Concerned about the soaring cost of housing, a Ventura city councilman plans to propose a rent control law that would dramatically slow the increase of most monthly rents.
"Philosophically, I'm a property-rights type of guy," said Jim Monahan, a council member since 1978. "But many people who have to rent are getting squeezed out of the market. There's a real need for something like this."
Monahan's surprise proposal, which is to be introduced at a City Council meeting within three weeks, struck resident Marie Atkinson as the right move. Hit recently with a hike of more than 20% to her $937 monthly rent, Atkinson, 78, said she has been forced to dig into her savings to meet expenses.
"My whole plan was to be in here just long enough to buy something," she said of the two-bedroom apartment in an east Ventura seniors complex, where she has lived since 1997. "Now I don't have enough left to buy a garage door."
But critics of rent control, which has been adopted in San Francisco and Santa Monica, contend that it's no way to solve a housing crisis. They say it discourages landlords from putting money into existing properties and keeps developers from building new ones.
"I understand the frustration, but this could be a real step backward," said Kay Runnion, governmental affairs director for the Ventura County Coastal Assn. of Realtors.
Runnion said rent control would only divert attention from the area's need for additional housing. It also might make the rental market even tighter.
"My sense of it in Santa Monica is that nobody ever moves out," Runnion said.
Modeled on a Los Angeles law, Monahan's proposal would limit property owners to annual rent hikes of 3%, with an additional 1% for utility increases. Landlords could collect a higher rent from new tenants, but Monahan said he hasn't worked out the details.
So as not to discourage development, apartments built after the law was enacted would be exempt, Monahan said. But at some point, they may also be subject to restrictions, he said.
"I'm a landlord myself," Monahan said, "and I know it's not necessary to keep inflating rents -- especially if you have a good tenant."
If Monahan fails to generate enough interest among council members, he plans to collect signatures for a November ballot measure.
A number of cities in Ventura County, including Ventura, have rent control for mobile homes, but none has it for apartments.
"Rent control is just a horrendous experience for small property owners," said Skip Schloming, the director of a group that successfully fought rent control in Massachusetts.
"It thrives on vilifying landlords -- but not one new unit of housing has ever been built by rent control."