state lines in the US until fairly late.

  8. As long as they are required to keep any asbestos, lead paint, and lead pipes. They are historic and must be kept forever.

    1. Hey! Residence Remodeling De-Toxification Contrators donate to political campaigns too. When we rebuilt a house after a fire, (down to studs, new windows, entrances, floor plan) the Asbestos/Lead removal was the biggest waste of time delay in the whole project.

      "Well, that's the city/county rules. No idea where they got THOSE."

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