Culver City Votes To Seriously Explore Rent Freeze At Packed City Hall Meeting

Members of a group called Protect Culver City Renters hold a press conference outside City Hall to call for a rent freeze, June 24, 2019. (David Wagner/KPCC)

Housing costs continue to spiral upwards in Southern California. Wages aren't keeping pace. And that tension has many communities without rent control considering it.

Culver City is the latest place feeling pressure to take up new tenant protections. On Monday night, an overflow crowd packed into city council chambers to discuss a temporary rent freeze — the first step toward adopting more permanent caps on annual rent hikes.

"This is about housing justice," said Scott Kecken, one of more than 100 residents who signed up to speak on the item.

He said his family was hit with a 30% rent increase in 2016, and renters need better protections to prevent further such increases.

"We know the market isn't working," Kecken said.

The meeting, which stretched past 1 a.m., culminated in a 4-1 vote to instruct city staff to come up with a plan for implenting a rent freeze, which the city council would finalize at a later date. It's not the first time Culver City's discussion of affordable housing and rent control have turned into hours of debate.

Culver City's decision to seriously study rent control comes after recent rent control expansions in other parts of Los Angeles.

  • Nearby Inglewood set annual rent caps at 5% earlier this month, with some exceptions.
  • Los Angeles County supervisors have set limits on rent increases in unincorporated parts of the County.
  • Tenant rights activists are pushing to get rent control measures on the ballot in cities like Pasadena.

JOBS OUTPACE HOUSING

Culver City is a small Westside city of about 40,000. Historically a hub for studio film production, it has more recently become a prime destination for tech and streaming giants expanding their presence near Hollywood and L.A.'s "Silicon Beach."

Apple has plans to hire 1,000 employees in Culver City in coming years, and Amazon is slated to move its Amazon Studios production arm into the city in 2021.

The result has been a huge imbalance in jobs and housing. About 60,000 people work in Culver City, but the city only has about 17,500 units of housing.

"We're kind of a victim of our success," Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells told LAist.

"We're providing really high quality jobs and lots of economic opportunity. But increasingly, people who have historically lived in Culver City can no longer afford to do so," she said.

PRESSURE ON RENTERS

The city's hot housing market has put pressure on residents like Aura Walker, a single mom who first moved to Culver City with her daughter in 2006.

At first her rent was reasonable, she said. But then her landlord started raising her rent by $200 per month every year. Walker said eventually, he made it clear he wanted her out of the unit.

"I was having, like, anxiety attacks for about a year before we moved, because I really felt the pressure coming," Walker said.

Walker landed on her feet. She found a rent-controlled apartment just across the border in the city of Los Angeles. And to her relief, her daughter was allowed to stay in Culver City's school district.

But Walker said others in her neighborhood — the elderly, younger families, the city's black middle class — haven't been as lucky.

"The idea that families are getting displaced because of these giant tech corporations — there's kind of a sense of injustice," Walker said.

Walker has joined other residents who've formed a group called Protect Culver City Renters. They're pushing for a year-long 3% rent cap, retroactive to April 23, 2019. They say that would give the city time to craft permanent rules. They hope to see protection similar to what has already passed in other parts of L.A.

Currently, Culver City is one of the few areas on the Westside with no local rent caps or eviction protections.

About 47% of Culver City households are renters. And with median priced homes selling for nearly $1 million, few can afford to buy a house in the city. More than 22 percent of Culver City renters are putting more than half of their paycheck toward rent.

According to a recent report from the apartment listings website Zumper, Culver City is the fourth-most expensive place to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the L.A. metro area.

WHAT LANDLORDS SAY

Many property owners attended the meeting to speak against capping rent increases in Culver City.

Some, wearing stickers that read "Responsible Housing Provider," said they were small, mom-and-pop landlords who don't sharply raise rents on their tenants. They also said they chose to buy property in Culver City specifically because it did not have rent control on the books.

Keith Jones was among the landlords who spoke up saying that their tenants don't seem to be struggling financially.

"One of our tenants just bought a brand new $70,000 Tesla," Jones said. "And my other tenant drives a $70,000 Audi."

Many also argued rent control would do nothing to increase the supply of housing, which they said is the underlying cause of the affordable housing crisis in Culver City and beyond.

However, a small number of landlords spoke in favor of the rent freeze. James Province said he's a rental property owner, but he didn't want to see Culver City's teachers, janitors and other workers priced out of the area.

"Tenants should not have to commute four hours a day to serve our community," Province said. "Tenants should not have to choose between paying rent and buying food or medication."

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