A group of residents wearing T-shirts emblazoned "RENT CONTROL" in 3-inch letters accused the City Council of being overly influenced by developers and landlords and demanded a rent-control ordinance.
One member of the group threatened at Monday's council meeting to collect signatures to force a recall of council members and another said the group would circulate petitions to place a rent-control measure on the ballot, if the council fails to approve one.
"The City Council has sold the city to the developers," said rent-control activist Eleanor Carlson. "What will it take to get your attention? Another recall? You have made us into a city of transients. Is this what you want?"
Council members reacted by lecturing critics for not having faith in the City Council, defending the city's Rent Mediation Board and urging that the Planning Commission speedily complete a study of revised building development standards that has been under way since the fall. They showed no support for rent control.
After the meeting, one of the city's major developers said in an interview that rent control is "the first step toward socialism" and a landlord said restrictions on rents are "blasphemous." Both are members of the Rent Mediation Board.
Rent control, which has played a recent role in the city politics of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Gardena, has been dormant in Hawthorne since 1979 when the City Council, reacting to demands for rent control, set up the seven-member Rent Mediation Board. The panel, consisting of three landlords, three tenants and a homeowner, seeks solutions for rent disputes but has no enforcement power.
The renewed call for rent control is closely tied to the rapid pace of apartment development in areas of Hawthorne already crowded with apartments, according to advocates, who say the new buildings rent for higher prices, causing upward pressure on rents of existing units.
Former Mayor Guy Hocker, a developer, agreed with the tenant activists that the new apartment construction was a factor in rent increases throughout the city. He added that the market for rental apartments remains strong, reflecting continued demand. He said he has been raising rents in his own apartments about 5% a year.
Acting Planning Director Mark Subbotin said the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Hawthorne was $335 in 1981 and now is about $585 for new apartments.
In addition to some apartment dwellers, rent-control supporters include dissatisfied renters at the Amberlight Mobile Home Park on Rosecrans Avenue near Cordary Avenue. They were recently asked to pay 100% rent increases, and residents told the council that the owner is trying to force them out in order to put up an apartment development.
Two tenant members of the Rent Mediation Board told the council that the board is no longer effective and should be replaced by rent control.
"No longer can we wait. I have been waiting since 1979," said board Chairman Joe Chavez, advancing as a specific complaint that the council had never acted on a board-proposed measure requiring that landlords prove they have just cause for an eviction.
"Why? Because no one wanted to discuss it. It was a tough issue. What chance do we have? None," he said.
Addressing the council directly, he said, "We put you there, and, just like we put you there, we can have a recall and recall you."
Recall advocates must collect the signatures of 20% of the city's registered voters during a 120-day period to force a recall election. Hawthorne had 20,734 registered voters as of Feb. 26.
Said Kathy Johnson, another tenant member of the rent board: "I feel the board has no power because the City Council never gave it power. Basically, the landlord is like a god. If you cross him, he can harass you. He can raise rents. My landlord found out I was on the Rent Mediation Board and he said it was a joke. We need rent control."
The pace of multiple-unit apartment development was also cited by the rent-control advocates.
"We are now being faced with a crisis of unprecedented proportions in our once-beautiful city," said Carl Conn, who said he represented the Gray Panthers, an advocacy group for the elderly.
Likened to Slum
"The huge apartments stretching from one block to another are instantly transforming this once city of good neighbors into a slum like Chicago and New York," Conn said. "Is that to be our fate? People crowded together cheek by jowl?"
Among the two dozen rent-control advocates at the meeting was Kwaku Duren, a Compton resident who is running for Congress in the 31st District, which includes most of Hawthorne. Duren, 42, expanded on his background in an interview, saying his party affiliation is the Peace and Freedom Party, which he identified as "left of the Democratic Party," and said his political views "are basically socialistic."
He said he works as a paralegal assistant for the Legal Aid Foundation, which has been woking with Amberlight tenants. He said he has been an active organizer for various causes for 17 years, first as the Southern California coordinator for the Black Panther Party, then as a founder of the Coalition Against Police Abuse and more recently around the issue of rent control in Los Angeles.
Duren told the council that he will assist rent-control supporters in organizing to achieve their aims through a voter initiative.
Opposing the rent control advocates was Effie Hetrick, a Hawthorne landlord who also is a member of the rent board.
"I am a property owner in this city and I am proud to be so. I don't like what I am hearing tonight."
Soft booing followed her as she returned to her seat.
It was Hetrick who said after the meeting that rent control was "blasphemous." Standing beside her, Bob Marsella, one of Hawthorne's major developers and a member of the rent board, said he considered rent control to be "the first step toward socialism."
City Council members denied that they are too close to developers and defended the rent board, saying it has achieved successful resolution of landlord-tenant disputes in 70% of the cases that come before it.
Councilman Steve Andersen was critical of the rent-control advocates. "I kind of bridle when I hear that everything that has been said to us has fallen on deaf ears," he said. He singled out rent board members Chavez and Johnson.
"If they don't think that rent mediation works, they should resign," he said. "They should resign and circulate petitions for rent control."