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Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

Monday may be the official 20th anniversary for the city
of West Hollywood, and the big birthday bash may be on for the following week,
but this Friday is the date many would-be residents of the self-described Creative
City have entered into their personal data assistants. That’s because Friday
is the deadline to sign onto the waiting list for the city’s “moderate
income” inclusionary housing program. It’s the last chance for quite some
time, in other words, to move into West Hollywood if you’re not filthy rich.

Like similar programs in other small cities around California,
the West Hollywood inclusionary housing program allows tenants to grab an apartment
at less than market rate. The units are available because the city requires
builders who want to cash in on the housing boom to offer a percentage of their
developments to renters who can’t afford to pay whatever the market will bear.

It’s a continuation of the tenants-rights movement that formed
the foundation of the cityhood movement two decades ago.

With property values and rents around Southern California soaring
in the 1970s, a number of cities including Los Angeles adopted rent-control
laws that strictly limited the annual increases that landlords could charge
their tenants. Rent-stabilization ordinances generally went hand-in-hand with
Proposition 13, which granted property owners relief from taxes that kept rising
to keep pace with real estate values.

But Los Angeles County supervisors, who had jurisdiction over
the 1.9 square miles of unincorporated territory that was West Hollywood, adopted
a fairly weak rent-control law, and it was due to expire. Paul Koretz, now a
state assemblyman, recalls that 1,000 to 2,000 seniors were about to have their
rents doubled. A ballot measure fell short.

So activists in the Coalition for Economic Survival, which had
been organizing tenants around the county since 1973, helped West Hollywood
renters take matters into their own hands with a drive for independence.

“Seniors in their 70s, 80s and 90s circulated most of the
petitions for cityhood,” Koretz said. The coalition-supported candidates
were elected to four out of five City Council seats in the first election in
1984, and the organization has been represented on the council ever since.

The years that followed have brought a tug-of-war between city
leaders intent on keeping the cost of housing in their city affordable, and
business interests, often backed by the state Legislature, who insisted that
the progressive city was revoking their property rights. After a court ruling
backed up the right of cities like West Hollywood to continue offering rental
property for rent, instead of selling, razing it and redeveloping it, the Legislature
passed the Ellis Act in 1986 to give landlords an unconditional right to sell.
Under another state law, West Hollywood retains rent control but cannot block
landlords from jacking up rents after a tenant moves out.

That means that as tenants in even the most tightly controlled
apartments die or move on, the city’s median rent creeps up toward the astronomical
market rate seen today. Rent stabilization doesn’t apply at all to the most
recently built apartments. That’s where inclusionary housing comes in.

The city’s version of the program, which has been on the books
nearly from the start, allows developers of projects with 20 or fewer units
to forgo offering below-market apartments by paying a fee, or constructing the
lower-priced units elsewhere. The fees are payable to a city trust fund for
affordable housing — a prototype for a fund established several years ago in
the city of Los Angeles. Money from the fund is used to assist developers of
more affordable housing get past the planning stage.

The chance to place the required affordable units elsewhere in
the city works in part because West Hollywood is so small. A relatively low-cost
apartment is walking distance from City Hall, and virtually all that the Creative
City has to offer, no matter where it is built — as long as it is somewhere
within city boundaries.

Councilwoman Abbe Land, who was elected to the council the same
year the Ellis Act undercut some of the city’s most pro-tenant posture, noted
that affordable housing has retained a higher profile in the city in part because
the city’s size makes it work so well.

“When L.A. is doing affordable housing, they could be doing
many projects, but you don’t see them,” she said. In West Hollywood, they
are an integral part of the city’s image.

So how affordable is “affordable”? Applicants who live
alone and want a place in line for the moderate-income program must earn between
$36,670 and $45,837. Earn less, and you won’t be able to afford even the below-market
rent. The city’s low-income housing list is for you but, alas, the list is closed.
Earn more, and you’re left to the free market. Good luck.

If you fall into the proper range, you might get a studio for
up to $693, a one-bedroom for $792.

Two-person households must earn between $39,603 and $49,504. The
qualifications go up to the five-person household, where combined earnings of
$48,404 to $60,505 qualifies. But only two people are allowed per bedroom, to
avoid overcrowding.

The city verifies your income. Start earning more, and you could
get evicted. Numbers are adjusted annually by the City Council.

Information is available on the city’s Inclusionary Housing Hotline,
(323) 848-6851, or on the city’s Web site, www.weho.org.

The Coalition for Economic Survival remains active in West Hollywood.
The organization conducts tenants-rights legal clinics every Wednesday evening
at 7 p.m. and every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. at the Plummer Park community
center, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd.

LA Weekly