Coalition Opposes Bill That Would Weaken Local Rent Controls

Times Staff Writer

A measure to weaken some local rent control laws--similar to a bill that stalled in the Senate last year--has touched off a fierce debate even before it has been assigned to a legislative committee for a hearing.

At a capital press conference Thursday, a coalition formed to oppose the bill contended that the measure "eliminates rent controls permanently." Backers denied the assertion, saying it would only slightly modify existing local ordinances.

The bill, introduced last month by Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Fresno), would allow landlords and owners of mobile home parks to raise rents without a limit when vacancies occur and would exempt single-family homes from rent controls.

The City of Santa Monica's ordinance would be especially affected because it is one of several in the state that prohibit rent increases when apartments become vacant. Other cities, such as Los Angeles, allow for increases between tenancies. There are at least 50 rent control ordinances statewide.

A coalition to preserve those laws and oppose the bill was announced at the press conference Thursday. Called Californians for Local Control, the coalition includes the Santa Monica Rent Control Board, the West Hollywood City Council, the League of California Cities, the California Labor Federation and the Golden State Mobilehome Owners League Inc.

David Finkel, chairman of the Santa Monica rent board, said the legislation means "that somebody in Sacramento is going to pull the rug out from under" cities that want to have their own ordinances.

Critics of the bill focused their anger on several issues, including the definition of single-family homes and the impact on mobile homes. They also said the bill would encourage landlords to evict tenants in order to raise rents.

In their view, the term "single-family residence" is so loosely defined in the bill that almost all housing units would be excluded from local rent controls.

They pointed to one provision in the bill that says "an owner of real property may establish the rental rate for a single-family residence occupied by a tenant, lessee, or sublessee which, if owner occupied, would be eligible for a homeowner's exemption."

Under state law, a person who lives in his or her own home can claim the homeowner's exemption for $7,000 in the assessed value on which property taxes are based.

Bob Gustafson, who interprets eligibility for such exemptions for the state Board of Equalization, said that the Costa bill's language is quite broad. As a result, he said, it may define all units, even apartments, as single-family residences and thus remove them from local rent controls.

But Stephen A. Carlsen, executive director of the California Housing Council Inc., said the intent of the bill is to exempt only single-family residences, including houses, condominiums and cooperatively owned apartments. The Housing Council is a group of large developers and is a key supporter of the Costa bill.

The critics also contend that Costa has backed away from a provision in last year's bill that allowed for rent increases only when a tenant voluntarily vacated a unit.

Terry Reardon, a Costa aide, acknowledged the wording change. But he said the old language would be restored.

Another change in the bill is that it includes mobile home parks. Last year, mobile home parks were excluded from the bill on the Assembly floor.

Craig Biddle, lobbyist for the Western Mobilehome Assn., which backs the bill, said that most local ordinances restrict rent raises when mobile homes are vacated. The intent of the bill is "that we can raise rents without any limit" between tenancies, said Biddle, whose group represents mobile home park owners and managers.

Maurice A. Priest, lobbyist for the Mobilehome Owners League, predicted that the bill would make it difficult for mobile home owners to sell their coaches because the prospective buyer could face large rent increases.

He said, "When the rent goes up, they can't just rent a U-Haul and move on to another community. We're talking about a $5,000 or $10,000 cost" to move a mobile home from a park.

Costa has said his aim is to stimulate construction of housing units. A similar Costa bill passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. Another bill carried by Assemblyman Richard Alatorre (D-Los Angeles) failed in 1983.

To succeed, supporters must overcome the opposition of Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles). Last August Roberti took credit for blocking Costa's previous rent control bill.

But Roberti has indicated that the rent control impasse could be ended if Costa could persuade Gov. George Deukmejian to help finance construction of low- and moderate-income housing.

The governor, an opponent of rent control, has agreed that a comprehensive solution must be found. But Kevin Brett, a Deukmejian spokesman, said the governor has not taken a stand on Costa's latest bill. Last year Costa's proposal was a key part of the governor's housing program.

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