Your Jan. 9 article regarding estimates of rental units that may need upgrades has generated several letters to the editor that express unfair criticism of the Rent Control Agency based on incorrect or incomplete facts.

One letter to the editor suggested, incorrectly, that the agency spent nearly $4 million holding 29 administrative rent-decrease hearings in 2012, at a cost of roughly $160,000 each (“Praise for landlords,” Letter to the Editor, Jan. 10). Another complains of a rent-increase process that the writer characterizes as somehow unfair or unreasonable (“Broken system,” Letter to the Editor, Jan. 14). As the chair of the Rent Control Board, I’d like to set the factual record straight and offer some additional perspective.

The Rent Control Board’s roughly $4 million budget pays for a great deal more than the holding of rent-decrease hearings. One of the largest services that board staff provides is the provision of information to the public — landlords and tenants alike. In 2012, more than 13,500 people sought information from the board’s staff in City Hall either by telephone, by e-mail or in person at the public counter. Most of these inquiries came from tenants and property owners seeking information about their rights and responsibilities under the rent control law.

Among the many topics discussed, maintenance of rental units or reductions in housing services, were a couple of the most common. Tenants seeking repairs or maintenance or the return of base housing services are counseled to discuss these issues directly with the property owner and to put their requests in writing. In the majority of cases, these simple steps lead to a satisfactory resolution of the problem. However, if repairs are still needed or housing services are not restored, tenants may file a petition with the Rent Control Board seeking an adjustment in the rent.

As your letter writer notes, the board held 29 rent-decrease hearings in 2012. But this number does not reflect the much larger number of petitions that were filed, but that did not result in a hearing due to our very successful mediation program. A trained facilitator works with both parties to informally resolve the issues, thereby limiting the number of cases that require formal hearings. Nor does the number reflect the other types of petitions filed, the thousands of registrations processed annually, or the time and money spent successfully defending the board against frivolous litigation, including suits that the board prevailed in, initiated by some of the same persons who wrote letters critical of the board.

Another writer commented that, in recent years, very few landlords have filed rent-increase petitions. While this is true, it is not because, as your letter writer suggests, the increase petition process is unreasonable or unfair. Rather, it is because, for many landlords, the process is unnecessary due to the high level of income that they are already receiving as the result of ordinary tenant turnover. State law mandates that landlords may set the rents for new tenancies at the highest level that the market will bear, and most landlords have done so. By the end of 2012, roughly two-thirds of rent-controlled units had been rented at market rates due to state-mandated vacancy decontrol. More than 90 percent of Santa Monica landlords had one or more market-rate-paying tenants. Many are collecting market-rate rents from well over half of their units.

The rent-increase process is not intended to ensure that landlords maximize their profits; it is intended as a safety valve to ensure that rent control doesn’t deprive them of their constitutional right to a fair return. In view of market rents that most Santa Monica landlords are collecting, they are already earning far more than the fair return to which the constitution (and, indeed, the City Charter) entitles them. That there are fewer rent-increase petitions as more units are rented at market-rate is not evidence of a system that is unfair to landlords, but of the healthy state of most landlords’ balance sheets.

But for those few landlords who are not achieving a fair return, the process is, and will remain, available.

It has become sadly uncommon in our highly polarized society for people to engage in civil, fact-based debate. It is not enough to disagree; those whose opinions we don’t share must be characterized as misguided or foolish, if not actually corrupt. It is perhaps the certainty that those who disagree with us are unworthy that we feel free to invent or mischaracterize facts in order to dispute their positions; it feels like a wrong committed in service to a greater good. As the chair of the Rent Control Board, it should come as no surprise that I fully support rent control and the policy behind it. But I recognize that others do not, and I fully support their right to say so. But I urge everyone to base their arguments in actual facts, not mischaracterizations and half-truths.

Toward that end, I’d like to encourage anyone interested in learning more about the services of the Rent Control Board to visit our office in City Hall, check out the agency’s website (smgov.net/rentcontrol), attend one of the community meetings/seminars offered by staff, read the board’s biannual newsletters mailed to all tenants and property owners, or review the board’s 2012 Annual Report, which can be found on the website. The 2013 annual report is being prepared for presentation at a board meeting this spring.

I also invite you to attend one of the board’s regularly scheduled meetings and let us know what you’re thinking. Meetings are held on the second Thursday of each month in the City Council Chambers at 7 p.m.

 

Todd Flora is the chairperson for the Santa Monica Rent Control Board. He can be reached at thetoddflora@gmail.com.