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Two sides of a coin

Is rent control the lifeline that makes living in Los Angeles possible for teachers, nurses, police, the elderly and the working poor? Or is it a stranglehold that chokes off landlords' livelihoods and devalues properties?

January 14, 2007|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

DON'T let the Hollywood lights blind you: Los Angeles is a city of renters, and without rent control, the workers who keep the city running couldn't afford to live here, tenant advocates insist.

Frail but feisty, 79-year-old Doris McKendall could be the poster child for the rent-control cause. She lives on $851 a month from Social Security and pays $653 for a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment a few blocks west of La Cienega Boulevard. When she moved there in 1984, the rent was around $400.

Spending 75% or so of one's income on housing is not unheard of in Los Angeles, a city with one of the biggest gaps between housing prices and income. It's "a perfect storm" regarding the cost of living here, said Mercedes Marquez, head of the Los Angeles Housing Department.

Of the city's 780,000 rental units, Housing Department figures show, the 1979 Rent Stabilization Ordinance covers 550,000 that had a certificate of occupancy issued on or before Oct. 1, 1978.

Without rent control, the average market-rate rent for an apartment in central Los Angeles is $1,485, as of the third quarter of 2006, said Delores Conway, director of the Casden Real Estate Economic Forecast at USC. In the West L.A. area, which includes Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and the Westside, it is $2,079. In the Hollywood, West Hollywood and North Hollywood grouping, $1,625; and in the San Fernando Valley, $1,398.

McKendall pays much less than the market rate for her neighborhood east of Cheviot Hills. Should she move out, state law allows the landlord to raise the rent as high as the market will bear. Similar apartments in the area rent for $1,000 per month.

Clearly, her landlord isn't bringing in top dollar on her unit. But that's the way it is for apartments covered by the rent stabilization ordinance, said the Housing Department's Marquez, and owners who have purchased buildings since the ordinance went into effect knew the rules when they bought.

The city's Housing Department enforces the ordinance, including the annual allowable rent increase -- currently 4% -- and the requirements for eviction and relocation assistance.

"The regulations are in the public interest," Marquez said, citing the affordable housing shortage and low vacancy rate. Without regulation, she said, disabled tenants, seniors and those on fixed incomes would suffer.

Larry Gross, executive director and one of the founders of the Coalition for Economic Survival, which has been organizing renters to fight for their rights since 1973, is more blunt.

Before rent control, he said, landlords "were increasing rent two, three, four times a year." In many cases, Gross added, speculators bought buildings, raised the rent and then made quick profits by selling to new owners, who increased rents again. Some tenants faced rents that had doubled in a matter of months, according to stories published in The Times in 1977.

Plus, Gross said, owners could evict tenants without just cause.

He and his organization participated in the campaign that resulted in the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance in 1979.

That same year, Santa Monica voters approved the Rent Control Charter Amendment, said Dennis Zane, a leader of that campaign who later went on to become mayor.

Of Santa Monica's households, 70% rent today, Zane said. The city has just over 31,000 renter-occupied units, according to 2005 census data, the most recent available. Of that number, the Rent Control Board regulates 92%. Most units built after April 10, 1979, are exempt, and owners who occupy duplexes or triplexes may apply for a temporary exemption for the building. Annually, the elected Rent Control Board determines the rent increase for eligible units -- currently 4% or $54 a month, whichever is less. The board also enforces eviction protections and mandatory maintenance, and informs tenants and owners about required relocation assistance.

"Overwhelmingly, tenants and landlords have a good relationship," Zane said. Rent control is "intended to protect tenants from those small number of property owners that behave badly and harass them."

However, he added, as it becomes possible to make more money -- as market-rate rents shoot up in Santa Monica -- landlords are "increasingly inclined to bad behavior."

As a result, more tenants are complaining.

"In the last two fiscal years, we have seen an increase in the number of formal complaints," said Adam Radinsky, who heads the consumer protection unit for the Santa Monica City Attorney's Office, which investigates those complaints. And, he said, "We are seeing increased sophistication and creativity in the types of illegal harassment that landlords are using to get tenants to leave the apartments."

Tactics include pretending not to receive the rent, trying to evict tenants on false or invalid grounds, refusing to make repairs in the hope that renters will leave and even threatening them, he said.

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