The last time the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a rent-control ordinance was at the close of the Jimmy Carter administration in 1979. It lasted five years, and by the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, in 1984, the County abolished rent control.
Within the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, rent control hasn’t been heard from since — not until last week, that is, when Supervisors Hilda Solís and Sheila Kuehl introduced a motion clearing the way for new protections for tenants in gentrifying areas of unincorporated East L.A.
The motion calls for a working group to study policies from around the nation designed to address rental rates, security of tenure, building conditions, and landlord-tenant relations. The motion suggests charging a small fee to landlords to fund the cost of the study.
The motion will be heard on May 16, and if it passes the board will form a "Tenant Protections Working Group," which will report back in 180 days with recommendations on tenant protections for unincorporated areas countywide.
“The high cost of housing has reached a crisis level in Los Angeles County,” states the motion co-authored by supervisors Solís and Kuehl.
Supervisor Solís told the L.A. Weekly in a written statement: “I hear from countless residents in the unincorporated areas of my district that their rental rates are skyrocketing. With this motion, we are calling upon County departments to produce new tools to address the region's extreme housing crisis.”
Larry Gross, executive director for the group the Coalition for Economic Survival was part of the coalition in the late 1970s central in the passage of rent stabilization laws at the city and county levels. Gross has been involved in the process of rent control in L.A. for a long time, and he says the signs from the board are encouraging.
“It would be strictly a good government policy stance on the part of the Board of Supervisors recognizing there is a tremendous need to protect tenants in unincorporated areas,” Gross says.
Rent in the unincorporated areas of East L.A. has been increasing at a rate of nearly 9 percent a month in the past year, according to data provided by Zillow. The median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment there was $2,140 in March.
That is more than the estimated $2,120 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in Eagle Rock, according to data scientists at Apartment List. In L.A. as a whole, rents have increased 4.9% from what they were at this time last year, according to Apartment List.
Renters in unincorporated areas of the county like East L.A. have few of the tenant protections enjoyed by their counterparts within the city limits.
“Right now those tenants are literally sitting ducks,” Gross says. “The landlords can raise the rent as much as they want, as many times as they want, and evict you whenever they want. There are anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation laws but those things are very hard to enforce.”
Rent control laws limit how much and how often rent can be increased, limit late fees and require landlords to give a reason when asking a tenant to move.
Supervisor Solís told the Weekly that a lack of tenant protections has led to “neighborhood instability and long-time tenant displacement.” She said without such protections, initiative like funding and building new affordable housing would be "undermined."
Plenty of cities within L.A. County have rent control laws — Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Santa Monica, L.A.
Gross says that historically renters in the unincorporated areas have lacked the numbers and the clout to push for rent control with the Board. Especially after onetime strongholds of tenant organizing like West Hollywood, Santa Clarita and Malibu withdrew from the county and incorporated.
Without pressure from the most organized renter base, the then-Reaganite majority at the Hahn Center did away with rent control. East L.A. remained unincorporated and the tenants there were outnumbered and outgunned by landlords and developers.
Gross says the moment is ripe for change and that people will acknowledge the need
“Now the housing crisis has gotten so severe there’s a new movement to push for a new law.”
A procession of about 30 tenants-rights activists from East L.A. and the Eastside marched to the County Board of Supervisors on Thursday of last week.
The unincorporated area of East L.A. is nearly 97 percent Latino, according to Mapping L.A. — making it the most ethnically monolithic area in all of L.A. County.
Noah Grynberg, an attorney for the L.A. Center for Community Law & Action, was one of the march organizers.
Grynberg said the march was planned by a coalition of groups without any knowledge the Board was planning to introduce a motion on tenant protections.
"I have no idea if the advocacy which we've already done had anything to do with that push," Grynberg says. "We've been trying to contact the office of Supervisor Solis about this issue. We've been planning this event for a couple of weeks. I know or suspect they've been aware of it for a long time."
At the end of the march, Carolina Rodríguez, a mother of six children in East L.A., delivered a letter for Supervisor Solís. It details how the new owner of her apartment building converted it to student housing and increased her rent from $1,250 to $2,000.
Rodriguez has won two verdicts rolling back the rent increase in L.A. Superior Court. Rodríguez claims the apartment is cockroach-infested, water-damaged and derelict; that rent was increased but no fixes were made.
A judge could reinstate the amount of the rent increase if the landlord demonstrates that he has complied with his obligations pursuant to the judgement in the case.
Three deputies from Supervisor Solís's office came downstairs and accepted the letter and met with protesters at the entrance. One of them, economic development deputy Russell Horning, set down a case of water bottles as a friendly gesture.
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Horning told the crowd, “The supervisor has expressed strong interest in identifying this as a key component of housing and community stability.” He said the Board will hear the motion on Tuesday and encouraged them to attend and speak to the issue.
A man standing with his arms folded said, “The County needs to take action now. Gentrification is eating into the incomes of families.”
Rodriguez read aloud a poem she wrote for the occasion, "Las cucarachas of East L.A." which she says was inspired by a slur directed at her by an attorney for her landlord.
The closing line is, “Las cucarachas from East L.A. are here to stay."