Claiming that intimidation by landlords has discouraged some renters from taking full advantage of West Hollywood's year-old rent control law, tenant activists are pressing for a new anti-harassment ordinance.
In recent weeks, Larry Gross, coordinator of the Coalition for Economic Survival, the grass-roots tenant group that has become West Hollywood's strongest political force, has floated the idea among city officials and council members.
"People seem receptive," Gross said. "There needs to be a way to ensure that tenants can exercise their rights under the rent control law without any fear."
Even leaders of the city's landlord organizations say they would welcome an anti-harassment law, but only if it applied equally to tenants. "Harassment is in the eye of the beholder," said Budd Kops, a landlord activist who manages 59 rental units. "What's fair is fair for both sides."
But the law Gross envisions would apply strictly to landlords. Although his anti-harassment proposal is still vague (members of his organization have only begun to research similar statutes in other cities), Gross talks of a broadly worded law that would define harassment and assess civil penalties for violators.
Gross has claimed that in recent months, he has received a growing number of tenant complaints about landlord harassment. "We think it's a problem that's getting worse," he said. "We're worried that some tenants keep quiet and decide not to apply for rent reductions they're entitled to rather than put up with constant harassment from their landlords."
Richard Dorsey Muller, the acting director of the city's Rent Stabilization Department, said rent officials have seen no indication of a worsening problem. Yet Muller supports the idea of an anti-harassment law.
"We've come to the belief that some kind of provision should be considered by the City Council," he said. "We think it would assist the (county) sheriff's deputies, who answer a lot of these complaints, and it would be a guide to landlords and could prevent some of these situations."
Muller said his department will study the harassment question and report to the City Council in late summer, when the council is expected to review of its rent control law. But Gross hopes that the city attorney's office could draw up an anti-harassment ordinance for council consideration by the end of the month.
Gross points to anti-harassment law in the Los Angeles city code as one possible model. The Los Angeles law, which carries civil penalties, prevents landlords from interfering with tenants by "threat, fraud, intimidation, coercion, duress or by the maintenance or toleration of a public nuisance."
Yet the Los Angeles law, Gross readily admits, is rarely enforced, largely because of two problems that might also weaken any anti-harassment law in West Hollywood: Harassment is not easily defined and not easily proved.
To tenant Patrick Wall, who lives near West Hollywood's western edge, harassment consists of veiled threats and dead rats left in his garden. Wall's battles with his landlady have reached such proportions that the two are forbidden by court restraining order from annoying each other.
But to landlord Fred Maidenberg, who owns a 27-unit apartment building on the city's east side, harassment is a set of drapes sliced to shreds. Maidenberg has claimed that a tenant destroyed the drapes in order to get them replaced under West Hollywood's strict maintenance standards. "I don't know if that's harassment, but I can't come up with any other name for it," Maidenberg said.
"There are bad guys on both sides," said Grafton Tanquary, the landlord who heads West Hollywood Concerned Citizens, an activist group of apartment owners. "There are always certain tenants and landlords who are difficult to get along with. But if this city is truly evenhanded, it has to afford protections for everyone."
West Hollywood's rent control law complicates the picture further. Both tenant and landlord activists say they have noticed new forms of harassment, with renters and apartment owners using the rent law's provisions to harass each other.
"It's not just threats and obscenities," Gross said. "Harassment can also be a landlord who says the only way he'll put in a new carpet is if an elderly tenant moves the furniture."
According to Tanquary, there are similar cases of renter harassment. "We're getting tenants demanding all kinds of services under the rent control law," he said. "Just recently, I heard of a case where the city health department told a landlord that his roof was unsafe. But one of the tenants, who liked to sunbathe up on the roof, couldn't get up there anymore, so he demanded a rent reduction because his services had been reduced.
"These kinds of problems used to be worked out together between tenant and landlord," Tanquary said. "Now they have become demands."