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City Council tentatively blocks rent hikes

Ordinance may allow an exemption for landlords with five or fewer units. The next vote is two weeks away.

May 08, 2010|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times

A divided Los Angeles City Council voted Friday to draft an ordinance preventing the owners of thousands of apartments from imposing an optional 3% rent increase between now and Oct. 31.

On an 8-6 vote, the council asked City Atty. Carmen Trutanich to prepare a rent moratorium for buildings constructed before 1978 that have six or more units, a group that is governed by the city's rent control law.

However, council members moved at the last minute to spare owners of rent-controlled buildings with five units or fewer, a group they called "mom and pop landlords." That drew complaints from Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a renters rights group.

"We won a little, but not enough," he said.

Housing officials said at least 200,000 of the city's 630,000 rent-controlled apartments would qualify for the exemption, which was proposed by Councilwoman Janice Hahn.

Councilman Richard Alarcon promised to try to rework Hahn's changes in two weeks, when the proposed ordinance goes before the council. "The 61% of families who are living in rental situations deserve to not have an increase in their rents during these horrid economic times," he said.

Six council members voted against the proposal: Paul Koretz, Tom LaBonge, Jan Perry, Bernard C. Parks, Greig Smith and Dennis Zine. Before the vote, Koretz voiced sympathy for building owners, saying they are also struggling in the recession.

"They're trying to avoid losing their buildings," he said.

Advocates on both sides of the issue packed the council chamber and submitted more than 200 requests to speak on the proposal, with half in favor and half opposed. Nevertheless, Councilman Herb Wesson persuaded his colleagues to vote without hearing testimony so that he could see his new granddaughter, who was born Friday morning.

"Let's just vote," said Wesson, pointing out that another vote will happen in two weeks anyway. "I really want to go hold my granddaughter."

Under the city's housing law, owners of rent-controlled properties are eligible to impose 3% rent increases on July 1.

Opponents of the moratorium said they would ask the county to lower their taxes by reassessing their property values downward if the measure passes. Supporters pointed out that owners of rent-controlled buildings will still be allowed to pass various costs, including repairs, to tenants.

A landlord who seeks to upgrade the plumbing, electrical or heating systems would need to submit a Tenant Habitability Plan spelling out steps to minimize any disruption of tenants, said Anna Ortega, assistant director of the Housing Department's rent division. Once the plan is approved, a landlord may submit an application to pass along the cost of the repairs over a 15-year period, with a maximum increase of 10%.

Such requests can take from 45 days to six months, housing officials said. Landlords can also seek permission to impose rent hikes that are larger than those allowed under the city's housing law if they have not sought any increases in recent years.

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