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Housing and Homelessness

Here’s How One West Hollywood Renter Fought An Illegal Rent Hike And Won

Brian Cunha stands in front of an apartment building wearing a white T-shirt.
Brian Cunha successfully overturned a rent hike of $350 at this apartment building.
(David Wagner
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In many parts of Los Angeles County, local governments have banned rent hikes during the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite those laws, tenants still face demands from landlords to pay more.

Whether they can fight those rent hikes often depends on where they live.

LISTEN: A Renter In West Hollywood Takes On A Rent Increase

“Unfortunately, there's no consistency as to how various cities or governmental agencies are handling these types of issues,” said Trinidad Ocampo, the directing attorney of housing programs at Neighborhood Legal Services of L.A. County.

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Some parts of L.A. County with COVID-19 rent freezes in place have still allowed landlords to increase rents during the pandemic. Enforcement depends on which city’s jurisdiction you fall under, and it can vary widely from block to block. This spotty enforcement, tenant advocates say, has led to confusion — and potential housing instability.

“Property owners are trying to find ways around those protections,” Ocampo said. “Through the pandemic, certain jurisdictions have imposed greater protections.”

“I Told Him That’s Not Legal”

Brian Cunha’s apartment in West Hollywood is cozy — just enough room for him and his dog.

“It’s a small studio,” he said. “I can lay in bed and fry an egg at the same time.”

Space is tight, and there’s construction noise next door. But he loves the neighborhood. That’s why he recently fought a $350 rent hike — and won.

“I've lost so many friends in West Hollywood that have had to leave because they couldn't afford the rent,” Cunha said. “I felt like if I stood up to this, maybe in a small way I could make a difference.”

Cunha moved to his new place in June of 2020, right as the pandemic was hollowing out L.A.

“Everyone was leaving,” he recalled. “When I got here, there were moving trucks. Long-term tenants were leaving the building. Everyone was scared at that point. No one wanted to live in a city.”

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With landlords struggling to fill vacant units, Cunha was able to negotiate his rent to $1,550 per month.

Your L.A. Rent Hike Cheat Sheet
  • Click here to read our LAist guide to allowable rent increases throughout L.A. County.

But when his lease came up for renewal, his landlord said he’d have to start paying $1,900 — an increase of nearly 23%.

“I objected to it. I told him that it's not legal,” Cunha said. “I would not have moved in had I known that was going to be the rent.”

How To Fight And Win A Rent Increase in West Hollywood

But the landlord told Cunha to take another look at his lease. It included a clause on page three, labeled “additions and exceptions,” describing the $1,550 per month in rent he’d been paying as a temporary reduction. The landlord said that discount was now going away, meaning Cunha now owed $350 more each month.

Hoping to resolve the dispute, Cunha contacted the city’s Rent Stabilization Division.

“I filed what's called a MAR hearing — maximum allowable rent in West Hollywood,” he said.

The filing led to a public hearing before the city’s Rent Stabilization Commission. The landlord’s representative laid out their case. Cunha laid out his.

It's essentially an illegal rent increase.
— Jonathan Holub, West Hollywood rent stabilization manager

To his relief, the city sided with Cunha, saying the rent he’d been paying from the start of his tenancy should determine increases moving forward — not a lease clause saying his actual rent was much higher.

“What the landlord was trying to do by increasing the rent subsequent to the initiation of the tenancy is not permitted under the existing law,” said Jonathan Holub, West Hollywood’s rent stabilization manager. “It's essentially an illegal rent increase.”

During normal times, West Hollywood limits annual increases in rent-controlled housing based on inflation, calculated as 75% of the local Consumer Price Index. Those limits have ranged anywhere from 0 to 4%.

Currently, the city bans all increases during the pandemic. Holub said landlords can’t use tactics such as discount clauses to get around the ban.

“They can't then just decide they're going to raise it at some future point,” he said. “That completely undermines the purpose behind rent stabilization.”

When the decision came down, Cunha said he felt, “Vindicated. It was a very, very stressful year.”

A group of people participate in the annual LA Pride Parade in West Hollywood, California, on June 9, 2019.
People participate in the annual LA Pride Parade in West Hollywood, California, on June 9, 2019.
(DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images

Two Cities. Two Very Different Outcomes

 Cunha was lucky to live in West Hollywood, a city founded in 1984 when LGBTQ+ residents, seniors and tenants banded together to push for stronger rent controls. If he had been living a few blocks away in the city of L.A., he would’ve lost the rent dispute.

Tenants in L.A.’s Koreatown recently faced the same kind of rent hike as Cunha. West Hollywood bans the practice. But the city of L.A. says it’s perfectly legal.

City officials point to a section in L.A.’s rent control law saying, “landlords may offer temporary rent discounts.”

City council president Nury Martinez’s office supported that reading and deferred us to L.A.’s housing department, which has maintained that landlords can raise rents based on discount clauses written into leases — even when tenants never realized they were getting a discount.

“We will be working with the Housing Department and the City Attorney to look at what other cities have done on this issue,” said Martinez’s spokesperson Sophie Gilchrist.

UCLA researcher Kathryn Leifheit sits at a laptop and pulls up the online map she created showing allowable rent increases across L.A. County.
UCLA researcher Kathryn Leifheit pulls up the online map she created showing allowable rent increases across L.A. County.
(David Wagner/LAist)

Unaffordable Rent Hikes Can Take A Toll On Health

Inconsistent enforcement between cities isn’t just confusing, said UCLA assistant professor Kathryn Leifheit — it can also end up harming tenants’ health.

“If you don't have stable, affordable, safe housing, then it's really hard to thrive and to stay well,” said Leifheit, who does epidemiological research on the links between housing and health.

Research from Leifheit and her colleagues has shown that COVID-19 cases and deaths rose dramatically when states ended their eviction moratoriums in earlier phases of the pandemic. But she said COVID-19 isn’t the only bad outcome for tenants facing unaffordable rent hikes.

“We know that when pregnant moms get evicted, they're more likely to give birth to babies that are low birth weight or preterm,” Leifheit said. “We know that when kids get evicted, they're more likely to go food insecure, and have developmental issues and problems concentrating in school.”

After receiving a 17% rent hike notice in her own apartment in Santa Monica last month, Leifheit decided to do some digging. She found that her rent increase was way over the limit in her city.

Wanting to help tenants figure out the rules where they live, Leifheit referenced our written guide on allowable rent increases throughout L.A. to create an online map showing what increases are permitted, and where.

Looking at the map, Leifheit said, “It's complicated. You look at the map, and it's this crazy patchwork all over the county.”

If tenants lack this information, Leifheit worries they may end up agreeing to pay illegal rent hikes — and some may even lose their housing.

“Unfortunately, I think right now, it comes down to the individual tenant to both know their rights and enforce their rights,” she said. “And that's not a good system.”

Tenants can reach out to the L.A. city and county-funded resource for legal assistance. 

What questions do you have about housing in Southern California?