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Passionate Orator for a Rent Law : Calabasas: Officials scoffed at Anthony Pecoraro, but his proposal to limit rate hikes will finally be addressed by city.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Standing at the lectern and railing against the evils of greedy landlords, Anthony Pecoraro could have been mistaken for a gadfly, a lone voice reveling in the opportunity to perform to a packed house.

But when he delivered his impassioned plea for rent control, Pecoraro was applauded by about two dozen senior citizens occupying the front-row seats at a recent City Council meeting.

The seniors were part of a group that has been working more than a year to block rent increases at their mobile home park. And Pecoraro, who braved scattered boos as he returned to his seat, gamely set the stage for public debate on a topic that, in Calabasas, has been, by and large, taboo.

Pecoraro, a movie extra, and his wife, Lilian, a registered nurse, moved to the upscale Santa Monica Mountains community after the Northridge earthquake forced them from a rent-controlled apartment in Sherman Oaks. Then their new landlord raised rents at Lincoln Malibu Meadows, an apartment complex off Las Virgenes Road, south of the Ventura Freeway.

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Pecoraro, 41, says the new rents exceed market rates, and he accuses the landlord, Lincoln Property Co., N.C., Inc., of gouging tenants and taking advantage of the housing shortage created by the quake.

“We are totally at their mercy,” said Pecoraro. “There is nothing saying that they cannot raise our rents $1,000 a month, if they want.”

Officials from Lincoln Property Co. did not return several telephone calls seeking comment.

City officials at first tried to dismiss Pecoraro, but he eventually managed to make enough noise to get the council to officially address the issue Wednesday. Always a volatile subject, rent control potentially pits Calabasas’ political conservatives against a minority of lower-middle-class and elderly tenants, who fear they are being priced out of the local market.

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As it is, 19% of the city’s housing stock is rental.

To Flo Klein, a senior who lives at the mobile home park, the issue boils down to a struggle between the haves and the have-nots in a city which, she says, prides itself on its gated communities.

“They are rich; they don’t even know what our situation is,” said Klein. “They have never been on this side of the closed gate.”

Tenants at the 210-unit Calabasas Village Mobile Home Park Estates, on Mulholland Highway, began lobbying the city for relief more than a year ago after their landlord attempted to raise rents 40% for 47 tenants whose leases expired, said City Manager Charles Cate.

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A committee set up to study the matter will deliver its report to the council this month, he said.

“It appears that there will be a compromise agreement, lasting for seven years, with the owner of the park,” said Cate. “The new lease agreement eliminates that particular increase and will establish some new market-rent levels.”

At Lincoln Malibu Meadows, the Pecoraros signed a one-year lease for $1,055 a month for a small, two-bedroom apartment at the Calabasas complex. It cost $210 a month more than their old place, but after losing their home in the earthquake, they were desperate, Pecoraro said.

As their lease was about to expire, their new landlord offered them a choice: agree to an eight-month lease at an additional $45 a month, or pay an additional $309 a month to continue on a month-to-month basis. Other tenants report being offered similar choices.

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Meanwhile, the landlord has written Pecoraro and threatened him with eviction for allegedly harassing other tenants. Pecoraro says he did approach other tenants to talk about the rent increases, but insists that many wanted to hear what he had to say.

One sympathizer, Kong Moua, said the increasing rents are causing a high turnover and vacancy rate at the complex.

The rents are “just getting too high, and a lot of people are being forced to move out,” said Moua, a Pepperdine University student who shares an apartment with two roommates. “If you drive by, it’s always being leased, because a lot of people are moving in and out.”

Council members appear sympathetic to the plight of renters, but say they are opposed to rent control in principle. They tell horror stories of landlords in the San Fernando Valley and Santa Monica, who, because of rent control, cannot afford to maintain their buildings. And of opportunistic, well-off tenants who live for years in rent-controlled units at ridiculously low rents.

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“Philosophically, I’m very much for it, but practically, it’s very difficult to monitor and control, especially in a city our size,” said Mayor Karyn Foley.

As the council discusses rent control this week, it will no doubt be mindful of events in Malibu, whose governing body recently settled one of two lawsuits filed by the landlords of two mobile home parks. The property owners sued after the city rolled back rents in 1991 to 1984 market levels.

As part of the settlement, Malibu agreed to pay the landlord $400,000, according to City Manager David Carmany. In the other case, still pending, the owner is claiming damages of $512,000 to $5 million.

Malibu City Atty. Christi Hogin said the city may have lost a battle but still hopes to win the war, even with recent court decisions favoring landlords.

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“The basic premise of rent control was upheld,” Hogin said. Malibu, though, rolled back the rents too far, Hogin continued, warning other cities to “proceed with caution as to what you establish as your starting point for your rent.”

In Calabasas, Pecoraro may also face an uphill fight as he tries to organize his neighbors, Hogin predicted.

Mobile-home parks have older, more settled tenants with an economic stake in their neighborhoods. But it is much more difficult to organize rent-control movements at apartment complexes, where tenants are younger and not as knowledgeable about their rights, she said.

“If they don’t like their landlords, they can just move to another apartment,” Hogin said. “With mobile homes, those people are not going anywhere.”

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Pecoraro says he is ready.

“Until they say no, I can pursue it,” he said. “It’s still an issue and it’s still in the courts.”


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