Culver City mayor, councilwoman debate rent issues

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By Cynthia Gibson

Contributing Writer

CULVER CITY— This summer, Wave Contributing Writer Cynthia Gibson spoke with Culver City Mayor Göran Eriksson and Councilwoman Meghan Sahli-Wells about their views on rent control in Culver City. Sahli-Wells sees these measures as a way to control rent prices that are driving individuals and families out of Culver City.

Eriksson also supports renter protections, but believes rent control is not a solution to affordability and keeping struggling families in their homes.

CG: The state of California already has a rent control ordinance. Why do you feel Culver City should have its own ordinance?

Meghan Sahili-Wells:  California is the most populous state in the nation. it’s obviously very diverse and not every city and county and town has the same needs or the same pressures. And so I’m really glad that there is overall rent control for the entire state, but the renter protections in Visalia, for example, and the renter-tenant pressures in a place like Culver City are vastly different. The state rent control measure allows for up to a 10% yearly increase. I don’t know many families, whether they’re paying a mortgage or rent, who can on a year-to-year basis afford a 10% increase. And that’s why the rent control measures that we’ve been working on in Culver City are more protective. It would be up to 3%. Being able to tailor [rent control to] our community’s needs is very important.

CG: How do rent control and tenant protections affect the landlords?

MSW: Landlords can still increase the rent up to 3% every single year. And when we did our analysis, it was recommended that rents increase by about 3% every year, which is great. That means to me that this is a reasonable increase. The problem is that even though 3% was the average, there are still outliers. There were still people who were doing rent hikes that were a lot more than 3%.

The idea behind rent control is what some people call ‘rent stabilization.’ It sounds really wonky, but the core idea of stability, I think, is the most important thing. And the reason I think it’s an important measure for us to take is stability means that as a family you can make a plan, things are predictable. You’re not going to have a huge spike in your rent from one month to the other, let alone from one year to the next, when we all know, unfortunately, that salaries have not increased 3% every year.  Nothing else has risen that much, so I would say that landlords are getting a pretty good deal. I wish that everybody else was. At least it’s something that is predictable, stable and they can make a plan.

CG:  Do you think rent control is more effective and helps more individuals and families than rental assistance programs?

MSW: What we’ve seen, for example, with Section 8, the federal program to subsidize rent, is there is never enough. The wait list for folks only opens up once every five or 10 years and as soon as they open up, that wait list fills up within an hour or two. The problem within Culver City, and in Southern California in general, is that we have very high rents already.

What ends up happening is that even if you are income-qualified to get government assistance for your rent, there is no rent in Culver City or very few that you can pay for with these subsidies. It’s basically locked people out because the prices are so high here.

I definitely support rent subsidies, but there will never be enough. It’s very important to help everybody in our community, low income, middle income, etc. My fear is that I don’t want to lose the families that have been born and raised in Culver City because landlords can charge market rates.

The rental assistance program, which I supported and I voted for. … Now, how far did that go? How many families did that help? It helped some families and that’s important and I supported it. But, it’s like Section 8 all over again. You are extremely limited in the amount of people that you’re helping and the problem affects everybody, not just the people who are impoverished. When you have a policy in place that protects everybody equally, you just get a lot more bang for your buck.

CG: Why did you vote no on the rent control ordinance?

GE: When we vote on rent control, the tenant who today is paying $2,500 a month for an apartment — and that is 50% or more of their income — the day after we have instituted rent control, they still pay $2,500 and it’s still more than 50% of their income. It doesn’t do anything towards changing that situation. And going forward, it will not do anything either because rents will go up with inflation or CPI or whatever. So it doesn’t change anything.

Also, why do we want to give a rent break to the people who make $180,000 and live in our city and are renters? I don’t think we should. We should have a means-tested program where we actually can help the individuals and the families that are struggling to stay in their homes here in Culver City. For me, that is where we should put our efforts and figure out how we can finance a program instead of … administering a rent control program when the state already has instituted one.

[We] could at least help somewhere between 70 and 80 families every year. That’s really where I’m coming from. If you listen to the tenant protection portion of the special council meeting, there I participated. I didn’t have any problems with it because I think there is a certain area that we need to improve, absolutely.  But with regards to rent control, the fact that we would control the rent, for me, is a misguided effort because it doesn’t do anything for people who today are financially challenged by the high rent. It doesn’t do anything.

CG: Have you seen a permanent rental assistance program any place else or is this just your economic observation?

GE: I know it works in other parts of the world. I don’t know for sure, but I haven’t heard about anything in California that has something like that. This is not a unique idea. This is actually a very practical solution to a real problem and not sort of window dressing. This actually helps people directly and quickly.

We’re going to start looking into this in our homelessness housing sub-committee that I’m part of. … Of course the biggest challenge is how do we finance something like this? But, I have had landlords contact me and they tell me that they are going to have to pay $50-$100 a year per unit for the rent registry and they said they don’t want to do that, it’s useless.

It doesn’t do anything because the state has a rent control law and we don’t need to do anything separate. So that’s their opinion. However, they say they would not have a problem putting that kind of money into a rent subsidy program. I find it so interesting that the landlords have expressed that they would be willing to partake in financing something like that. And that’s the key.  How are we going to pay for it? Because the city doesn’t have any money. We were lucky to have some redevelopment money for the emergency rental assistance program, but for a long-term program, we don’t have the money. We need to figure out how we’re going to finance this.