An 87-year-old landlady, who became a heroine to West Hollywood apartment owners through her unsuccessful attempts to persuade the city's rent board to allow her to double her rents, sued the board last week to overturn its decision.
The lawsuit, filed in the Santa Monica division of Los Angeles County Superior Court, asked for a judicial order that would overturn a May ruling by West Hollywood's Rent Stabilization Commission and rule that landlady Mary Simonson had not been receiving "fair and reasonable" rents.
"We are asking the court to determine that the Rent Stabilization Commission has an obligation to consider that Mrs. Simonson's rents are considerably lower than other prevailing rents in the (West Hollywood) area," said her attorney, Christopher Harding. "Our goal is to persuade the court to rule that the commission abused its discretion by not considering the fact that her rents had been kept low for years."
Harding, who has led several major legal tests of Santa Monica's rent control law, is representing Simonson along with Craig Mordoh, an attorney with the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles. Simonson's legal costs are being paid by the Apartment Assn. and West Hollywood Concerned Citizens, a landlord advocacy group.
City officials have said that Simonson failed to show she was justified in her request to double rents in her nine-unit apartment building, where tenants pay from $72 to $206 a month. In May, deadlocking 2 to 2, the rent commission affirmed by default an earlier city hearing examiner's decision that awarded Simonson only the same 2.5% rent increase that all West Hollywood landlords were allowed to impose this year.
The frail, soft-spoken landlady's eight-month effort to raise her rents has rallied many of the city's landlords to her side. They have maintained that she is one of a number of landlords who are being forced by the city to charge "historically low rents"--rents that are depressed because they were not raised for decades and are now kept low by West Hollywood's strong rent control law.
Simonson, whose husband died six years ago, has continued to live in and run the apartment building on Hancock Avenue. She has said that until 1984, she had not raised rents for more than 20 years. Claiming that she has had to dip into her savings to pay medical bills and apartment costs, she and her caretaker, Anna Boyce, contend that they now need to nearly double the rents.
Although Mordoh said the lawsuit could take up to three years to wind its way through the courts, Simonson said she is still willing to file against the city. "It could be a long time," she said, "but it's the only thing I can do."
City officials said the lawsuit comes at an inopportune moment, just as the City Council is looking into alternatives that might help landlords with historically low rents find more relief. "I certainly think this comes at the wrong time," said Richard Dorsey Muller, interim director of the city's Rent Stabilization Department. "The council is trying to deal with the kind of problems that she is complaining about."
The council will be considering adjustments in the city's Net Operating Income formula, a complex set of calculations used to determine whether landlords can receive rent increases that are higher than the annual rates permitted by the city. And, according to Muller, the council will look into whether to allow more frequent use of a safety-valve law which lets the rent commission ignore that formula and grant any rent increase request if it finds that a landlord cannot receive a fair return under the formula's provisions.
But Boyce said that she and Simonson have waited long enough. "It's been three months since the final hearing and we haven't heard anything more from the city," Boyce said. "Mary can't keep waiting, not in her predicament."
Mordoh doubts that the City Council will come up with an alternative that might aid Simonson. He said that the only option being discussed that could help her is "a vague and nebulous attempt to define historically low rents. I don't see that helping her in any great way."
Assistant City Atty. Rochelle Brown, who has successfully defended several rent control lawsuits against the city, said Simonson did not win her rent increases because she had not proved that she was denied a fair return.
"Just to argue that she's a poor old widow isn't enough," Brown said. "Mr. Mordoh had to show that she indeed was poor and needed the rent increase she requested. The commission ruled that he had not shown adequate proof. To say now that the commission unfairly administered the law is unfounded."
City Atty. Michael Jenkins portrayed the lawsuit as another in a series of attempts by landlords to weaken West Hollywood's rent control law. "It's just counterproductive," Jenkins said. "They (landlords) are constantly taking adversarial positions when we ought to be sitting down and developing ways by which we can all live with this law."