File photo
File photo

CITYWIDE — In the discussion of the recently approved Housing Element, the issue of apartment upgrades came up, but questions still remain.

The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, in reviewing the Housing Element, asked City Hall to estimate the number of units in need of upgrades, noting that the most recent study was done in 2006 and estimated that 3,000 may need major upgrades.

A survey, completed by the Rent Control Board in 2006, showed that about 25 percent of the units had plumbing issues. About 18 percent mentioned leaks in walls or ceilings.

Wes Wellman, president of the Action Apartment Association, which represents landlords in Santa Monica, noted that the 2006 survey showed that tenants were “at least somewhat satisfied.”

“I only hope for their sake that tenants were as satisfied in their personal relationships as they were with their landlord relationships as revealed by this survey,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Today, he said, tenants would likely be even happier.

“As rents have increased and more historically low-rent units have been re-rented, owners have made substantially greater investments not only to vacated units but to building infrastructure as well,” he said. “I conservatively estimate that, in the aggregate, Santa Monica apartment owners have invested over a third of a billion dollars in building upgrades since 1999.”

Tracy Condon, administrator for the Rent Control Board, said that about 65 percent of rent-controlled units have now been rented at market rates. Under vacancy decontrol a landlord is allowed to raise the rent on a vacant apartment to whatever they can get on the open market. The unit is then subject to rent control, with annual rent increases based on a rate set by the Rent Control Board.

“Many owners tell us they upgrade the units prior to renting them to ensure they can get the highest market rate,” she said.

Tenants can file petitions for rent decreases if they are having issues getting something fixed. Only 29 rent decreases were heard by the board last year, Wellman said.

Likewise, Condon said, owners can petition for increased rent adjustments if they had to put money into repairs and can no longer make a fair return.

“We don’t get many increase petitions anymore, which suggests that the rents being collected allow owners to make necessary repairs and continue to make at least a fair return,” she said.

Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) still gets calls about maintenance concerns on a weekly basis, said co-chair Patricia Hoffman.

“With the recession that we seem to be recovering from it seems that there was an increase of units that had unmet needs,” she said. “We do get e-mails and calls on a regular basis.”

Needs vary, she said. Often a sink is backed up. Sometimes they call about carpeting and painting.

“It’s all over the place,” she said. “We got one within the last couple weeks from a fellow who has environmental allergies and was complaining about a smell that was coming into his house from the alley. It’s not the first time we’ve gotten calls about environmental allergies.”

If the issue is small, Hoffman said, SMRR will advise the renter, but most of the time they point them in the right direction, whether it be the Rent Control Board, Code Compliance, or the City Attorney’s Office.

All those outlets, Wellman said, are another reason why the housing stock is likely above par.

“The Rent Control Board not only has the administrative mechanism to deal with legitimate deferred maintenance, it also conducts what amounts to advertising campaigns encouraging tenants to come forward with complaints,” he said. “So it is a fiction to suppose that 3,000 units in Santa Monica need major upgrades.”

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