Did you ever wonder why Angelenos are screaming for less government? Consider my story.

In 2001, I purchased my first house. It was the only one I looked at. The deal closed in three weeks. It is a typical Spanish-style duplex with a converted garage as a guest house. The seller converted the garage in 1983 and tenants have lived there since. After the tenant moved out in 2003, I upgraded it to the tune of $55,000. It’s a beautiful unit that is an oasis of serenity in the center of the city. In February 2004, I was cited by the city for having an illegal unit.

I immediately went about legalizing the unit. I spent two years trying to comply with the mind-numbing rules and conflicting instructions. Five times the same city staffer provided me different requirements on parking. I got signatures from neighbors – many of whom also have converted units (but haven’t been cited).

I was “sentenced” and attended Landlord School (think Traffic School but only worse). I was listed as a “slumlord.”

The Los Angeles Housing Department came within a week of jailing me for six months for not complying with the order to legalize the unit despite the fact that I was in the process of doing so with the city’s Planning, and Building and Safety departments. 

Jail put off

With the fear of conviction in front of me, I made a commotion and got to meet with the administrator of the Planning Department. Within a few months the required variances were approved and jail was put off – thanks to another hefty fine. Things were looking up. The city went through its processes and the final step was getting Building and Safety to have an inspector come out and make sure that everything was OK and issue the occupancy permit – all relatively pro forma given that the unit was updated.

Building and Safety wouldn’t send an inspector until Planning signed off on another document – the variances that Planning issued weren’t good enough. Planning staff wouldn’t sign off on the new document because their administrator had issued the variance, not staff, so the administrator would have to sign off. He couldn’t: He was killed in the Metrolink accident. The new administrators (several over the years) refused to sign, or meet with me or my architect.

My architect gave up. The office of then-Councilman Jack Weiss tried and gave up (after a pretty feeble effort). I let it go – there was simply nothing more that could be done until one department was willing to work with the other. 

In January, the city reissued its order to comply. The new order states that any prior variances were no longer valid because the statute of limitations had expired on them. True – because the city departments wouldn’t work together on the approvals that were in place for years! If the departments wouldn’t work together, what about help from my new councilman? Paul Koretz’s office didn’t respond to my letters, e-mails and phone calls. How about the Mayor’s Office? For three months, I worked with the mayor’s liaison on these issues – and he came back to me saying that I had to start the legalization process over from scratch because the statute of limitations had expired.

I can’t start the process over. I have spent six years and nearly $22,000 to get to this point. I have been unemployed for 16 months and don’t have the financial wherewithal, let alone the stamina, to continue the fight. I’ve let my tenant know she has to leave. She’s about to go to seminary and I have waived her rent for several months since she lost her job in February. Things are bad for me, but worse for her. 

No choice

It’s mind-boggling that we’ve come to this. I have no choice. I can’t even sell the place with a notice-to-comply on the title. I guess I’ll convert it to a garage after she moves out, since bureaucracy beats out common sense.

Nothing’s wrong with the unit – I haven’t been cited for poor construction, anything dangerous or unhealthy. It’s a great place to live. I jumped through every hoop the city put in front of me – several times in fact. The city changed the game by not playing for two years only to start over.

So they win. I lose. Is it any wonder that people are screaming for less government?

Craig B. Coogan has been a corporate strategist and turnaround expert for small- to medium-size businesses. He lives in Los Angeles.

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