Grappling with the prickly issue of overcrowded rental housing, the Los Angeles City Council gave tentative approval Tuesday to a proposed ordinance restricting the number of people who can share a rented house or apartment.
After months of indecision, the council voted for a plan to limit the number of tenants according to the square footage of an apartment or rental home. Officials say, for instance, that the measure would limit to 10 the number of tenants who could live in a moderate-sized two-bedroom home.
The council also ordered the city attorney to draft a companion ordinance aimed at protecting those who could be evicted under the new law.
The council withheld a formal vote on the measure until the entire package is ready, but Tuesday's action was a clear signal that council members are ready to act on the problem.
"The people that we are trying to protect are the people who live (near) these buildings and structures that are overcrowded," said Councilman Marvin Braude, who called overcrowding "a cancer" that would lead to the city's deterioration.
"It's a major problem in this city," Councilman Joel Wachs agreed as the council voted 11 to 1 to support a recommendation by Braude's Building and Safety Committee to amend the city Building Code.
The amendment would add language requiring that "rooms used for sleeping purposes" must have at least 70 square feet of floor area for two people. Fifty more square feet of bedroom space would be required for each additional person.
Under such a formula, officials of the Community Development Department estimated, a maximum of 10 people could share a moderate-sized two-bedroom home.
Proponents of the measure--including apartment owners and landlord groups--complain that as many as two dozen people are crammed into two-bedroom apartments, creating public health problems, potential fire hazards and run-down housing.
Critics, including tenant groups, contend that the ordinance will lead to the eviction of large families--primarily in poor and minority neighborhoods--as well as students and the elderly who share housing.
The division of opinion has stalled City Council action on the issue for months. The council once approved an ordinance regulating overcrowding but reversed itself last April.
The most vehement critic Tuesday was Councilman Richard Alatorre, who cast the lone vote against the proposal. "The ordinance doesn't create any housing," he said. "All it does is move the problem. It doesn't solve the problem in any one of our districts."
John J. Graykoski, director of the Campaign for Human Development for the Catholic Charities in Los Angeles, told council members that, because it lacks protections for tenants, the ordinance is "anti-family and anti-poor" unless protections are added to help tenants.
To safeguard tenants from "frivolous" or retaliatory evictions, the council agreed to consider recommendations by the Rent Stabilization Division of the Community Development Department.
If approved, the package would require landlords to "make a good-faith effort" to provide alternative housing for tenants squeezed out by the law and to advise tenants in writing about the maximum number of occupants allowed in a rental unit.
The proposals would also allow the city attorney's office to charge landlords who allow overcrowding with a misdemeanor, punishable with a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Barbara Zeidman, director of the Rent Stabilization Division, said city building and safety inspectors would enforce the law.