Budd Kopps, landlord, has been getting practice lately in the art of public speaking. Last Sunday, Kopps took the podium in a crowded auditorium in West Hollywood's Plummer Park to rage about what many of the new city's apartment owners fear is the coming apocalypse of rent control.
"Are you trying to create a state of war between landlords and tenants?" he roared at West Hollywood council members John Heilman and Helen Albert, who are conducting public hearings to develop a rent-control law. "It sure sounds like the beginning of World War III to me."
Crucial Period Ahead
The war of rhetoric between West Hollywood's landlords and tenants, which flared last summer during the city's incorporation campaign and then subsided after the November election as the city's new council members became preoccupied with other matters, has returned in full force.
This month looms as the crucial period for both sides. As the City Council prepares to draft its permanent rent-control ordinance in March, landlord and tenant groups have stepped up public posturing and private lobbying to influence the law's final wording.
But what once seemed like an unavoidable future of mass lawsuits and bitter political confrontations--akin to Santa Monica's volatile post-rent-control years--may be averted. Council members, landlord organizers and tenant activists now hint cautiously that a compromise rent control measure is in sight.
"I think there's good potential for a middle ground," said Councilman Alan Viterbi. "People are always bringing up Santa Monica and all the problems it's had. But this is West Hollywood and I think we're going to be able to fit a rent control law to our needs."
Council Stances on Controls
A strong ordinance became a foregone conclusion last November when West Hollywood voters elected five rent-control advocates to the City Council. Two, Albert and Heilman, are members of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a tenant activist group pushing for strong rent control.
Council members Viterbi and Valerie Terrigno received the coalition's backing in the final days of the campaign. The fifth member, Steve Schulte, has been regarded as slightly more moderate on rent control. But Schulte still favored a measure considerably tougher than the county rent control law, which allowed a 9% rent hike each year in West Hollywood until the new council adopted a temporary rent freeze and rollback a month after the election.
Before their elections, the five council members called for limiting yearly rent hikes on rent-controlled apartments to the annual increase in the consumer price index (or at least a percentage of that increase) and protecting renters from eviction without just cause.
Despite the council's predisposition to strong rent control, the members differ markedly over other key provisions. The range of opinion is perhaps greatest over how much rents would be allowed to rise after tenants vacate an apartment.
Landlords have presented a united front, insisting that they will not settle for less than full vacancy decontrol, which would allow them to raise rents as high as necessary to make a fair profit when apartments become vacant.
"The whole issue is vacancy decontrol," said Richard Klugh, who owns 14 apartment units in Santa Monica and eight units in the 900 block of N. Spaulding Avenue in West Hollywood. "If we get it, West Hollywood will have what Los Angeles has--virtually no lawsuits and a reasonably happy landlord population."
'A Release Valve'
Grafton Tanqueray, a West Hollywood landlord who heads Concerned Citizens of West Hollywood, a community association allied closely to the interests of property owners, said vacancy decontrol was necessary "as a release valve for landlords."
Tanqueray said with full decontrol, landlords could recover losses from maintaining rent-controlled apartments by raising rents when units become vacant. "It's the only way our properties can retain their market value," he said. "With decontrol, we'd be able to keep pace with maintenance costs."
Opposing the landlords is the Coalition for Economic Survival, which wants full vacancy controls. "We couldn't bankrupt the landlords even if we wanted to," said the coalition's coordinator, Larry Gross. "They just don't want any form of rent control and they're trying to hold the line any way they can. As long as there are no vacancy controls, landlords will have incentive to evict tenants whenever they want to make more money."
Unlike the landlord organizers, who have packed recent rent-control hearings with apartment owners heckling control supporters with cries of "Go back to Russia!" tenant activists have had a hard time matching the landlords' numbers.