A group of West Hollywood landlords and community activists wants city officials and regional leaders of the United Methodist Church to remove one of the city's most politically powerful organizations from its quarters in a local church.
So far efforts to oust the grass-roots Coalition for Economic Survival from the Crescent Heights Methodist Church have failed. And city and church officials said the liberal organization probably would be allowed to stay there indefinitely.
The controversy began in August when the coalition moved into a ground-floor office at the church, at Fairfax and Fountain avenues. A month later, West Hollywood landlord John Parks told the city that the group should not be allowed to operate in the residential zone. Parks said the coalition and other groups renting the church took on-street parking spaces normally used by tenants of nearby apartments.
Parks is active in West Hollywood Concerned Citizens, a landlord-dominated group opposed to rent control.
The coalition, a community organization that represents tenants in disputes with landlords, lobbied City Council members for a tough rent control law. It champions a variety of liberal causes, such as construction of affordable housing, senior citizens' rights and opposition to the spraying of malathion pesticide in city boundaries. The group campaigned on behalf of four candidates who are now members of the City Council. And many political observers regard the coalition as a crucial ally for those planning to get ahead in West Hollywood politics.
After Parks complained to the city last fall, officials from the Chamber of Commerce and local Republican and Democratic Party clubs and a handful of landlords went to Roland Brammeier, the district superintendent of the United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, to try to have the coalition removed from the church. Grafton Tanquary, president of West Hollywood Concerned Citizens, was among those who visited the church superintendent.
"We object to this or any other church supporting overtly any political organization," Tanquary said. "It is totally inappropriate for a church to become active politically. That has been a position in the United States for 200 years."
The Log Cabin Republican Club and a handful of parishioners also sent letters to Brammeier protesting coalition use of the church office.
"I think it's an attempt by the landlords to cause trouble," said coalition leader Larry Gross. "They are singling us out because of who we are and what they think we stand for. They want to do everything they can to undermine our work here."
The dispute over the church office became public through a series of letters published recently in local newspapers.
City officials have inspected the church and agreed with landlord Parks that the coalition should have a conditional-use permit to occupy the makeshift office. Nonprofit organizations must obtain permits to operate in a residential zone, according to Mark Winogrond, community development director for the city.
The Rev. Michael Cowan, the church's pastor, and Gross received letters last week notifying them of the code violation and asking them to apply for a permit.
But the city is not accepting applications for such permits until it approves an interim zoning ordinance later this month.
"Our problem is that we are asking them to comply with the law by getting a conditional-use permit," Winogrond said. "And we cannot offer them the opportunity to comply."
Winogrond said that because the city is not taking permit applications, it will allow the coalition to remain in the small $500-a-month office until it can apply.
Parks is upset that the city has not removed the coalition, despite the fact that his complaint was filed four months ago. "I was curious to see if there would be a double standard," Parks said. "To see if there is one set of laws for one group of people and another for the coalition.
"If the Republican Party was running a business out of a single-family home they wouldn't be allowed to get away with it."
Parks said he will continue to press city officials to force the coalition out. He said he will oppose the organization's application for a conditional-use permit when it comes before the Planning Commission or City Council.
Apparently, church officials will also permit the coalition to stay put. Brammeier said the church and its attorney have no objection to the Crescent Heights church renting space to the coalition. "I don't see it (renting to the coalition) as a political move," he said.
Cowan and Brammeier said, however, that the coalition is not allowed under its lease to become involved in electoral politics, because that could endanger the church's tax-exempt status. Any campaign work by the coalition, including participation in April's City Council election, must be conducted outside of the church, they said. The renters group would have to move if it used the church quarters to promote a particular candidate or slate, Cowan said.
But Tanquary said that such political activity is a basic element of the coalition operation. He predicted that the group's officials would conduct election activities in the church quarters during the April election.
Cowan said he expects the coalition to use members' homes or other locations when they become involved in the city election, so that the church is not involved. That does not mean that the church will divorce itself from social issues, Cowan said.
The young minister arrived in July from the United Methodist Church in Venice. He said that involvement in social causes such as affordable housing is an essential part of his work.
Cowan hopes some of West Hollywood's residents who have become active in the new city will join the Crescent Heights church, where the congregation has slipped from a high of more than 300 to 61.
He said the church has tried to reach out to young people, particularly homosexuals, as attrition has cut into the congregation. "We are trying to attract a congregation that is more representative of the city," Cowan said.