West Hollywood Wrangles Over Shape of Rent Law

Times Staff Writer

Budd Kopps, landlord, has been getting practice lately in the art of public speaking. Last Sunday, Kopps took the podium in a crowded auditorium in West Hollywood's Plummer Park to rage about what many of the new city's apartment owners fear is the coming apocalypse of rent control.

"Are you trying to create a state of war between landlords and tenants?" he roared at West Hollywood council members John Heilman and Helen Albert, who are conducting public hearings to develop a rent-control law. "It sure sounds like the beginning of World War III to me."

Crucial Period Ahead

The war of rhetoric between West Hollywood's landlords and tenants, which flared last summer during the city's incorporation campaign and then subsided after the November election as the city's new council members became preoccupied with other matters, has returned in full force.

This month looms as the crucial period for both sides. As the City Council prepares to draft its permanent rent-control ordinance in March, landlord and tenant groups have stepped up public posturing and private lobbying to influence the law's final wording.

But what once seemed like an unavoidable future of mass lawsuits and bitter political confrontations--akin to Santa Monica's volatile post-rent-control years--may be averted. Council members, landlord organizers and tenant activists now hint cautiously that a compromise rent control measure is in sight.

"I think there's good potential for a middle ground," said Councilman Alan Viterbi. "People are always bringing up Santa Monica and all the problems it's had. But this is West Hollywood and I think we're going to be able to fit a rent control law to our needs."

Council Stances on Controls

A strong ordinance became a foregone conclusion last November when West Hollywood voters elected five rent-control advocates to the City Council. Two, Albert and Heilman, are members of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a tenant activist group pushing for strong rent control.

Council members Viterbi and Valerie Terrigno received the coalition's backing in the final days of the campaign. The fifth member, Steve Schulte, has been regarded as slightly more moderate on rent control. But Schulte still favored a measure considerably tougher than the county rent control law, which allowed a 9% rent hike each year in West Hollywood until the new council adopted a temporary rent freeze and rollback a month after the election.

Before their elections, the five council members called for limiting yearly rent hikes on rent-controlled apartments to the annual increase in the consumer price index (or at least a percentage of that increase) and protecting renters from eviction without just cause.

Despite the council's predisposition to strong rent control, the members differ markedly over other key provisions. The range of opinion is perhaps greatest over how much rents would be allowed to rise after tenants vacate an apartment.

United Front

Landlords have presented a united front, insisting that they will not settle for less than full vacancy decontrol, which would allow them to raise rents as high as necessary to make a fair profit when apartments become vacant.

"The whole issue is vacancy decontrol," said Richard Klugh, who owns 14 apartment units in Santa Monica and eight units in the 900 block of N. Spaulding Avenue in West Hollywood. "If we get it, West Hollywood will have what Los Angeles has--virtually no lawsuits and a reasonably happy landlord population."

'A Release Valve'

Grafton Tanqueray, a West Hollywood landlord who heads Concerned Citizens of West Hollywood, a community association allied closely to the interests of property owners, said vacancy decontrol was necessary "as a release valve for landlords."

Tanqueray said with full decontrol, landlords could recover losses from maintaining rent-controlled apartments by raising rents when units become vacant. "It's the only way our properties can retain their market value," he said. "With decontrol, we'd be able to keep pace with maintenance costs."

Opposing the landlords is the Coalition for Economic Survival, which wants full vacancy controls. "We couldn't bankrupt the landlords even if we wanted to," said the coalition's coordinator, Larry Gross. "They just don't want any form of rent control and they're trying to hold the line any way they can. As long as there are no vacancy controls, landlords will have incentive to evict tenants whenever they want to make more money."

Unlike the landlord organizers, who have packed recent rent-control hearings with apartment owners heckling control supporters with cries of "Go back to Russia!" tenant activists have had a hard time matching the landlords' numbers.

Gross ascribes the low turnout to fear and complacency. "Tenants are afraid to testify, that they'll be harassed if they do," he said. "The other problem, I think, is that a lot of renters figure they voted in council members with strong rent-control sympathies, so they don't need to go to the meetings."

At last week's hearing, David Blair, one of the few tenants who testified, pleaded with council members for protection from harassment. "My landlady keeps a refuse bin under my kitchen window and won't do anything about moving it," he complained. "What this is leading to is tenants being forced to vacate their apartments as long as landlords don't want them there for any reason."

In contrast, landlords like Budd Kopps, who manages 16 apartment units in West Hollywood, have every incentive to show up and raise their voices. "This is renter's paradise," he said, after testifying a week ago. "The odds are stacked against us but we're not going to play dead for them."

Although a standoff appears to be in the making over vacancy controls, there may be room for compromise. Tanqueray said landlords might be willing to accept limited rent rises on vacant apartments, perhaps between 10% and 15% a year; Gross, on the other hand, said his group could compromise on a 3% to 5% cap on vacancy rent hikes if "landlords could show that improvements were made."

Rent Registration Issue

One sticking point with landlords is the probability that any compromise on vacancy controls would require landlords to register the rents of West Hollywood's 20,000 apartment units with the city. Supporters say past rents would have to be known to city administrators--or any rent-control boards set up to manage the rent control law--in order to determine how much rents could be adjusted under a cap formula.

Landlords chafe, naturally, at the idea of any registration. "It's like registering Jews," Tanqueray said. "Where do you stop? It's the first step toward total controls."

Registration, counters Viterbi, is essential to any compromise. "If they don't agree with being registered, they won't get their annual increase," he said.

With a final vote on a rent-control ordinance more than a month away, council members appear to be working to find Viterbi's "middle ground" on vacancy controls. While council members Albert and Heilman can be expected to push for strong vacancy controls, Terrigno, Viterbi and Schulte appear to be seeking a compromise.

Controls--but How Much?

"My impression is that the council is united on strong control on evictions and that the administration of rent control be as streamlined as possible," Heilman said. "Helen and I are pretty much in agreement, but I'm not sure that the other council members can live with rollbacks and full vacancy controls."

Viterbi said he was in favor of an 8% to 10% cap on vacancy rent hikes but only in non-eviction situations. He said he and Schulte have been trying to develop programs under which owners of small apartment houses might be able to use government block grants to defray improvement and maintenance costs.

The ordinance's wording is so critical to the council that all five members want to have a hand in its writing. They will work with City Atty. Michael Jenkins and new rent-control administrator Ken Baar in fine-tuning every detail.

Baar's recent selection was perceived by many landlords as a signal that the control law will be tough. They regard Baar as a rent-control partisan even though he insists that his "principal role will be to present every alternative and as much information as possible to the council."

Fewer Suits Expected

Baar expects that whatever the final wording, West Hollywood will be able to avoid the barrage of lawsuits Santa Monica had to contend with after passing its rent-control initiative in 1979.

"The main reason is the law is simply more firm now," Baar said. "Many of the issues have been settled by the courts, so we know what will be accepted by the courts."

Council members expect some lawsuits but, like Baar, hope they will not approach the 300 filed against Santa Monica in the five years after it adopted rent control. "There will always be malcontents," Heilman said. "The case law is in our favor and I think we'll be able to resolve them quickly and cheaply."

Richard Klugh, who sued Santa Monica to get a rent increase and won, hopes he can avoid going to court over his West Hollywood building.

"If they want to, the council here could pass the worst rent-control law in the world," he said. "It looks like there's hope, though. The council is listening. I don't think they want the lawsuits and I don't think they want to see the community crippled."

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