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Freda Mendelsohn applied for a rent decrease but was denied by her landlord. More tenants have been asking the Rent Control Board about rent decreases because of the struggling economy making it harder to make rent. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — At 87, Freda Mendelsohn still has an independent streak.

The Santa Monica resident lives alone and travels to Downtown Los Angeles some days to fill in as a federal court reporter, earning money to supplement her pension of a few hundred dollars and her Social Security check.

But, in recent months, work at the courthouse has become more sporadic, and with money tight, she made the difficult decision to ask her landlord for a temporary rent reduction.

“I’m not the only one that’s in trouble,” she said. “There are so many people who are in even worse trouble.”

Mendelsohn is one of a growing number of Santa Monica residents living in rent controlled apartments who have sought temporary relief because of financial difficulties in the past year, said Tracy Condon, administrator of the city’s Rent Control Board.

“We’ve been hearing [requests for temporary rent reductions], certainly, for the past year or so as the economy has changed and people are feeling the impact,” Condon said.

Any agreement to reduce rent has to be reached between tenant and landlord; the Rent Control Board doesn’t have authority to grant rent reductions.

But after being approached about the issue from tenants and landlords, Condon said the board’s staff decided to include information explaining the policy on temporary rent reductions in its latest newsletter. She said, in the past year, the board has received a handful of inquiries each week about temporary reductions.

Under the Rent Control Board’s existing policy, if an owner reduces rent for an agreed upon time period, the maximum allowable rent, or MAR, is not affected unless the temporary reduction occurs during the first term of tenancy. If the reduction occurs during the first term, the new MAR is determined by the average monthly rent paid during the first term.

Michael Millman, an attorney and property owner in Santa Monica who urged the board to clarify its policy on temporary rent reductions, said many landlords are offering tenants temporary reductions in a time of high vacancies.

“It’s not the tenants that are coming to the owners, it’s the owners coming to the tenant saying, ‘Look, if you stay here I’ll reduce your rent,’” he said.

It was important for the Rent Control Board to clarify the rules to prevent potential disputes once the economy improves and owners want to increase rents, he said.

Millman said, given the Rent Control Board’s “spiritual, intellectual and philosophical make up,” owners were concerned that tenants might be able to successfully argue temporary rent reductions should become permanent.

Wes Wellman, president of Wellman Realty Co. and the Action Apartment Association, which represents scores of landlords in Santa Monica, agreed that it’s become more common for local apartment owners to grant temporary reductions in rent.

“In the vast majority of cases, owners have learned that it’s better to adjust [rents] to market” rather than risk ending up with empty buildings, he said. Landlords have lately become “very proactive working to retain tenants,” he added.

Still, not every request for a temporary rent reduction meets with approval.

In a letter to her landlord in November, Mendelsohn, who pays $717 a month for a one bedroom apartment on Stanford Street south of Wilshire Boulevard, explained her difficulties before asking for leniency.

“The work that I have been doing as a contract reporter has been severely cut back,” she wrote. “I am 87 years old and in need of a knee replacement and will be incapacitated for probably six months so that I will have to live on my Social Security income … . This is a very difficult favor for me to ask, but my situation is such, as you can see, [that it’s] necessary for me to make this request of you.”

The response she received from RDM Management, Inc. the next day denied her request.

“Based on the market rents in your area and other rent amounts in your building, your current rent is far below market rent,” the letter said in explanation.

“I was disappointed, but I wasn’t surprised,” Mendelsohn said. “It leaves me with hardly anything. My children started to help me — at least I’ll have food.”

Robert Kronovet, a rent control board member and property manager, said he’s happy to hear from constituents, but added it’s inappropriate for the board to intervene in disputes where there’s no allegation of mistreatment by either party.

“[Tenants] can vent their issue as they wish but the Rent Control Board is not designed to interfere with the relationship between a tenant and their housing provider,” he said.

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