Thousand Oaks to Try Voluntary Rent Control

Times Staff Writer

There's a new rent-control law in Thousand Oaks. But it is far from the sweeping law adopted last fall that was shelved only a week later when the city's second biggest landlord threatened, in protest, to evict hundreds of tenants.

The new rent-control plan adopted Tuesday is much more acceptable to landlords. When it becomes law in May as expected, it will ask landlords to voluntarily agree to limit rent increases to a maximum of 7% per year over the next two years.

By contrast, the plan adopted last fall to the cheers of renters, many of them elderly, would have required landlords to limit rent hikes to 7% per year for all of the city's 3,600 apartments.

The city's present 6-year-old rent-control law limits increases only for tenants who have lived in the same apartment since May, 1981, which applies to only about 20% of the apartments in the city. Under the plan adopted last week, these units will remain under the old law except under certain conditions.

Couldn't Alert Renters

Fran Goldstein, once the city's leading tenant activist and organizer, said last week that because of a worsening illness she was unable to participate or alert renters to hearings on the new rent-control plan. Goldstein said that "the ones who are losing" are tenants who are not in rent-controlled buildings now but would have been under the rent-control plan adopted last fall.

Former Thousand Oaks Assistant City Atty. Michael Martello said that the new plan will need participation by all city landlords.

"Because there is no financial incentive for landlords, if some landlords don't participate then others will likely not do it either," said Martello, who conducted dozens of negotiations over several months with landlords.

The negotiations were initiated last fall after Lawrence Kates, the second largest landlord in Thousand Oaks, threatened to evict the tenants of nearly 500 apartments unless plans for more strict city rent controls were dropped.

No Protests at Meeting

City officials who support the new plan say conditions that once forged a vocal and sometimes hostile rent-control constituency--such as double-digit inflation and an extremely small number of available apartments--have started to ease in this eastern Ventura County city. As evidence of that argument, officials point out that not a single renter out of about 100 notified by the city spoke during last week's council hearing on the new plan.

More restrictive rent-control measures will return if landlords fail to keep their end of the new plan, city officials warned.

But, regardless of the plan's effectiveness, it appears that the clout once wielded by well-organized groups of renters, who pressured for passage of the city's original 1981 rent-control law, has passed to the landlords.

"A lot of people seem to think, 'Why fight any longer?' " said one 15-year apartment tenant who is unhappy with the new plan. The man, who asked that his name not be used in print, said his neighbors believe "it's the best deal they're going to get."

The authors of the measure adopted last fall, Councilmen Alex T. Fiore and Lawrence E. Horner, had met several times with apartment tenants and those living in mobile-home parks to fashion the law. Those tenants, many of them elderly and on fixed incomes, said they feared big rent increases once the 1981 rent-control ordinance expired.

Horner, who along with Fiore faced a reelection campaign last fall, acknowledged that he feared rent control might become for the first time a significant campaign issue unless the City Council acted.

"Like any other political body we wanted to avoid a major crisis during a campaign," he said in an interview.

Horner said that although he had opposed the notion of rent control, as did all of the Thousand Oaks council members, he believed then that it was the only way to protect people living on fixed incomes.

Council members said during hearings last fall that the expansion of rent control was supported by the limited number of vacant apartments and mobile-home spaces in Thousand Oaks, where a June, 1986, city study had found a 1.4% vacancy rate for apartments and virtually no spaces available for mobile homes. Since then, however, city officials have changed their method of assessing vacancies and now say that more than twice as many apartments are available than they had previously estimated.

Mobile Homes Covered

The City Council, in the Sept. 9 meeting at which it initially approved the sweeping rent-control law for apartments, approved a separate rent-control ordinance for the city's 678 mobile-home space tenants, considered to be one of the most organized groups in the city. That ordinance, which will last for five years, remains intact. It was not challenged by mobile-home park owners.

But on Sept. 15, a day before the apartment-rent measure was to be voted into law, tenants of the 496-unit Oakview apartment complex were served with 30-day eviction notices. The new law was to go into effect one day after the evictions. The notices said the buildings' owner, Standard Investments Co. of Los Angeles, would "no longer operate the project because of the city's pending rent-control legislation."

Agreed to Withdraw Notices

Kates, a partner in Standard Investments, agreed to withdraw the eviction notices after the City Council said it would postpone approval of the new rent-control law for six months.

Kates' threat was effective because officials were convinced that he had the means to carry it out. He was estimated to be losing rental income of as much as $160,000 a month when he kept half of his firm's 806 apartments in the city vacant during 1981 and 1982 to protest the city's original rent-control law.

In 1981 and 1982, after Kates threatened to empty all the units, the City Council voted to amend its rent-control law and lift controls on vacated apartments, as Kates wanted.

It was that same issue that drew Kates' wrath last fall. Under the rent-control measure proposed last fall, all apartments in the city would have remained under rent control even after tenants moved out.

1,200 New Units Expected

But under the plan approved last week, only those who have lived continuously in their apartments since 1981 will be protected by the city law that expires on June 30, 1989. By then, Fiore said, about 1,200 new apartments will have been built in the area and the need for rent control will be over because there will be competition for renters.

In the meantime, Kates and several other landlords who together own 80% of the city's apartments, said they will offer three- and five-year leases to those living in rent-controlled apartments so that tenants will get the benefits of rent control. The leases would be required to limit annual rent increases to a maximum of 7% for persons under 65 and 3% for persons over 65. In addition, those same landlords say they will limit rent increases for tenants not under rent control to 6% a year over the next two years.

Eligible for Exemption

Landlords then will be able to get an exemption from rent control from the city. They consider this a plus because apartment buildings that are rent-controlled are less valuable in the real estate market than those that are not.

When the leases expire, landlords said, they will increase rents over four years to match the market-level rents, according to the agreement. At present, the monthly rent of apartments protected by rent control is on the average about 30% lower than unprotected apartments, a city report said.

Kates' attorney, Avi S. Peretz, said last week that Kates did not consider the council's turnabout on rent control a total victory.

"We would prefer no type of rent control," he said.

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