Fee on Rentals Tied to Crime

Times Staff Writer

With serious crime in Lancaster soaring and some linking the rise to rental properties, the City Council tonight will consider a controversial proposal to charge landlords $95 a year per unit for security.

The money would pay for eight new Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies responsible for handling crime and quality-of-life issues in and around rental housing.

The proposal has created a rare tension between this desert community's twin goals of fighting crime and courting business. Leading the opposition to the ordinance is the local Realtors association, which argues that landlords are being unfairly singled out to solve a citywide crime problem.

The group, which has nearly 2,000 members, also has focused on the issue of class, contending the cost of the program would be passed to renters.

"This is unfair to tenants, because they're saying that anyone who rents property is a scummy person," said Maxi Case, a Lancaster landlord and board member of the Greater Antelope Valley Assn. of Realtors. "But 99.9% of people were renters at one time."

Vice Mayor Henry Hearns said the ordinance is much needed, given the city's 63% rise in serious crime over the last four years. But he said he worries that the people who need the added security the most are least able to pay for it.

"I just don't know how we're going to get it done," Hearns said.

Because opponents might argue that the fee is a tax, and therefore subject to voter approval under Proposition 13, the City Council could decide to put the question to voters in April.

The ordinance's architect is David Berger, a deputy district attorney assigned to the Lancaster sheriff's station.

The fast-growing city has seen serious felonies, including homicide, rape and robbery, increase from 257 crimes per 10,000 people in 1999 to 420 crimes per 10,000 people this year, according to the Sheriff's Department.

Examining 18 crime-reporting districts and using Sheriff's Department crime data from 2002, Berger found that, generally, residential neighborhoods with a higher concentration of rental housing had more crime.

According to his figures, one Lancaster neighborhood with 82% rental property was responsible for 1,659 police calls per 1,000 residents. But four neighborhoods with less than 20% rental property were each responsible for 110 calls or fewer for every 1,000 residents.

A key element of the proposal, Berger said, is a certification program that landlords could use to reduce their yearly payment by $30 per unit. Once the landlords had taken steps to make their buildings safer -- for instance, by installing lights in dark areas and running background checks on potential renters -- they also could advertise that they have been certified by the Sheriff's Department.

"It's not truly a hardship," Berger said. "It's an inconvenience. But the benefits are immeasurable."

Berger said that for about $2 a week, renters would be funding a program that could drastically improve their lives.

"It's not singling out renters as bad people," he said. "It's basically protecting renters. The vast majority of renters have no protection against the small minority that's taking over their communities," he said.

Berger's ideas for cleaning up Lancaster have generated controversy before. He devised another program to clean up a drug-ridden neighborhood by limiting access to parolees and probationers. As originally drafted, the program raised concerns among civil libertarians because it could have barred all parolees and probationers from the neighborhood. But when it took effect in September, it focused only on individuals who have been ordered by the courts to stay away from drug havens.

Berger said the proposed fee program is a response to changes in the makeup of Lancaster's rental community.

In the past, many renters were employees of the aerospace industry, but as aerospace work declined, Berger wrote in a recent e-mail to a reporter, "the void in customers for Lancaster's rental housing was filled by urban refugees. Families flocked to Lancaster. Some came to escape the gang-infested communities of South Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Others were, perhaps, attracted by the considerably lower cost of housing in Lancaster."

It was low-income rental housing, Berger wrote, that was "long rumored to be the source of crime in Lancaster."

In his research, Berger said, he found hundreds of municipalities that have adopted anti-crime programs targeting rental housing. But he said he knew of only one city -- the Seattle suburb of Burien -- that charged landlords a fee to fund its program.

Burien's ordinance, passed in 2001, charges a maximum of $200 per apartment complex per year, and caps annual fees on each individual landlord at $400.

Lancaster residents are divided on the issue. Forrest Fichthorn, manager of the Lancaster Gardens Apartments, said the whole thing struck him as "kind of dirty." In his 2 1/2 years of managing the 60-unit complex, Fichthorn said, he could remember only a handful of auto break-ins to report to the police.

"They'd be better off to tax every citizen here an extra dollar in taxes and make it equal, rather than put it off on the people who rent apartments," he said.

But Deborah Shelton, a homeowner and former councilwoman, said she liked the proposal. The program, she said, might have helped her with her recent struggles with some violent, drug-dealing neighbors who were living in a rental.

"Affordable housing has been a problem for us," Shelton said. "If we're less affordable, that's tough for people looking for a place to live. But for the community, it might also be a benefit. Maybe people won't move here just because it's affordable."

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