Santa Monica has long been on the front lines in the civil wars over rent control. That contest was decided last year in Sacramento, but reports from the beach city suggest that landlord-tenant relations have again deteriorated into street fighting.
Assault, racism, death threats and larceny are just a sampling of the charges leveled against local landlords in recent months. In turn, property owners insist that renters and city bureaucrats are driving them to drastic measures. Either way, "rent rage" is now commonplace in the city by the bay.
Consider the case of Stanislaw Slanda, owner of a Santa Monica apartment building, accused by the city attorney in November of threatening to kill two tenants. "I am an angel now," Slanda allegedly told one female tenant. "It does not compare to how I will be. You are going to die." Slanda was also charged with threatening another renter with eviction if he did not kill a neighbor. Slanda was arrested on 35 criminal counts, including issuing terrorist threats, harassment, battery and stalking. His case is pending.
In another case, Isaac Gabriel, the owner of two buildings in Santa Monica, allegedly removed a tenant's belongings from his apartment and changed the locks. The incident came after his tenants filed multiple complaints against Gabriel - ranging from clogged sinks to assault - with city agencies. Gabriel has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charges, and is scheduled to go to trial later this month.
Nor have these extreme cases cowed the rest of the city's landlords. "I think the landlord community in Santa Monica has been amazingly restrained," said Arlee Hains, rental property owner and secretary of ACTION, a Westside landlord association. Hains claims to have lost half a million dollars in revenue during almost two decades of rent control. "I am surprised there aren't more landlords out there shooting their tenants," Hains said.
Tenant-rights advocates blame the rash of incidents on the "vacancy decontrol" provisions of the Costa-Hawkins bill, a state law passed in 1995 that mandated the end of strict rent control in Santa Monica, West Hollywood and half a dozen other California cities on January 1, 1999. The law allows landlords to raise rents once units become vacant - a provision that housing officials say instills an economic incentive to evict longtime tenants.
"There certainly is rage going on in Santa Monica," said Tony Trendacosta, general counsel for Santa Monica's Rent Board. "And it has to do with greed."
The number of formal complaints about landlords, filed by renters with the City Attorney's Office, has escalated sharply. In 1995, only seven complaints were registered under the city's tenant-harassment ordinance - passed to combat anticipated problems associated with the demise of rent control. In just the last six months, however, renters have lodged 41 such actions.
Santa Monica first instituted strict limits on rent raises in 1980, and landlords have been chafing for change ever since. In the January issue of the ACTION Apartment Association's monthly newsletter, President Herb Balter's column was direct. "The oppressed Santa Monica rental property owners are counting the days until January 1, 1999," he wrote. Another headline, referring to the tenant-harassment ordinance, screamed, "No law-abiding citizen should live in fear of his local government!!"
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In an interview with the Weekly, Balter told of his recent attempt to get a modest rent increase through the city's rent board after spending $50,000 to fix up a building he had purchased. The board, he said, required some 400 pages of financial documents and a week of hearings before he was able to raise the rent by $25 per month. "Nobody should have to go through that," Balter said.
On Monday night, about 75 landlords braved the rain to attend ACTION's monthly meeting at a local church. Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky, head of the office's consumer-protection and fair-housing division, appeared to explain the city's tenant-harassment ordinance.
The largely older crowd was civil, but the undercurrent of hostility in the chapel grew throughout the evening. "I'd like to see a law passed to protect landlords," one woman yelled out during the question and answer session. Another landlord complained, "The city has not been fair with us in the past - why should we expect any difference now?"
Radinsky, a young lawyer sporting the requisite gray suit, tried to reassure the crowd. "When we get a complaint we take it seriously," he said. "But let me be clear, there is no favoritism toward any of the parties."