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The Fight Against Rent Control

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Posted Mondays, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@LosJeremy) Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws -- as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert -- may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act
Years: 1995
Jurisdiction: California
Nominated by: Denny Zane

"If you are looking for a strategy to seriously undermine a civilization," Denny Zane says, "just make sure there is not enough affordable housing."

Today, Zane is the Executive Director of Move LA, a non-profit public transportation advocacy group. (See their mission here.)

In that role, Zane's interest in affordable housing is in particular focused on the real estate close to subway and light rail stations.

But Zane's concern for preserving mixed income access to neighborhoods is both broad and longstanding. During the 1980s, Zane served as a city councilmember and mayor of Santa Monica. He remembers fondly when there was a greater range of incomes among coastal zone residents.

"Not only Santa Monica, but Venice and other parts of L.A. County's coastal area had much more diverse housing and more affordable housing," Zane says.

Part of the reason this changed, Zane says, was the passage in 1995 of a state law called the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act.

This legislation -- see text here -- took away some of the power that tenants had accrued during the Rent Control revolution -- or counter-revolution, depending on one's point of view -- of the late 1970s.

Essentially, Costa-Hawkins exempted rental units erected after the law passed from being rent controlled. Costa-Hawkins also allowed landlords to raise rents on a unit if and when an apartment becomes vacant.

There are caveats to the above -- such as the proviso that a landlord hasn't illegally forced out a tenant. And there are certain municipal overrides to the state law. And, greater still, there are varying interpretations of the breadth and authority of the law -- Costa-Hawkins-related jurisprudence would seem for a while to have been something of a cottage industry.

Fourteen years after Costa-Hawkins was enacted, for example, related court rulings were still being issued. This ruling in Palmer / Sixth Street Properties v. City of Los Angeles case was grieved as a "judicial assault on affordable rental housing in communities across California" by tenants rights advocates such as the authors of this article.

"[Developer Geoff] Palmer went to court," Zane explains, "and claimed that Costa-Hawkins not only prohibited the city from setting initial rent on existing rental units, it also prohibited the city from setting 'initial rents' on new affordable units as well."

Palmer's victory was a confirmation of Costa-Hawkins and a defeat for City of L.A. affordable housing statutes. (Here is Curbed L.A. on the lawsuit and here's the story from the California Planning & Development Report.)

Zane also spotlights the Ellis Act of 1985. This legislation lets property owners evict tenants if the property owners remove the property from the rental market.

"Costa-Hawkins -- or the Palmer decision in Costa-Hawkins, is a barrier to new affordable housing," Zane says. "The Ellis Act is a tool to strip-mine existing affordable housing."

More information about Costa-Hawkins and Ellis -- and statistics from one Southland city -- may be found here.

Costa-Hawkins does have its fans. In the piece, "Give Thanks for Costa-Hawkins," the author labels the law "magnificent," boasts of industry's role in writing the legislation, and bemoans the fate of New York City as a place that still "suffers" under rent control.

Zane clearly disagrees. "The marketplace on its own does not produce affordable housing," he says. "It produces market rate housing." Zane continues:

That means that the market left to its own devices will not provide new housing to meet the growing needs of lower income households. And in a sense that is the overwhelming share of new residents over time. It means that the competition for existing housing is greater, drives the prices up, and creates risks of greater and greater homelessness and overcrowding and other problems associated with not having enough affordable housing.

Top Photo: Opposed to rent control, Lincoln Boulevard, Santa Monica. Photo by Mike Mullen from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

*This story was slightly updated just after its initial posting.

Have a suggestion for a Law That Shaped L.A. or someone to interview? Contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

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