Every Wednesday night, landlords and tenants gather in West Hollywood's City Hall for the city's Rent Stabilization Commission hearings. A meeting rarely passes without its usual complement of groans and catcalls.
But the open hostility that used to inflame the sessions has subsided as opponents and supporters of the city's complex rent ordinance struggle to live with rent control.
In the six months that the city has administered its rent law, the Rent Stabilization Department and the Rent Stabilization Commission have had to contend with the growing pains that confront any new administrative entity. Adding to the frustrations resulting from a short-handed staff still learning the Byzantine provisions of the ordinance, the rent administration has also had to satisfy the city's majority tenant constituency while not permanently alienating its landlord minority.
Flexing Their Muscles
Some of the renters who make up nearly 90% of the city's population have been quick to flex their new muscles under the law. Yet city officials and tenant advocates worry that more renters have not taken advantage of their rights. They hope that a public education campaign, which will start this week, will heighten awareness of the rent law.
For the time being, landlords have given up overt attempts to scuttle the rent control law. Instead, they are criticizing the city's administration of the law's provisions. Leaders of apartment owner groups tick off numerous complaints about the knowledge, flexibility and actions of city rent officials. But they also profess a grudging admiration for their willingness to listen and make accommodations on some policy matters.
"We've learned that it's not easy being fair," said Adam Moos, the city's rent stabilization director, who heads a staff of 20 hearing examiners, counselors and clerical workers. "We bend over backwards to listen to everyone and try to accommodate them. But people have to remember that we can only work within the parameters of the law."
West Hollywood's rent control law is a rigid one by most standards. It restricts yearly rent increases to 60% of the yearly rise in the consumer price index. It allows 10% rent increases when apartments are vacated, but only once every two years. And it has set up a system of maintenance standards, requiring landlords to repaint apartments every four years and replace drapes and carpets every seven years.
Last October, the city began the administrative process that allows tenants to request rent reductions and landlords to apply for rent increases. Since then, according to Moos, 220 tenants have asked for hearings, almost all of them requests for rent reductions or improved maintenance. And 960 landlords have asked either for vacancy increases or other adjustments.
The many requests, and the expectation that they will increase in the coming year, will most likely force an expansion of the rent control administration.
Moos is preparing a budget that would add 14 more staff members, including a conciliation counselor who could mediate landlord-tenant disputes before they reach the hearing stage. Although this year's budget figures were unavailable, it cost the city $1.4 million last year to administer rent control (the city's total expenditures last year topped $17 million).
"We've been tremendously busy," Moos said. "We're in contact with 1,700 people every month."
Meetings to Begin
Those contacts may well increase after this week, when the city launches a series of meetings to educate West Hollywood renters about the rent control law. The meetings were prompted by worries that residents had not fully taken advantage of the rent law.
"The city needs to be more aggressive in telling people about their rights," said Larry Gross, director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, the tenant advocate group that showed strong support in the city's council election earlier this month. "They need to do everything possible to make sure the law works smoothly and that nobody's time is wasted."
Much of the administration's time in the past six months has been spent investigating, researching and ruling on tenants' requests for decreases in rent. Those requests, which come in the form of applications for hearings before city examiners, appear to be the result of a new feeling of strength among renters.
"Renters feel more protections under the law and some of them obviously are taking advantage of it," Gross said.
According to Moos, the typical rent reduction request comes from a tenant who complains about a carpet that "hasn't been changed in years or an apartment that needs painting."
The cases are investigated by city rent control counselors. They photograph interiors of apartments, question tenants and landlords and review all appropriate receipts before turning over the evidence to a hearing examiner. The examiner then conducts a hearing, where both landlord and tenant are allowed to present their cases.