In a move that provoked renewed protests this week from landlords, the West Hollywood City Council has committed itself to adopting a rent control law that would sharply limit rental increases when tenants vacate apartments.
During a series of votes designed to pave the way for a rent control law, the council last Thursday approved the concept of "vacancy decontrol," which would allow landlords to raise rents when a renter leaves an apartment. But the council also said it planned to impose a 10% cap on decontrol and said it would allow landlords to raise their rents only once during a two-year period. An apartment vacated more than once in a two-year period would not be allowed additional 10% increases.
In past weeks, the council has voted on the concepts it plans to incorporate in its permanent rent control law. A final draft is expected to be introduced next week.
In earlier sessions, the council said it expected to limit yearly rent increases on all rental units to 75% of the consumer price index. All the votes, council members said, are subject to revision.
But West Hollywood landlords fear that last week's vote is a strong indicator of the council's final position. This week, leaders of several apartment owners' groups responded by launching a petition campaign to persuade the city's tenants that unlimited vacancy decontrol is crucial to the rent law.
"Vacancy decontrol is just not acceptable if it doesn't allow rents to rise to market levels," said landlord Grafton Tanquary, who heads West Hollywood Concerned Citizens, a civic group dominated by apartment owners. "We understand the council is trying to find a middle ground, but what they're proposing doesn't give us any leeway."
The council is unlikely to moderate its stance on decontrol. Three council members--Mayor Valerie Terrigno, Alan Viterbi and Steve Schulte--voted for the 10% cap, while members John Heilman and Helen Albert argued for a 5% cap.
Landlords and their supporters contend that they would never be able to bring their units up to their full market value with a decontrol cap in place.
"The problem is that the average apartment dweller in West Hollywood stays in one apartment for five years," said Tanquary, quoting a recent council-sponsored housing survey. "In an inflationary environment, 10% over five years is nothing."
During council discussions last week, Terrigno suggested a 12% cap on decontrol, but none of the other council members supported it. When she substituted a motion with the 10% limit, only Heilman and Albert were left in opposition.
"It's still too high," said Heilman, calling for a 5% cap. He said that the average landlord pays about $1,200 for major maintenance--which he said would be covered by a 5% increase.
But Viterbi responded that a 5% cap would not leave landlords with any incentive to pay for average maintenance. "I think we'd see an actual decline in maintenance," he said. "At 5%, you'd be closing them out, giving them no incentive."
West Hollywood landlords would only accept limited decontrol if major exemptions were provided, Tanquary said. He suggested exemptions for landlords with financial hardships and a provision that would allow landlords to evict tenants to perform major rehabilitation work on their buildings.
Such an eviction provision--which is part of Los Angeles County's rent control law--would save many of West Hollywood's older apartment buildings, Tanquary said. Citing estimates that 55% of the new city's housing is at least 60 years old, Tanquary said many old buildings would fall into disrepair unless an eviction-for-rehabilitation provision was included in the city's rent law.
"Without this kind of protection, the long-term effect of a rent control law would be the eventual decay of the city's housing stock," he said.
To get their message across to the council, landlords began receiving petitions this week--calling for full vacancy decontrol--to distribute among their tenants.
If enough petitions are signed, Tanquary said, they will be sent to the council "as proof that landlords aren't the only people in West Hollywood who want full vacancy decontrol."
Tanquary said that the petitions are primarily "an educational tool. In most cases, when we sit down and explain to renters what we want, they usually end up agreeing with us."
Larry Gross, who heads the Coalition for Economic Survival, a tenants' rights organization, said the petitions were an attempt to "drive a wedge between people who are renting now and people who move into West Hollywood in the future. Their message is: You'll be taken care of, but we'll make money on people who move in later."
Gross added that under unlimited decontrol, landlords would harass renters to leave to drive up their rents once the apartments were vacant. "Under total decontrol, there would be tremendous pressure to evict tenants," he said.