YIMBY challenges LA’s denial of affordable housing in Winnetka

Lawsuit targets city for not following mayor’s fast-track directive

YIMBY Sues LA for Denial of Affordable Housing in Winnetka
YIMBY's Sonja Trauss, Uncommon Developers' Jason Larian and Ryan Hekmat with 8217 North Winnetka Avenue (YIMBY, LinkedIn)

A pro-development group from Northern California wants to force Los Angeles to allow a tall apartment building to loom over a single-family neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley.

The nonprofit Yes In My Back Yard, based in Oakland, sued L.A. after the City Council refused to allow Uncommon Developers to use a fast-track affordable housing option to build a seven-story, 360-unit complex at 8217 North Winnetka Avenue, in Winnetka, the Los Angeles Daily News reported. It would replace a shuttered elementary school.

The YIMBY lawsuit, joined by an affiliate of the Chatsworth-based developer, is the latest skirmish in a battle over whether developers can use a directive by L.A. Mayor Karen Bass to quickly approve large, 100-percent affordable housing projects in single-family communities.

Bass issued her policy, known as Executive Directive 1, during her first week in office in late 2022 as a way to encourage affordable housing and end homelessness.

ED1 approvals can save developers tens of thousands of dollars in permitting fees, while exempting them from some environmental studies and public hearings. By sidestepping a review by the Planning Commission, builders save both time and money — with less risk of projects being killed during the city’s complicated “discretionary review process.”

City officials say the intent of the directive wasn’t to allow a fast-track process in which developers could win approval for massive projects in single-family neighborhoods. But the mayor’s initial wording did not explicitly state that developers couldn’t do so. 

In June, Bass updated her directive to close the loophole. 

By then, developers had applied for fast-track approval for eight apartment complexes up to 80 feet tall next to homes in five single-family neighborhoods across the Valley — sparking a fierce backlash by local residents and elected leaders. 

In October, the City Council denied a plan by Uncommon Developers to build the apartments near Winnetka Avenue and Roscoe Boulevard.

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Asked about the potential of a lawsuit, Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who represents the neighborhood, said the Planning Department had deemed the application incomplete — and therefore not eligible for fast-tracked approval.

“Fear of litigation shouldn’t be a reason to approve projects with incomplete applications, and that are not a good fit in a community,” Blumenfield told the Daily News.

The lawsuit filed by YIMBY and Bedrock Properties Group, a Chatsworth firm tied to the owners of Uncommon Developers, alleges its application — and others submitted before the mayor amended her executive directive — have vesting rights. 

They say the developer qualifies for expedited review using Bass’ ED1 rule before she changed it.

“Los Angeles can’t keep delaying affordable housing,” Sonja Trauss, executive director of YIMBY and a founder of the national YIMBY movement, said in a statement. “We’ve spoken with them about the legal and moral implications of going back on their own policy.

“The city still broke the law, and now they have to be held accountable.”

The state Department of Housing and Community Development wrote a letter to the city last fall saying it believes the developers have vesting rights. But the city’s Planning Department and mayor’s office disagree.

A representative for the City Attorney’s Office told the City Council in September that it considered the state’s opinion “persuasive at most, not binding.”

The co-founders of Uncommon Developers are Jason Larian, son of billionaire toymaker Isaac Larian, CEO of MGA Entertainment, and Ryan Hekmat, who is married to Isaac Larian’s daughter. The offices of Uncommon Developers are inside the MGA headquarters building in the northwest San Fernando Valley.

The YIMBY movement, born in the Bay Area as a reaction to the soaring cost of housing, soon gained a foothold in Los Angeles — with no housing development project too small to support. Trauss also runs YIMBY Law, an organization with the mission to “sue the suburbs” into approving more homes.

— Dana Bartholomew

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