Mary Simonson is an unlikely heroine. Prone to frequent falls, the frail 87-year-old widow hobbles about on an aluminum cane. Her hearing is poor, her memory suspect. She shies away from speaking in public and with strangers; her timid conversations are limited to one or two words.
Yet Simonson's quest to raise rents in her nine-unit stucco apartment building on Hancock Avenue, not far from West Hollywood's City Hall, has become a cause celebre among local landlords. In a city where they have had to adjust to annual rent increases that inch upwards, Mary Simonson is trying to double her rents.
"I think it's a fair rent to ask for," Simonson says.
Her request has forced West Hollywood's Rent Stabilization Commission to grapple with a potentially precedent-setting issue.
Before her case reached the commission last week, all landlords who petitioned for rent increases were granted or denied requests under a complex formula codified in the city's rent control law. Simonson is asking the commission to ignore the formula altogether and grant her the doubled rents because she has not raised rents for more than 20 years and is financially strapped.
"The problem with laws of this complexity is that lawmakers always assume the real world out there is like their own personal experience," said Grafton Tanquary, president of West Hollywood Concerned Citizens, a landlord lobbying group. "Well, it isn't always like that. Here is a woman who's being hurt in the process."
Last week, Simonson appeared at a commission hearing to press her case. She watched silently while Craig Mordoh, a staff attorney with the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, represented her before the commission. "She is a low-income, elderly landlord," he said. "If she was a tenant, you would decrease her rent without blinking an eye."
In the end, the commission decided to hold off on a ruling, at least until later this week. But comments from the four commissioners at the hearing indicated they were split.
Mordoh and other landlord leaders have long insisted that Simonson, whose apartments now rent for as low as $72 a month, is not unique among landlords in West Hollywood. Mordoh says there are scores of other landlords in similar situations, all of whom have failed to raise rents for years and now are prohibited from increasing them to market rates.
"I would guess at least 25% of the landlords in West Hollywood have rents of $200 per month or less," Mordoh said. "They've gone for years without raising rents, either because they had good relations with theirtenants or they felt they could make do with the rents they had. Now, they're trapped with those rents."
City officials regard such figures with skepticism. A survey conducted by the city in April, 1985, found, for example, that in the area where Simonson owns her apartments, the average monthly rent rate is $556.
"The issue is a very tricky one," said Adam Moos, the director of the city's Rent Stabilization Department. "How do you define historically low rents? And even when you have extremely low rents, you have to be careful in determining why they are so low."
In Simonson's case, according to her nurse, Anna Boyce, 70, it was timidity and ignorance of the law that kept her from raising her rents for more than 20 years. "She doesn't like to get into confrontations," said Boyce, who has managed Simonson's affairs for the past two years and often speaks for her patient.
A neighboring landlord, Claire Anderson, said she once asked Simonson why she hadn't raised rents in the years before rent control was imposed (Los Angeles County imposed rent control in 1978 and West Hollywood replaced that law with its own ordinance in 1985).
"I said, 'All you have to do is just call up your tenants and tell them the rent is going up,' " Anderson said. "And she said, 'Oh, no. I couldn't do that. They'd all get so mad.' "
Simonson has run the apartments, and lived in a basement unit, since her husband died 27 years ago. They had lived in one of the apartments since 1935, when he and his brother built them.
Boyce lives in another of the units, and spends most of her day with Simonson, taking her on short strolls about her apartment patio and driving her to church once a week. "She keeps to herself most of the time," Boyce said, while Simonson nodded.
According to Boyce, it wasn't until June, 1984, more than five years after the county rent control law took effect, that Simonson finally raised her rents.
According to Mordoh, Simonson was reluctant to take advantage of the county law's limited rent increases because "she has never understood much about the proper operation of her building." And that increase was nullified a year later when West Hollywood's rent law went into effect.
Simonson, who was granted the routine city rent increase in 1985, was left with monthly rent rates that range from $72 to $206 a month for the units that are either single rooms or one-bedroom apartments.