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Neighborhoods

The goal of the first generation of homeowners associations in Los Angeles was to segregate themselves from minorities. The idea that these neighborhoods, whether they be Los Feliz or West Hills, were to be kept separate from the rest of the city remained a potent one. It was neighborhood power that drove the tax revolt of the 1970s, the slow growth movement of the 1980s and the Valley secession movement in the ‘90s and 00s. 

The threat of Valley secession, as well as the election of Mayor Richard Riordan, led to the charter-reform process in the late ‘90s, which created neighborhood councils — locally elected bodies with "advisory" roles.

"Once the system got set up, the homeowner groups were not very happy about it, because they couldn't run it," says Professor Raphael Sonenshein, former executive director for the appointed charter commission. "Because for it to work, the city had to prove that everybody could participate."

And so today, 12 years later, we're left with a sort of parallel structure of neighborhood power. If an elected official cares about the voice of neighborhood activists, he or she will often send a representative to both neighborhood council and neighborhood association meetings. One group is elected and given a modest amount of money from the city, the other isn't, but their concerns are often the same, and so is their membership.

"It's the same people with different hats, as far as I can tell," says political consultant Parke Skelton.

Take Judy Price. She's president of the Valley Glen Neighborhood Association (neighborhood associations are more inclusive than homeowners associations, and not as well funded) and vice president of the Greater Valley Glen Council. Within her middle-class suburban neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, she is an important political figure.

Neighborhoods provide a countervailing force — perhaps the only countervailing force — to unions and developers, which are almost always aligned in a pro-growth agenda. Neighborhood power tends to be a negative power — that is, they’re good at stopping things, but not much else.

Their influence comes not from their money but from the time they’re willing to put into their pet causes — volunteering and simply showing up to vote.

"They've got more divisions on the ground than just about anyone else, with the exception of labor, of course," says Skelton. "And the labor strength tends to be in districts where the homeowner associations are weaker."

Some on the city council, like Paul Krekorian (who represents District 2 in the San Fernando Valley) and Bill Rosendahl (District 11 on the Westside), are extremely receptive to the views of their neighborhood councils. Others, like Bernard Parks (District 8 in South L.A.), are less so.  

"The neighborhood councils are supposed to advise the city council on the local issues," says Shawn Simmons, president of the North Area Neighborhood Development Council in South L.A. "But if you have a city councilmember like Bernard Parks, who has disdain for the neighborhood council system, you can't advise him for shit, because he doesn't take your calls."

Author and commentator D.J. Waldie saw much promise in the early days of the neighborhood council system, but he’s disappointed with the results:

"I thought back in 1999 that the neighborhood councils might be a kind of elementary school for training people how to be more civically engaged in Los Angeles. That hasn't worked out yet, in part because of the malign influence of the city council and the mayor's office, in part because the neighborhood councils have been poorly funded and have not been given as much education as they could have on how to get things done, and partly because the developer/lobbyist complex downtown views the neighborhood councils as just a crowd of potential NIMBYists who stop them from developing stuff.”

Professor Sonenshein says the problem isn't budgets that are too small but having budgets in the first place:

"They weren't supposed to get any money. They were supposed to advise. The city would pay their expenses. You give people a small amount of money to fight over, that's all that's gonna matter, and they're gonna lose focus on their mission, and they did."

"But I'm still a believer," he adds. "I still think the system can work."

Judy Price, president of the Valley Glen Neighborhood Association

"The most powerful 'social movement' in contemporary Southern California is that of affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in the defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity."

—Mike Davis, City of Quartz

"If you've got a network of 2,500 people in a council district you can rely on to harangue the council member every time anyone wants to build an addition to their garage, you have a substantial force."

—Parke Skelton, political consultant

"We talk about the 'Arab Spring' — we had a Los Angeles Spring back in 1999. We're still waiting for the summer to come."

D.J. Waldie, author and commentator

Number of neighborhood councils:

95

Budget for each:

$40,500

"To promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs, a citywide system of neighborhood councils, and a Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is created. Neighborhood councils shall include representatives of the many diverse interests in communities and shall have an advisory role on issues of concern to the neighborhood."

City Charter, Article IX, Section 900

Greater Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council

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