When it comes to redecorating, everyone has an opinion.
John Parks thought the red paint he was swabbing on the side of his West Hollywood apartment building was appropriate. "This city is getting a rent control law that's as close to communism as you can get," the landlord said, rubbing at a streak of red paint that flecked his chin.
Valerie Terrigno, the mayor of West Hollywood, thought a softer pastel was in order. "It looked pretty sloppy to me," she said. "But judging from the shape that building was in, any color would have been preferable. It's a shame more landlords don't take that kind of initiative."
Parks and several landlord friends began painting his white clapboard apartment building Soviet-red on Tuesday to protest the direction the West Hollywood City Council is taking in discussions on a permanent rent control law.
In its weekly session last Thursday, the council took several preliminary votes on the ordinance: It decided that yearly rent increases would be limited to 75% of the annual rise in the consumer price index; it made permanent a temporary rent rollback to levels of Aug. 6, 1984, and in its most controversial move, decided to enact some sort of vacancy decontrol that would allow landlords to raise rents after a tenant has vacated an apartment.
Landlords, hoping for what they characterize as a "moderate" rent law, said the Thursday votes were evidence that the council intends to pass a restrictive law that could polarize West Hollywood tenants and apartment owners.
Again raising the specter of Santa Monica rent control, West Hollywood landlords claimed that although there were obvious differences between the approaches taken by the two cities, the outcome will eventually be the same--tough controls on rents and a refusal by landlords to pay for anything more than basic maintenance.
"In the end, what's the difference between Santa Monica and West Hollywood? Nothing," said landlord Joel Weissman, whose paint-spattered T-shirt bore the legend: "Keep Communism Out of West Hollywood." He added, "It's like the difference between having Charles Manson or Adolf Hitler as your dinner guest. Sooner or later, you're going to die."
Weissman and other apartment owners said the annual rent increase proposed by the council was too low. And although landlords have been pressuring the council for vacancy decontrol, several spokesmen said the version being discussed does not go far enough.
Grafton Tanquary, president of West Hollywood Concerned Citizens, a civic group dominated by landlords, said that council members Thursday discussed a 5% or 10% cap on decontrols--a percentage "that wouldn't leave us with much of anything. The numbers they're talking about aren't adequate to help us maintain our housing stock."
Councilman Alan Viterbi responded angrily to those complaints, saying council members had "bent over backwards" to accommodate landlords.
"The fact that there will be a decontrol factor is significant," he said. "It seems to me that landlords should be happy the council agrees on some kind of decontrol. I think landlords tend to forget that a majority of West Hollywood voted for the present council because they wanted strong rent control."
Tanquary and other landlords also criticized the council for ignoring the results of a housing survey it ordered a month ago. Tanquary said the survey showed that in the past two years, nearly 60% of the tenants polled had not received any rent increases.
Landlords also pointed to survey results that showed that average annual rent increases in West Hollywood in recent years have been about 3%--keeping pace with the consumer price index--and that 56% of the tenants polled indicated that maintenance in their units was "good or very good."
"It's proof that the kind of rent control the council is talking about isn't needed," Tanquary said. "Even under the county rent control that everyone criticized for being so weak, a majority of tenants didn't have any rent increases."
But council members and rent control backers said landlords were manipulating survey results.
"He neglects to mention that the survey points out that many tenants had just moved into West Hollywood," Mayor Terrigno said. "In many of those cases, the landlords had raised rents before the new tenants moved in. Of course they're not going to get hit with an immediate increase."
Larry Gross, coordinator of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a pro-rent control activist group, said his interpretation of the survey results showed that tenants needed strong rent control.
"You can use these statistics any way you want," he said. "What intrigued us are the figures that show 78% of the owners of these buildings live outside West Hollywood and only 18% live in the buildings they own. And only 22% of the buildings have four units or less. The landlords have tried to portray themselves as small owners who have a stake in West Hollywood. These statistics show otherwise."