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Want real rent control? Make landlords live alongside their tenants

Want real rent control? Make landlords live alongside their tenants
Rental apartments in Koreatown in Los Angeles on Aug. 21, 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

Order your extra recycling bin now: Proposition 10 season is upon us. Expect pounds of pro- and anti- fliers and pamphlets to litter your mailbox and front door between now and election day because it speaks to one of California’s great existential problems: ever-escalating rents.

Proposition 10 seeks to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which effectively outlawed cities from applying rent-control measures to any apartments built after 1995, as well as all single-unit homes and condos. Costa-Hawkins was the brainchild of the real estate industry, the same people who brought us redlining, housing covenants, balloon mortgages and other dark moments in California history.

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I’m going to vote yes on Proposition 10 because I don’t want Sacramento to lock away tools that municipalities need to tackle local problems, including runaway housing costs.

But the way I see it, the crux of the crisis isn’t our policies, but our profit drive. Developers see only dollars and cents when they should realize that they’re dealing with flesh-and-blood humans. Rent control won’t change that transactional thinking, but I’ve got a crazy idea that just might.

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No one is evil enough to live among people, look them in the eye, and raise their rent by $500 a month.


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If Proposition 10 passes — and, given how incensed people are about California’s cost of living, it seems a shoo-in — cities that put new rent controls into place should carve out an exception for one group of landlords, developers and real estate barons: those who live among their tenants.

Crazy, right?

Skinflint landlords will at least try this out; I’m convinced they’d do anything to keep their rental revenue up. Once they do, however, I think their day-to-day interactions with tenants will make them think twice about arbitrarily raising rents. It’s easy to demand another $200 a month from people you know only as applications on file and monthly checks; it’s far harder when they’re your neighbors and you see up close the difficulty of living as a renter in California.

At least that was my experience. For five years, my wife and I were the property managers for about 25 apartments and eight commercial spaces in Santa Ana. The absentee owner, who lived in a mansion in a tony part of unincorporated Orange County, cut corners at every opportunity. If residents had a complaint, he ignored it, or argued with them to the point of screaming. Residents nicknamed him Stupid Landlord.

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When we first moved in, the complex was a wreck — drugs and sex in the parking lot, some tenants who only paid rent when they felt like it, others who purposefully parked in their neighbor’s spot. Stupid Landlord had contracted out property management duties to someone who was usually unreachable and just didn’t care.

I wasn’t going to tolerate living in a de facto slum, so I convinced the landlord to put my wife and me in charge. Slowly but surely, we pushed out problem tenants and replaced them with working-class families, retirees, veterans, librarians and immigrants. My skills as an investigative reporter helped me figure out if prospective tenants were lying to me about their criminal and employment history — because if they’ll lie to you about that, they’ll lie to you about how the bathroom sink broke. I didn’t care about credit reports — I didn’t even charge applicants the fee the landlord demanded to pull an Experian report, because I knew even $25 was hard for them to get.

Living among tenants radically changed our perception of them. The stoner who always sped down the alley in his truck? He was actually a doting father. The homeboy just downstairs? He had a heart of gold and was learning how to install optical wire cable. The fortune teller shop, however — which everyone had complained about — was a front for all sorts of shady business. I wouldn’t have known any of this if I hadn’t lived at the apartments myself.

Using those stories, I persuaded the landlord to not raise anyone’s rents. He learned that turnover was his headache, not solid, stable tenants. That inspired him to invest in improving the property soon after my wife and I left. I still keep in touch with some of my old neighbors and they report that Stupid Landlord has actually turned … less stupid. It’s a process.

A rent-control exemption for on-site owners could create similar conversion stories. The Irvine Co. owns more than 125 apartment complexes in Southern California. Imagine if billionaire chairman Donald Bren had to use the same duplex gym as UC Irvine students? What if RE/MAX Estate Properties execs had to get an extra parking pass to have a friend visit? Or how about if Jamison Services owner David Lee, one of Koreatown’s biggest landlords, had to grab his socks and chonis from the communal laundry before someone dumped them on top of the dryer?

Landlords and real estate magnates are human, no matter how much rent-control advocates claim otherwise. Get them and their lieutenants out of their gated communities and among their renters, and empathy will surely touch their hearts. Because no one is evil enough to live among people, look them in the eye, and raise their rent by $500 a month. Except probably Geoff Palmer.

Twitter: @GustavoArellano

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