Marina del Rey landlords and tenants say they are dissatisfied with a mediation system established by the county to handle rent increase disputes that are occurring as the county's rent controls expire this year.
Because mediators cannot force an agreement on either side, a landlord can still impose his original rent increase after mediation concludes. Tenants have three alternatives: to pay the increase, move out or sue their landlord if they believe they have a grievance.
Some mediation sessions, however, have led to lower rent increases or improvements at individual units.
John Farley, a division chief with the Department of Community and Senior Citizen Services, said that 54 marina tenants have signed up for mediation. But 22 have dropped out before completing the process.
Farley said that more tenants would benefit if they stuck with the program. "It's not profitable to sit on the sidelines and say the thing won't work when you haven't gone through it," Farley said. "There are agreements that have been reached in some cases that I view as positive to both the landlords and tenants."
In four of the 32 completed cases, mediation resulted in smaller rent increases, according to Farley. In nine cases, the landlords agreed to stretch rent increases over several months, rather than imposing them all at once. And in three cases, landlords agreed to clean apartments, paint or make other improvements before charging the higher rent. Of the remaining 16 cases, nine sessions produced no change in the rent increases and seven are yet to be scheduled.
Farley called the results good, but admitted that some tenants have spurned mediation because of the small percentage of lower rents secured for others.
Mediation was proposed by Supervisor Deane Dana and approved by the Board of Supervisors as a way to ease the end of rent control in unincorporated areas of the county. Rent limits in those areas expire this year on the anniversary date of each lease.
Only 571 of the marina's 5,813 apartments remained under rent control at the beginning of September. By the end of the year all apartments will be decontrolled.
Rents have increased as much as 45% in some units, an informal Times survey showed earlier this year. Rent increases were limited to 9% under the county rent control law.
The Board of Supervisors designed mediation only for disputes arising from evictions and rent increases triggered by the end of rent control. Tenants must pay a $10 fee when filing and another $10 when the first session is held. Landlords pay a $50 fee at the first session.
Mediators come from varied backgrounds and receive 24 hours of training. Most three-member mediation boards include a tenant, a landlord and a "neutral" party.
One mediator makes a preliminary telephone call to each party in the dispute to discuss the case and then convenes the first mediation session. If the parties cannot reach an agreement, a second session is conducted with three mediators. The mediators can ask questions and attempt to promote a discussion between landlords and tenants, but landlords cannot be compelled to lower rents.
Renters have tried to use the mediation sessions to discuss their landlords' expenses and profits, mediators said.
Landlords prefer to use the sessions to talk about the "market rent" for an apartment. They believe that the best way to justify a higher rent is to show that other renters in the same building are paying much higher rents, mediators said. Rents in the higher priced units were raised some time ago when tenants moved out, decontrolling those apartments.
Herbert Gleicke, whose rent on a one-bedroom apartment at the Marina City Club jumped 21% in August--to $1,040 from $859--made objections that were echoed by many other tenants.
The 10-year marina resident said he had hoped that his mediation board would order his landlord to scale back the increase, but found that his landlord was free to raise rents to any level.
Gleicke said he tried to show that his landlord could charge a much smaller increase and still make a fair profit. Gleicke said representatives of the Marina City Club brought documentation to one meeting but that a mediator would not let him see the papers.
According to the ordinance, a mediator may require a landlord to supply documents regarding the costs of operating a building. But mediators usually decline to ask for the information or to turn it over to tenants.
Even if they can get information from a landlord's records, tenants said, the ordinance gives them no leverage to use the data to justify a lower rent.
Gleicke said the ordinance had no teeth.
An officials in the county counsel's office admitted that there has been confusion among tenants, landlords and even mediators about what documents can be required and who can see them.