Wendell Jones has lived in the same West Hollywood apartment for the last 20 years.

He pays only $700 a month for a studio in the small city, a desirable community between Los Angeles and Beverly Hills where he says the same apartment could fetch more than $1,500 a month on the open market.

And he owes it all to a strictly regulated rental market.

“Today I’m a senior and I got to be a senior in West Hollywood because of rent control,” said the 63-year-old. “If I lose the place I am in now, there’s no place in West Hollywood I could afford to move to. I would probably have to move east of L.A. or move to another state.”

That’s the kind of housing security activists are trying to bring 3,000 miles east to Portland, where about 57 percent of the city’s 66,500 residents are renters.

But landlords and affordable housing developers here warn that a proposal on the Nov. 7 ballot to limit rent increases and increase oversight of the rental market could end up hurting low-income and homeless people in their quest for housing. They also fear that rent regulation will lead to an overall loss of apartments, as some property owners will convert rentals into condominiums, and to a decline in the quality of an aging housing inventory. About half of Portland’s stock was built before 1939.

Proponents point to communities such as West Hollywood and say the warnings are overblown and unfounded, and part of a well-worn playbook used by landlords and developers across the nation to try to defeat rent regulations.

“Empirically, hundreds of cities have done this and we have seen that all of the catastrophes that are predicted never come to pass,” said Jack O’Brien, an organizer with Fair Rent Portland, which drafted the proposal and collected the signatures to put it on the Nov. 7 ballot.

On the other side, landlords in the Los Angeles region say rent control has harmed the market, and city data shows hundreds of apartments have been taken off the market, including by converting them to condos.

Fred Sutton, director of government affairs for the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, which represents about 9,000 landlords, described rent control proponents in California have become “extremist groups” who rely on propaganda to counter studies that show the negative effects of rent control.

“The benefits of rent control are far outweighed by the negative consequences,” Sutton said, noting that many duplexes and triplexes are being converted into single-family homes, leading to a loss of supply.

“The goal should be to bring on more housing. Rent control does not create a single new unit.”

EAST COAST AND WEST COAST

There are significant differences between Portland and cities such as West Hollywood that have rent limits, making direct comparisons difficult. For example, other cities have found that adoption of the rent limits leads to repeated efforts to improve and fine-tune the rules, or to challenge them. In Portland, however, the city has to live with any ordinance that voters approve for five years because of rules governing citizen initiatives outlined in the city code.

Rents in Portland increased by nearly 40 percent in a five-year period ending in 2015. In the last two years, rents have leveled off, but there is still a significant gap between what people can afford to pay in rent, usually defined as 30 percent of income, and what they actually pay.

The citizen initiative on Tuesday’s ballot could make Portland the only Maine city to regulate rents. If enacted, it would limit rent increases to the rate of inflation for landlords with six or more units and empower a rent board to oversee the city’s rental market and hear appeals of some evictions. The ordinance exempts some units, including owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes, as well new apartments built after Jan. 1, 2017.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES?

Members of Say No To Rent Control, the well-funded opposition group, have argued the ordinance will backfire on the market and create legal conflicts, but passage would mean Portland will be stuck with any unintended negative consequences, including legal fees, for years to come.

“It’s very concerning, especially if there are aspects of the ordinance that are illegal,” said spokesman Brit Vitalius, who pointed to changes in the eviction process and empowering a renter board to impose fines as examples of conflicts with state and local law.

“You’re stuck with an illegal ordinance and then you have to hire attorneys to sort out the problems.”

Portland’s ordinance is unique, but it is partly modeled after similar rules adopted in West Hollywood and Takoma Park, Maryland. Rent regulations in those communities have constantly evolved over the last 30 years or so, including within the first five years after being adopted.

O’Brien said Fair Rent Portland looked to those communities, because they are relatively small and have decades of experience with their respective program and “some of the most refined ordinances” in the country.

Both communities established a board or commission to oversee the program and both allow landlords to raise rent once a year, within limits tied to the rate of inflation.

West Hollywood only allows rent increases of 75 percent of inflation, while Portland would follow the example of Takoma Park, which allows increases equal to inflation.

All three ordinances allow landlords to petition for additional increases to cover capital investments. But, in Portland, rents could not be raised by more than 10 percent in any given year.

One big difference between Portland’s ordinance and West Hollywood’s is known as perpetual tenancy.

Out west, tenants have the right to stay in an apartment as long as they want, provided they continue to pay rent and meet other lease requirements. But Maine law allows for at-will tenancy, which means a landlord can choose not to renew the lease of a tenant with 30 days notice.

That’s one of the reasons Portland’s ordinance does not allow landlords to freely set rents when an apartment turns over, while landlords in West Hollywood can.

Without that rule in Portland, landlords could remove tenants whenever they want to raise rents beyond what the limits allow.

Rent stabilization in West Hollywood, albeit controversial, has been a success for tenants, according to Larry Gross, the executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, which advocates for rent control throughout California.

It “levels the playing field” between landlords and tenants and prevents rent gouging and arbitrary evictions, he said.

“We think the only reason in many areas where there are still working people and seniors is because of rent control,” Gross said. “Without rent control, West Hollywood would have probably turned into Beverly Hills east because it would have become a place that only high-income people could afford.”

At apartment buildings in West Hollywood, tenants also may stay as long as they want, provided they meet lease requirements. But Maine law allows for at-will tenancy. Photo by Sean Myers for the Portland Press Herald.

RENT CONTROL AS FOUNDATION

West Hollywood was built on rent control, according to Gross. Real estate speculation led to $100- to $300-a-month rent increases several times a year in the 1970s.

When the city incorporated itself in 1984, rent control activists were elected to the council and they immediately rolled back rents and banned arbitrary evictions.

Landlords protested by painting their buildings Soviet-red, warning of communism. But they were outmatched in a fledgling city of of 34,000 people, about 80 percent of whom are renters.

Unlike Portland’s proposed ordinance, West Hollywood immediately added maintenance standards for its buildings that were above and beyond health and safety codes. They required landlords to paint the walls at least every four years and change the drapes and carpets every seven years, among other things.

West Hollywood’s program led to frequent clashes between landlords and tenants.

Landlords accused tenants of damaging drapes and carpets to win rent reductions from the rent board, while tenants complained that landlords were harassing them in an effort to drive them out, so they could increase rents beyond what was allowed in the ordinance.

That dynamic led to anti-harassment rules and both landlords and tenants have been successfully fined under the ordinance.

Some landlords never fully accepted the new rent rules and chipped away at the ordinance in court and at the state level.

In 1988, California’s Ellis Act allowed landlords to remove their units from the rental markets by going out of business. In 1995, the Costa-Hawkins Act allowed landlords to increase rents without limits whenever a unit was vacated by a tenant.

Gross said those efforts have led to loopholes in the ordinance. But Sutton described them as “a lifeline” for landlords.

A SHRINKING POOL

In 1989, about 19,700 units were rent controlled, but by 2015 only 16,832 were covered. According to the 2015 annual report on the West Hollywood’s rent stabilization program, nearly 750 units were taken off the market under the Ellis Act, with about half of those units being used by the property owner’s family, 35 percent in the pipeline for redevelopment and 8 percent being converted into a bed and breakfast.

Most of the units that dropped out of the rent-controlled pool did so because of another state law that exempted single-family homes and condominium rentals, according to Chris Uszler, the information coordinator for West Hollywood’s Rent Stabilization and Housing program.

Vitalius, spokesman for opposition in Portland, has warned in the past that landlords will convert rentals to condos to avoid rent regulation but said last week he would not predict what landlords might do if Question 1 on the Portland ballot passes on Tuesday, other than saying “it will be a train wreck.”

He stressed that the experiences in other communities are not a good indicator of what will happen in Portland, because those housing markets are basically suburbs of large cities and the state laws are so different.

O’Brien, meanwhile, downplayed any conflicts the ordinance may have with existing city or state laws.

He said that the city typically uses its discretion about how it enforces all of its ordinances and this one would be no different. He hopes that if it passes, landlords will work with city officials and renters to figure out a way to make it work, rather than litigate it.

Meanwhile, Jones, the West Hollywood renter, said rent stabilization can add some predictability for renters, especially for people who live on a fixed income like himself.

“It can really help stabilize people’s lives,” he said. “It makes a huge difference, especially for seniors.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

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