Unable to agree on a response to an 87-year-old landlady's request to nearly double the rents in her West Hollywood apartment building, the city's Rent Stabilization Commission deferred Tuesday to an earlier ruling which denies her any rent raise at all.
The commission's four members deadlocked over whether to accept a decision rendered last month by a city hearing examiner. The examiner ruled in April that landlady Mary Simonson already had received adequate rent hikes and could not receive any further increases. Because of the 2-2 tie, the examiner's decision was affirmed by default.
Simonson, who has run her nine-unit apartment building on Hancock Avenue and lived there since her husband died six years ago, has said that until 1984, she had not raised rents for more than 20 years. Claiming that her medical bills and other payments were spiraling out of control, Simonson and her caretaker, Anna Boyce, have insisted that they need to nearly double the rents, which now range from $72 to $206 a month.
After the hearing, Simonson's attorney, Craig Mordoh, said the case may be appealed to the courts. "We have to look and see if the courts can provide Mrs. Simonson with the fair return this city has denied her," he said.
The city's landlord advocate groups have rallied to Simonson's side, saying her case is crucial because it is representative of other "historically low" rent cases in the city. Mordoh, a staff attorney with the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, asked the commission to ignore the complex formula it normally uses to award rent increases to landlords who want more than their annual rent hikes (75% of the rise in the consumer price index). Instead, Mordoh argued, the commission had the authority to bypass the formula because of the peculiar circumstances of Simonson's plight and award her the doubled rents.
But two commissioners, Douglas Routh and Babette Lang, were reluctant to deviate from the rent increase formula. "We have a specific formula for West Hollywood," Lang said. "It came out of a lot of thought and debate, and we are bound by that formula they have given us."
How the Formula Works
The formula compares a landlord's net operating income from 1983 with the operating income from the most recent year. If the rise in income between the two periods does not match the regular annual rent increase figures that landlords normally receive, rents may be adjusted.
At one point, Routh and other commission members suggested that Simonson's case be held over so that new financial information could be obtained to add to the formula, which could result in a rent increase.
But Mordoh declined any further extensions. "She's already gone through 10 hours of hearings," he said after the meeting. "That's pretty hard on an 87-year-old woman. And even if we gave them the figures, I'm not at all convinced it would make any difference. They could still tell us no."
Commissioner Ruth Williams, who was sympathetic to Simonson, raised the hope that the case would spur the City Council to alter its rent control law and aid landlords with historically low rents. "This is a situation the council has to deal with," she said. "It has to be addressed."
A Voice for Low Rents
But at least one influential power bloc in the city may fight any attempts to change the rent law. "We don't want to see historically low rents lost," said Larry Gross, director of the tenant activist Coalition for Economic Survival. "This city has a lot of low-income seniors who would have no place to go if those rents were raised."
He pointed to the case of Carol Bristol, a 95-year-old woman who lives in one of Mary Simonson's apartments. "When Mr. Simonson was alive, he said he would never raise the rents as long as I lived in the apartment," said Mrs. Bristol, who pays $76 a month and says she can't afford to pay more. "He said he only wanted good tenants."
Gross suggested that instead of changing the rent law to benefit landlords with historically low rents, the City Council should consider rehabilitation grants and other programs to help them defer the costs of running their buildings.
Mordoh and other landlord leaders are pessimistic about the prospects of landlords with historically low rents receiving any aid from the council. "This is a radical rent control city," Mordoh said. "I can't see them addressing the problem."