By Alfredo Santana
BELL GARDENS — By unanimous vote, the City Council here has approved a temporary freeze on housing rent increases for 90 days, giving city staff time to draft an ordinance that would be discussed for permanent rent controls.
Approved on April 25, the ordinance took effect immediately and can be extended if the anticipated rent control ordinance is not ready for adoption before the July 24 sunset date, said Community Development Director Gustavo Romo.
“It’s not a matter of whether we are going to write an ordinance,” Romo said. “We have been issued the order. The issue is what material the ordinance will include.”
Condominiums, single-family homes and apartment units built after 1975 are not affected by the provisional ordinance.
The rental freeze applies to multi-family apartment buildings and units governed by state rental laws.
Currently, state Assembly Bill 1482 allows an annual rent increase of 5% from the previous year plus the region’s inflation rate at a maximum of 5% for a total of 10%.
The council’s 5-0 vote came amid a torrent of public comments for and against the ordinance in a city mostly inhabited by blue-collar workers with average monthly rents of $1,500.
In a council meeting that lasted nearly four hours, tenants expressed support for the city council’s temporary rent increase prohibition, raising concerns about large real estate owners and management companies eager to collect higher rents but unwilling to eradicate roaches, other vermin and squalor conditions in apartments.
Among the participants, tenant Maria Padilla reminded the City Council it has a duty to support families, “the main cell in the society,” to stick together and strengthen its thread and promote good values by passing short-term rent control.
“As a mother, I implore the council to do not let us alone,” Padilla said in Spanish. “We need your support. We are fighting families lurching ahead despite the excessive rental costs, and stand up for our children well-being.”
Other tenants asked the City Council to put pressure on landlords with portfolios of more than three apartments to avoid harassing tenants, make necessary repairs and keep up with housing codes.
On the other hand, mom-and-pop landlords pushed back against the ordinance, arguing that higher repair costs caused by high inflation are denting their ability to cover repairs like plumbing, electrical upgrades, roofing and even pay utility bills.
Some chastised the City Council for considering a permanent proposal that would cap rent increases at 5% even if inflation, gauged in the consumer price index, rises above that threshold.
Claudia Castañeda, a local landlord, said rent price controls can push similar property owners to the edge and sell their units to large corporations that seek to reap profits in place of providing affordable quality housing.
“We owners have feelings too, and bills to pay,” Castañeda said. “Nobody is stopping the taxes, the water increases. Everything is getting more expensive.
“Nobody is rising rents for fun. We have families. We have to come up with something that works for everybody.” She warned elected officials that rental costs may climb above $2,000 regardless of rent controls, if small landlords sell their properties to shark landlords willing to evict tenants to raise prices.
“I’m already trying to sell my property,” Castañeda said. “Is this what the council wants? Is this what the tenants want? They probably don’t know what is going on behind [closed] doors.”
James Rodriguez, a self-described mom and pop landlord, said he and his wife worked and saved money for 60 years to purchase a house with three duplexes behind it, and work on weekends to fix plumbing, repair electrical issues and upgrade the properties while absorbing climbing costs.
He said a tax advisor told him to register the units as a limited liability company, to protect their Social Security benefits and to establish cash flow from rentals as supplemental income.
“[If rent control passes], now we’ll be looked at if we are a big company. We are not,” Rodriguez said.
Connie Rodriguez pressed city officials to tighten housing inspections and make predatory landlords accountable for negligence by turning apartments into squalors, but also spoke out against the rent control law.
“By having a rent freeze, we are breaking the community apart,” Rodriguez said. “All it makes me want to do is sell my property.”
Other landlords said the city has a duty to watch for the wellbeing of all housing stock and ensure mom and pops have enough cash flow to cover maintenance costs, particularly with inflation hard to tame.
Joel Estrada, chief operating officer of AQM Property Management, a company with a portfolio of 11 units for rent in Bell Gardens, said the short-term ordinance serves a political purpose, especially during election season.
“As to the complex issue of housing and real solutions, it seems quite arbitrary,” Estrada said. “It unnecessarily adds a layer of complexity to existing state law based on no discernible reason. Currently, rent increases can only occur once every year” at a maximum of 10%.
If a permanent rent control ordinance passes capping increases at 5% a year, the company does not plan to sell its properties, but will not try to purchase new ones, he added.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices in the Los Angeles area rose 7.9% in April compared to a year ago.
Regional Commissioner Chris Rosenlund reported that the April increase was pegged to higher prices in housing and new and used cars.
The consumer price index is based on food prices, clothing, shelter and fuels, transportation fares, charges for health and dental services, costs of medicines and goods people buy for daily living.
The measure provides temporary financial certainty to low-income renters already protected by a Los Angeles County law that bars evictions traced to COVID-19 such as loss of jobs and income due to illness, layoffs and deaths until the end of the year.
A rent control ad-hoc committee, composed of seven members that include two council members, two tenants, two landlords and a nonprofit representative are tasked with addressing issues pertaining to the drafting of the permanent rent control ordinance, with assistance from City Attorney Norma Tabares.
Tabares said at a previous meeting that rent control laws are legal if they are not so burdensome that they prevent landlords from obtaining a fair lease return.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020 Bell Gardens had 10,192 housing units, and 9,957 were occupied, with a reported homeownership of 2,201, or 21.6%.
City Clerk Jane Halstead said 47 people called to voice their approval or disapproval for the emergency ordinance, and she received 19 written comments, all against the proposed ordinance.