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Wilson Signs Bill Limiting Rent Controls


SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation Friday allowing landlords to increase rents for new tenants in the stringent rent control cities of Santa Monica and West Hollywood and three other California cities.

Wilson, who opposes rent controls generally, had indicated that he sympathized with landlords who are prevented from raising rents when one tenant moves out and another moves in.

With the new law in place--it will be phased in over three years beginning Jan. 1--rent controls in the affected cities will be similar to those elsewhere, including Los Angeles. By those rules, rent controls remain for existing tenants but come off for incoming tenants at the start of their leases, allowing landlords to charge market rates.

Wilson said the tighter controls have caused an economic drag and a housing shortage in the two Southern California cities and in Berkeley, East Palo Alto and Cotati in Sonoma County, where they also apply.

"For too long, a handful of tenants in these cities have enjoyed extremely low rents while the need for new apartments has grown substantially," Wilson said. "By signing this bill, we are opening the door to new apartments being built" and assuring landlords enough income "to properly maintain their units."

The so-called vacancy decontrol bill (AB 1164) by Assemblyman Phil Hawkins (R-Bellflower) applies to almost all forms of residential rental property, including apartments, single-family homes, condos and townhouses--but not to mobile home parks or commercial property.

In the phase-in period, landlords will twice be permitted to raise rents 15% of market value, and at the end of three years can raise them to whatever the market will bear. Tenants occupying units after the law takes effect will be subject to the increases depending on when they move in.

Tenants moving in before the law takes effect, and staying put, avoid the increases.

A landlord risks losing the chance to raise rents if properties are found to have serious health, safety, fire or building code violations that have gone uncorrected for six months or more.

Opponents have said the state has no business intruding on local housing ordinances that they say protect rights, not privileges. Members of the Santa Monica Rent Board expressed the fear earlier that the new law could be the first step in abolishing all forms of rent control.

"To me the great irony is that the very representatives of local control have decided to intervene statewide. That's an outrage," said Robert Niemann, a Santa Monica Rent Board commissioner. "They're imposing state control on what should be a local matter."

Niemann said that the law will affect not only new tenants, who will eventually be paying market rates, but could potentially hit existing tenants.

"You've got a great incentive to owners to get tenants to move" so that they can raise rents, he said.

Wilson on Friday also signed a bill that ensures that victims of crimes can be present during criminal proceedings against their alleged assailants. The legislation, (AB 149) by Assemblyman Bill Hoge (R-Pasadena), prevents various courtroom tactics by defense attorneys to exclude victims on the grounds that their presence might prejudice a jury.

Wilson said the bill "will preserve victims' rights without having a negative effect on a defendant's right to a fair trial."

Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren said: "It's about time that the system started working for crime victims and stopped catering to criminal defendants."

Times staff writer Susan Moffat in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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