The City Council will hold its first serious public discussions tonight about whether to pass a rent control law.
After trying for more than a year to mediate a dispute between landlords and mostly elderly renters in the city's four mobile home parks, council members will consider a range of options from stiff rent control to a moratorium on rent increases--or no rent control at all.
If passed, Lake Forest would be only the third city in Orange County to have a rent stabilization law.
Although a rent control law probably won't be voted on tonight, the public session should clear up where a divided council stands on the issue, council members said.
"Certainly we should have some idea what direction we want to take," said Mayor Ann Van Haun.
The council is evenly split on rent control, with Van Haun holding the swing vote. The mayor said she will discuss the options before deciding how to vote, although "one would have to be totally insensitive and blind to look at these senior citizens (living in the mobile home parks) and feel that there is no problem there at all."
Council members Richard T. Dixon and Helen Wilson have expressed concerns about government regulation of private business.
"I'm very empathetic to the situation the tenants are in," Dixon said, "but I don't feel government regulation is the answer here."
However, council members Marcia Rudolph and Tim Link favor some form of rent control.
"I have supported rent control from Day One," Link said. "I also feel that private property should have as little regulation as possible, but I really feel it is time to do something. These people are our grandparents; they brought us up, and now they're being taken advantage of."
Rent control has been an emotional issue for more than a year. Senior citizens are an overwhelming majority in the four mobile home parks, and more than 100 park residents are expected to attend the council meeting tonight.
The residents said some rent increases have ballooned monthly payments from $140 to $600. Park landlords said that a rent control ordinance isn't needed, because most of the tenants have signed long-term leases.
The council has tried to get both sides to resolve their dispute at the negotiating table. They have used city staff as mediators, agreed to hire professional intermediaries and, finally, offered binding arbitration to both sides in September.
With tenants and landlords no closer to an agreement on the main issues--rent stabilization and rent rollbacks--than when the dispute started, council members reluctantly agree that it's time for a vote.
"We tried to get these folks to help themselves," Van Haun said. "But now it's decision time for us, and it's time to set emotions aside and not let them guide us. We want to do what's fair for everyone."