OP-ED:” By Disa Lindgren, Michelle Weiner, and Jeff Schwartz of Protect Culver City Renters. Opinions expressed in this article are their own.
Culver City was the last city in the LA basin to offer renters protections beyond those mandated by the State. Landlords could raise rent as often and as much as they wished and evict tenants without cause. In 2014, a group of Culver City renters organized and petitioned the City Council for rent control and enhanced renter protections. Their proposal was rejected, and the leaders suffered retaliation from their landlords, either through rent hikes or outright eviction.
After hosting several workshops on affordable housing and renter protections, the Culver City Community Coalition conducted an Affordable Housing online survey in January 2017. The respondents affirmed that rising rents and forced moves were having a negative impact on the stability of our community.
In August of 2017, buoyed by the information gleaned from the survey, members of two local progressive organizations, the Culver City Community Coalition and the Culver City Action Network, formed Protect Culver City Renters (PCCR) to continue gathering community feedback and support for renter protections. Because of the consequences for the renters in the previous push, almost everyone involved was a homeowner.
PCCR began by conducting a survey of renters, going to door-to-door. The results found overwhelming support and a need for the legal protections that almost every other community offers.
PCCR also looked at data from the City and the US Census, which showed that just under half of Culver City residents are renters. One quarter is what the Federal government calls rent-burdened, which means they pay over 30% of their income on rent. Another quarter is severely rent-burdened, paying more than half. Additionally, more than half of Culver City renters are people of color, compared to 40% of homeowners, and as a group, renters are much younger than the general population. Members of the Board of Education told PCCR that the Culver schools lost up to a hundred students every year because their families couldn’t afford to stay in their homes.
On May 28, 2019, PCCR presented their findings and a report based on the survey to the City Council, urging them to pass a one-year rent freeze similar to those in Inglewood, Los Angeles County, and other communities. The goal was to protect tenants so they could participate in the development of permanent renter protections without fear of reprisal. The Council put a rent freeze on the agenda for June 24. That meeting lasted until 1:30 AM, with what the City Clerk said may have been a record number of participants.
In the end, after a moving speech by then-Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells, the Council voted 4-1 to direct staff to draft an ordinance modeled on the LA County one, incorporating additional material suggested by Protect Culver City Renters. That ordinance was passed August 12, again 4-1, with Göran Eriksson in the minority both times. The rent freeze capped rent increases at 3% for the next year, provided for the establishment of a rental registry, limited evictions to a small list of “just causes,” and required landlords to pay a relocation fee of three months’ rent plus $1,000 in the case of evictions lacking a “just cause.”
In October, failed Republican 37th District Congressional candidate Ron Bassilian, announced the formation of a Political Action Committee to circulate an anti-rent control ballot measure. In a classic troll move, he named it “Protect Culver City.”
Fuelled by out-of-town landlord money, the PAC hired paid signature gatherers, who routinely deceived residents and kept going door-to-door sharing their clipboards and pens with residents during the first quarter of 2020, even as awareness of the COVID-19 pandemic grew. This measure will be on the November 2020 ballot in Culver City. If passed, it will repeal any local rent control in effect and require future rent control to be accomplished through the initiative process, rather than a Council vote.
Meanwhile, the City Housing Office held focus groups comprised of tenants, small landlords, and large landlords. The Housing Office allowed right-wing landlord lobbying groups to select the landlords they spoke to: the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA) chose the small ones, and the California Apartment Association (CAA) the large ones. These landlords described their challenges and delivered a wish list of proposed exemptions and loopholes for renter protections.
They encouraged the City to give up on local protections and rely on the recently passed California law, AB1482, which allows rent to go up by 5% plus the Consumer Price Index, up to 10% each year, and provides no system to enforce renter protections except for renters to sue. Protect Culver City Renters was the only tenant group that the City reached out to, although there are many advocacy groups they could have spoken with, including ACCE, Tenants Together, the Eviction Defense Network, and Bet Tzedek Legal Services.
However, the Housing Office’s report with the results of these focus groups also described the first 9 months of the rent freeze. During this time the City had to intervene on behalf of 15 households whose landlords were not respecting the freeze and refer another 30 to legal services for similar situations, but not one landlord applied for an exemption for any provision of the rent freeze. This clearly indicates that landlords are not being impacted by the temporary Rent Control ordinance and that tenants need stronger protections, not weaker ones.
Inglewood and LA County, the models for Culver City’s rent freeze, both extended theirs for additional deliberations and, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning with historic and ongoing racism following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Culver City also needed to extend the temporary ordinance.
At the July 16, 2020, City Council meeting, the same four Council members voted to continue the freeze through Halloween. The Council also began looking at checklists of provisions for the permanent measure prepared by City staff.
PCCR prepared a memo for the Council with recommendations, developed with input from the Eviction Defense Network, Public Counsel, and Bet Tzedek Legal Services. The memo cites laws in other communities which can be used as models and court cases which support our recommendations. This memo is available in full on PCCR’s social media.
PCCR proposes that the permanent Rent Control and Tenant Protection Program be based on the temporary one, with five major changes.
- Instead of the 3% cap in the temporary ordinance, annual rent increases should be limited to keep up with inflation, with a maximum cap of 5%. This means simply setting the cap equal to the regional Consumer Price Index. Cities like Santa Monica and San Francisco use a fraction of CPI, so using straight CPI is a moderate option, similar to that recently taken by LA County. It requires no additional work by City staff or a Rent Control Board, allows landlords a fair rate of return because they still set initial rents, and protects renters in our in-demand area from being displaced by the higher increases permitted under AB1482.
- As requested in the property-owner focus groups, landlords may be allowed to pass-through the cost of enhancements to their property, with limitations. Only half of the costs can be passed through, they are spread out over ten years, and they are capped at 5% of rent. Work to be passed-through must be approved by tenants and the City, and completed before tenants are charged. Pass-throughs are permitted only for enhancements, not regular maintenance, with some exceptions for “mom and pop” landlords.
- The City can specify that landlords cannot freely raise rent after a no-fault eviction. This discourages “renovictions,” bogus owner move-ins, harassment, and other abuses that are common in areas with a high demand for rentals. This restriction is permitted in Costa-Hawkins and is implemented in West Hollywood and the unincorporated sections of LA County. If rent cannot be raised on a vacancy the landlord initiates, it removes the financial motivation to displace tenants who are paying below market for their unit.
- PCCR offers three accommodations for small “mom and pop” landlords: they should be allowed to pass-through some costs of the rental registry, they should only be required to pay half of the relocation fee for no-fault evictions if they move in an immediate family member, and they are allowed a three-month probationary period for tenants, during which the just-cause and no-fault rules do not apply. These rules address special challenges facing small landlords. PCCR opposes an exception from annual rent limits because small landlords are as able as large ones to set rents at market during vacancies and to take advantage of long-term growth in property values. While small property owners are an important part of our community, landlord lobbying groups have often used them to argue for provisions that benefit large investors and corporations as much or more than “mom & pops.” The definition of “mom & pop” in the permanent Culver City law should consider both who the landlord is and how large their holdings are. PCCR recommends following AB-1482, which excludes Real Estate Investment Trusts, corporations, and LLCs partially owned by REITs or corporations. In other words, “mom and pops” should be actual people. The size limit for a “mom and pop” should be set at two units. Any larger landlord is in the real estate business, not just extending their personal homeownership.
- The permanent ordinance should be written to incorporate two of Proposition 21‘s potential changes to Costa-Hawkins. One applies the “mom & pop” definition just discussed to single-family homes. The other changes the definition of “new construction,” which is exempt from rent control, from “everything built after mid-1995” to “everything less than 15 years old.”
The need for strong permanent renter protections will increase in the next few years, for several reasons: there will be in influx of employees seeking housing due to the construction of massive new facilities for Apple, Amazon, HBO, and others; current tenants are threatened by the COVID19 eviction tsunami, and the virus continues to destabilize the overall economy. Protect Culver City Renters has worked hard these last few years and is on the verge of completing its historic goals.