When it comes to redecorating, everyone has an opinion.
John Parks thought the red paint he was swabbing on the side of his West Hollywood apartment building was appropriate. “This city is getting a rent control law that’s as close to communism as you can get,” the landlord said, rubbing at a streak of red paint that flecked his chin.
Valerie Terrigno, the mayor of West Hollywood, thought a softer pastel was in order. “It looked pretty sloppy to me,” she said. “But judging from the shape that building was in, any color would have been preferable. It’s a shame more landlords don’t take that kind of initiative.”
Parks and several landlord friends began painting his white clapboard apartment building Soviet-red on Tuesday to protest the direction the West Hollywood City Council is taking in discussions on a permanent rent control law.
In its weekly session last Thursday, the council took several preliminary votes on the ordinance: It decided that yearly rent increases would be limited to 75% of the annual rise in the consumer price index; it made permanent a temporary rent rollback to levels of Aug. 6, 1984, and in its most controversial move, decided to enact some sort of vacancy decontrol that would allow landlords to raise rents after a tenant has vacated an apartment.
Landlords, hoping for what they characterize as a “moderate” rent law, said the Thursday votes were evidence that the council intends to pass a restrictive law that could polarize West Hollywood tenants and apartment owners.
Again raising the specter of Santa Monica rent control, West Hollywood landlords claimed that although there were obvious differences between the approaches taken by the two cities, the outcome will eventually be the same--tough controls on rents and a refusal by landlords to pay for anything more than basic maintenance.
“In the end, what’s the difference between Santa Monica and West Hollywood? Nothing,” said landlord Joel Weissman, whose paint-spattered T-shirt bore the legend: “Keep Communism Out of West Hollywood.” He added, “It’s like the difference between having Charles Manson or Adolf Hitler as your dinner guest. Sooner or later, you’re going to die.”
Weissman and other apartment owners said the annual rent increase proposed by the council was too low. And although landlords have been pressuring the council for vacancy decontrol, several spokesmen said the version being discussed does not go far enough.
Grafton Tanquary, president of West Hollywood Concerned Citizens, a civic group dominated by landlords, said that council members Thursday discussed a 5% or 10% cap on decontrols--a percentage “that wouldn’t leave us with much of anything. The numbers they’re talking about aren’t adequate to help us maintain our housing stock.”
Councilman Alan Viterbi responded angrily to those complaints, saying council members had “bent over backwards” to accommodate landlords.
“The fact that there will be a decontrol factor is significant,” he said. “It seems to me that landlords should be happy the council agrees on some kind of decontrol. I think landlords tend to forget that a majority of West Hollywood voted for the present council because they wanted strong rent control.”
Tanquary and other landlords also criticized the council for ignoring the results of a housing survey it ordered a month ago. Tanquary said the survey showed that in the past two years, nearly 60% of the tenants polled had not received any rent increases.
Landlords also pointed to survey results that showed that average annual rent increases in West Hollywood in recent years have been about 3%--keeping pace with the consumer price index--and that 56% of the tenants polled indicated that maintenance in their units was “good or very good.”
“It’s proof that the kind of rent control the council is talking about isn’t needed,” Tanquary said. “Even under the county rent control that everyone criticized for being so weak, a majority of tenants didn’t have any rent increases.”
But council members and rent control backers said landlords were manipulating survey results.
“He neglects to mention that the survey points out that many tenants had just moved into West Hollywood,” Mayor Terrigno said. “In many of those cases, the landlords had raised rents before the new tenants moved in. Of course they’re not going to get hit with an immediate increase.”
Larry Gross, coordinator of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a pro-rent control activist group, said his interpretation of the survey results showed that tenants needed strong rent control.
“You can use these statistics any way you want,” he said. “What intrigued us are the figures that show 78% of the owners of these buildings live outside West Hollywood and only 18% live in the buildings they own. And only 22% of the buildings have four units or less. The landlords have tried to portray themselves as small owners who have a stake in West Hollywood. These statistics show otherwise.”
Gross said that like the landlords, he had concerns about the council’s preliminary votes on rent control. He said he preferred a more severe rollback on rents and was opposed to vacancy decontrols, preferring instead controls on any rent increases after tenants vacate an apartment. But he added that rent control activists were largely satisfied that “we’ll have a strong ordinance.”
Leaders of several landlord groups vowed that as many as 50 West Hollywood apartment houses could be painted red if the council ignores their concerns. “This is a way to express our anger,” said Sol Genuth, public affairs director of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles. “It’s the only way apartment owners can get attention.”
Tanquary suggested that if landlords are still upset after the ordinance takes shape (the final vote is expected by mid-May), rent control may return repeatedly as a major political issue in council elections. “It would have to be part of the agenda in the next election,” he said, adding, “I could see us bringing it up time and time again until there’s a more satisfactory result.”
Terrigno responded by wondering aloud whether attempts to satisfy all parties has been worth the effort. “We’re trying to come up with a law everyone can live with,” she said. “It seems as if the landlords aren’t going to be satisfied with anything short of total victory.”