In the first major legal challenge to West Hollywood's rent control law, a landlord has sued the city to overturn a key provision compelling apartment owners to regularly paint and replace carpets and drapes in their tenants' units.
The lawsuit, filed last week by landlord Marianne Berman in the Santa Monica district of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, also sought a restraining order to prevent West Hollywood from holding a rent administration hearing involving one of Berman's tenants. The request for the restraining order was denied by Judge David M. Rothman.
But Berman's challenge to the city's apartment maintenance standards, which was left unanswered by the judge pending a future court decision, has raised hopes among apartment owners that a weak link can be found in West Hollywood's rent law.
Heads Landlord Group
"I'm encouraged to see that somebody's trying to test what we think is an unfair and capricious law," said Grafton Tanquary, an apartment owner and spokesman for West Hollywood Concerned Citizens, an activist group dominated by landlords.
Since the West Hollywood City Council passed its stringent rent control law last June, few landlords have tried to test its legal grounding. Only three lawsuits--all against a rent freeze and rollback--have been filed against the city's rent law, and all were unsuccessful. One of the earlier lawsuits, now being reviewed by a state appellate court, was filed by Berman, city officials said.
The West Hollywood landlords' lack of interest in legal action contrasts markedly with the zeal of Santa Monica apartment owners, who filed more than 300 lawsuits against that city's rent law in the first five years of the law's existence.
Tanquary and other landlord leaders have explained their reluctance to file lawsuits by saying that many of the challenges filed by Santa Monica landlords were eventually decided in favor of that city's rent law. As a result, most provisions of West Hollywood's rent law have already been tested.
But West Hollywood's maintenance standards, which require landlords to repaint an apartment every four years and replace drapes and carpets every seven years, have almost no legal precedents.
"To my understanding, it's the only major part of the (rent) law that hasn't been tested in court," said West Hollywood Rent Administrator Adam Moos. "But the city attorney would not have allowed the council to pass it if it wasn't legally defensible."
75 Tenant Complaints
Moos said that since the rent law went into effect on Oct. 15, the city has received more than 75 tenant complaints about maintenance standards. "We've had some real examples of people who needed improvements," he said.
But in recent weeks, Craig Mordoh, a staff attorney with the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, has been reviewing the city's maintenance standards, to probe for legal weak points.
"I've been looking it over with several other attorneys in hope of filing something in the future," Mordoh said. "We think it's one of the most onerous aspects of the law. West Hollywood is trying to expand the nature of rent control and we can't find any legal justification for it."
Mordoh said he talked to attorney Martin Berman--Marianne Berman's husband and the lawyer who filed the suit on her behalf--last week. "A lot of us hope he wins," Mordoh said.
Legal Brief Filed
The Bermans, who could not be reached for comment, allege in a legal brief filed with the Superior Court that West Hollywood was not justified in passing a rent control law because a housing crisis did not exist. State courts have permitted rent control laws if communities decide that they are essential to solve housing shortages and similar crises.
Similarly, the Bermans also argue in their brief that the maintenance standards have no legal grounding. "Nothing in the (city's rent) legislation explained how imposing maintenance schedules for the benefit of tenants contributes to the remedy of the alleged critical need for rent control legislation," Martin Berman wrote.
The Bermans filed their lawsuit after a tenant, Eugene R. Scholler, asked West Hollywood's rent administration to reduce his rent because Marianne Berman had not complied with his request for painting and new carpets and drapes.
Scholler, who pays $539 a month in rent, said his carpets and drapes were worn out and his North Harper Avenue apartment had not been repainted since he moved in more than four years ago. "Everything was in terrible shape and I wasn't getting any answers from Mrs. Berman," he said.
Attempt Was Denied
Last week, a day before he and his landlord were to appear before a city rent hearing examiner, Scholler and the city were served with legal complaints by the Bermans. The Bermans' attempt to prevent the rent hearing from being held was denied, but their legal challenge to the city's maintenance provision continues.
West Hollywood Assistant City Atty. Rochelle Brown said the city's position is that the maintenance standards are "a reasonable response to a local problem."
"The rationale for the maintenance standards is that they address a lack of maintenance by landlords," Brown said. "The council felt that the standards are a means to ensure that landlords won't evade the rent control ordinance and decrease service to tenants. And courts have ruled that a decrease of service is tantamount to an illegal increase in rent."