|by Robert Greene
Monday may be the official 20th anniversary for the city of West Hollywood, and the big birthday bash may be on for the following week, but this Friday is the date many would-be residents of the self-described Creative City have entered into their personal data assistants. That’s because Friday is the deadline to sign onto the waiting list for the city’s "moderate income" inclusionary housing program. It’s the last chance for quite some time, in other words, to move into West Hollywood if you’re not filthy rich.
Like similar programs in other small cities around California, the West Hollywood inclusionary housing program allows tenants to grab an apartment at less than market rate. The units are available because the city requires builders who want to cash in on the housing boom to offer a percentage of their developments to renters who can’t afford to pay whatever the market will bear.
It’s a continuation of the tenants-rights movement that formed the foundation of the cityhood movement two decades ago.
With property values and rents around Southern California soaring in the 1970s, a number of cities including Los Angeles adopted rent-control laws that strictly limited the annual increases that landlords could charge their tenants. Rent-stabilization ordinances generally went hand-in-hand with Proposition 13, which granted property owners relief from taxes that kept rising to keep pace with real estate values.
But Los Angeles County supervisors, who had jurisdiction over the 1.9 square miles of unincorporated territory that was West Hollywood, adopted a fairly weak rent-control law, and it was due to expire. Paul Koretz, now a state assemblyman, recalls that 1,000 to 2,000 seniors were about to have their rents doubled. A ballot measure fell short.
So activists in the Coalition for Economic Survival, which had been organizing tenants around the county since 1973, helped West Hollywood renters take matters into their own hands with a drive for independence.
"Seniors in their 70s, 80s and 90s circulated most of the petitions for cityhood," Koretz said. The coalition-supported candidates were elected to four out of five City Council seats in the first election in 1984, and the organization has been represented on the council ever since.
The years that followed have brought a tug-of-war between city leaders intent on keeping the cost of housing in their city affordable, and business interests, often backed by the state Legislature, who insisted that the progressive city was revoking their property rights. After a court ruling backed up the right of cities like West Hollywood to continue offering rental property for rent, instead of selling, razing it and redeveloping it, the Legislature passed the Ellis Act in 1986 to give landlords an unconditional right to sell. Under another state law, West Hollywood retains rent control but cannot block landlords from jacking up rents after a tenant moves out.
That means that as tenants in even the most tightly controlled apartments die or move on, the city’s median rent creeps up toward the astronomical market rate seen today. Rent stabilization doesn’t apply at all to the most recently built apartments. That’s where inclusionary housing comes in.
The city’s version of the program, which has been on the books nearly from the start, allows developers of projects with 20 or fewer units to forgo offering below-market apartments by paying a fee, or constructing the lower-priced units elsewhere. The fees are payable to a city trust fund for affordable housing — a prototype for a fund established several years ago in the city of Los Angeles. Money from the fund is used to assist developers of more affordable housing get past the planning stage.
The chance to place the required affordable units elsewhere in the city works in part because West Hollywood is so small. A relatively low-cost apartment is walking distance from City Hall, and virtually all that the Creative City has to offer, no matter where it is built — as long as it is somewhere within city boundaries.
Councilwoman Abbe Land, who was elected to the council the same year the Ellis Act undercut some of the city’s most pro-tenant posture, noted that affordable housing has retained a higher profile in the city in part because the city’s size makes it work so well.
"When L.A. is doing affordable housing, they could be doing many projects, but you don’t see them," she said. In West Hollywood, they are an integral part of the city’s image.
So how affordable is "affordable"? Applicants who live alone and want a place in line for the moderate-income program must earn between $36,670 and $45,837. Earn less, and you won’t be able to afford even the below-market rent. The city’s low-income housing list is for you but, alas, the list is closed. Earn more, and you’re left to the free market. Good luck.
If you fall into the proper range, you might get a studio for up to $693, a one-bedroom for $792.
Two-person households must earn between $39,603 and $49,504. The qualifications go up to the five-person household, where combined earnings of $48,404 to $60,505 qualifies. But only two people are allowed per bedroom, to avoid overcrowding.
The city verifies your income. Start earning more, and you could get evicted. Numbers are adjusted annually by the City Council.
Information is available on the city’s Inclusionary Housing Hotline, (323) 848-6851, or on the city’s Web site, www.weho.org.
The Coalition for Economic Survival remains active in West Hollywood. The organization conducts tenants-rights legal clinics every Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. and every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. at the Plummer Park community center, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd.