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Council Panel Acts to Close Loopholes in Rent Control

Times Staff Writer

In a victory for tenants, a Los Angeles City Council committee moved Friday to close several loopholes in the city’s rent control ordinance, including a provision that has permitted landlords to exempt their apartments from rent restrictions by spending thousands of dollars on renovations.

More than 300 people, most of them elderly tenants wearing yellow pro-rent control stickers, crowded into the council chambers for the first of several hearings on 13 proposed changes to the city’s 11-year-old rent stabilization ordinance. The committee considered three of the changes, which will be forwarded to the full council for a vote in several weeks.

Committee members Michael Woo and Gloria Molina agreed to eliminate the so-called “substantial renovation exemption” that allows landlords to avoid rent controls if they do more than $10,000 in improvements to an apartment.

City officials say the provision has been used by landlords to raise rents by several hundred dollars a month, often forcing out tenants who cannot afford the increase.

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A city study showed that a majority of the requests for those exemptions involved “units in acceptable condition” in areas of the city undergoing gentrification, including portions of West Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and the Wilshire Corridor.

The committee also moved to place new restrictions on rent increases permitted when landlords make capital improvements, such as a new roof, dishwasher or plumbing system.

The committee members voted to prohibit landlords from charging tenants for the improvements when they are due to unsafe or unsanitary conditions that can be blamed on the landlord. Landlords would still be allowed to charge tenants for seismic work and other improvements required by new housing codes.

The committee also voted to allow landlords to charge tenants no more than $55 a month for the improvements over a six-year period. Currently, Woo said, many landlords continue to charge tenants for the improvements long after they have been fully reimbursed.

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In a development that disappointed tenant activists, Woo and Molina were unable to agree on a proposal to do away with a provision in the existing ordinance that allows evictions so that landlords can undertake “major rehabilitation” of apartments. Woo wants to do away with the provision, but Molina said she supports a previous committee decision to allow evictions if 90% of the new work is significant enough to require a permit from the city’s Department of Building and Safety.

Landlords at Friday’s meeting criticized the proposed changes, saying they would discourage landlords from making needed improvements to their buildings. Several of them asked the council members not to tamper with the existing ordinance.

“We urge you to work with a scalpel and not an ax,” Steve Carlson said.

But representatives of tenant groups said the committee vote was an important step toward protecting renters from eviction and unjustified rent increases.

“These are important issues,” said Larry Gross of the Coalition for Economic Survival. “They are at the top of our list.”

Woo, who chairs the Governmental Operations Committee, has been criticized for dragging his feet on the proposed revisions. A series of suggested changes have been before the committee for nearly a year.

Woo said Friday, however, that he intends to address all 13 items--including a controversial suggestion to place single-family homes under rent control--before July, when the City Council will change its committee structure, placing rent control under a different committee.


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