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L.B. Rent-Control Advocates Prepare Another Campaign

August 09, 1987|ROXANA KOPETMAN | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — In a room where empty chairs greatly outnumbered those that were occupied, Ruth Coffey urged the 15 or so people gathered to go out and talk to their neighbors about rent control.

Don Alexander--calling rent gouging "a form of servitude to the landlord"--gave a similar message in a different way. He belted out in a deep voice a line from an old black spiritual: "let my people go."

That first community meeting--held in a hot church basement last weekend--was the humble beginning of a movement supporters hope will place a rent stabilization initiative on the ballot next year.

"None of us are here because we're that altruistic or idealistic, but because we're fighting for survival," Coffey told the small group at the St. John Baptist Church.

Leaders of the Long Beach Coalition for Rent Stabilization hope to get organized by November, when they plan a petition drive for 25,000 signatures. For some of them, it's deja vu. Long Beach voters rejected a rent-control proposal in 1979 and supporters failed to get enough registered voters' signatures on an initiative drive in 1981.

Previous Proposals Failed

Since then, they also have repeatedly failed to persuade city officials to adopt rent controls or to place the issue on the ballot. And on Tuesday, the majority of the City Council reiterated its strong distaste for any form of rent control when it turned down a proposal by Councilman Warren Harwood for a 60-day freeze on rent increases at mobile-home parks.

Betsy Stroud-Cunningham, chairwoman of the coalition, knows the fight ahead won't be easy. She said that Long Beach Area Citizens Involved--a liberal, activist political organization--is the only group that has backed the coalition so far.

"At this point, we're sort of bumbling through this," she said. But more community meetings and collecting signatures outside supermarkets--as volunteers did for the first time June 6--will lead to greater community awareness of the initiative drive, she said. Supporters have 281 names so far; they need 14,488 valid registered voters' signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

"I get very discouraged watching people get evicted--especially those on low income," said Stroud-Cunningham, a paralegal with the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach. "It makes me sick.

"The rents have continued to escalate, and affordable housing is not a reality here. The developers are taking over the City of Long Beach."

Those who oppose rent control say it would discourage new construction and deter landlords from fixing up buildings, thus leading to slums.

'Money Would Move Elsewhere'

"A city with rent control does not get investment," said Carter M. Comaford, a board member of the Apartment Assn. of California Southern Cities.

Long Beach is "just getting started" with the construction of new rental units, Comaford said. The city has 93,000 rentals and 70,000 single-family dwellings, according to Comaford. About 1,000 new rental units are expected to be completed before the end of the year, he said.

In contrast, Anaheim--whose population is roughly half that of Long Beach--expects 6,000 new units this year, and Sacramento will have 4,000, he said.

"Long Beach is finally arriving at substantial apartment development. It's been delayed. And rent control would just pinch that off. The money would move elsewhere," he said.

Long Beach has enough of a supply to give people a chance to "shop" and therefore has no need for rent control, said Councilwoman Jan Hall, echoing the opinions of most of her colleagues.

Rising Vacancy Rate

According to a just-completed study by the apartment association, the vacancy rate in Long Beach is rising--it was 5.6% as of July. It is much higher than the 1.9 % rate in surrounding communities. Comaford's study surveyed 8,000 units, including 4,000 in Long Beach.

The coalition is proposing, among other things, to: roll back rents to Jan. 1 of this year; allow annual rent increases of 75% of the Consumer Price Index, with a maximum allowable increase of 7% with exceptions to be approved by a Rent Stabilization Board; require that units remain under rent control when they are vacated and re-rented; make landlords show just cause to evict a tenant.

Stroud-Cunningham said her group does not want to "take advantage of residential landlords." Making a profit is fine, she said, but rent gouging is not.

While the coalition proposes allowing rent increases in apartments and other dwellings, it seeks more restrictive provisions for mobile-home parks so that their tenants will not face automatic annual increases.

Mobile-home owners, coalition leaders say, say they face a unique situation: Most own their own homes but must rent the land they occupy. Their homes may be called mobile, but it is difficult and costly to move them. Further, they say, there are very few places that can accommodate them.

Support From Trailer Owners

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