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In Culver City, rising rents lead to tough conversation around affordable housing

A cloudy early morning in Culver City, California.
Richard Hawkins / Flickr Creative Commons
A cloudy early morning in Culver City, California.

Jade Singer has seen a lot of changes in Culver City since she moved there in the 1990s.

Upscale shops, a renovated theater, yoga studios and restaurants have made the area more livable - and rents have gone up right with those changes. So much so that 27 percent of Culver City residents now spend more than half their paycheck on rent, according to 2013 Census Bureau estimates. That data also estimates the median rent in Culver City at about $1,618.

"I know young families who have been looking around, and they ask me about Culver City," she said. "Most of them tell me that they’ve looked and it's unaffordable to them."

Culver City finds itself in the same position of many other communities throughout Los Angeles County, where rents have spiked in recent years. The median rent in the county is about $1,196, 2013 Census estimates show.

Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells said she wants more protections for the city's renters.

"It's about making sure that the people who have decided to live in this community are not threatened with a 100 percent increases in their rent. And 60 days to pay up or move out," she said.

The Culver City Council discussed rising rents during a public meeting in December. While the discussion was not specifically about rent control, that topic dominated the debate, which went on for nearly four hours. Dozens of renters and landlords argued passionately both for and against it.

Singer told the council that her landlord raised her rent after hearing a rumor the city council was considering rent control.

"This was the reason that he gave. I don’t want to be stuck in the lower rent, if rent control goes through," Singer said.

"Is the ethical value of the people who live here and run this city one that says we need to find a way for a variety of types and income levels and beliefs to be here in our city?" Singer asked. "Or is it whatever happens, happens – the people who can afford to do whatever they want to do get to do it?"

The council voted to continue a public discussion about affordable housing, but would no longer consider rent control. Sahli-Wells described that as a small step toward addressing a problem that isn't going away. 

Two months later, the council has taken no further action.

The city of Los Angeles adopted rent control in 1979.  The law applies to buildings constructed before 1978, and prevents landlords from raising rents by more than 3 percent each year. But L.A. renters complain rents are too high and the law has too many loopholes.

Dr. Richard Green, director of USC’s Lusk Center for Real Estate, said rent control is often tossed around by government leaders, but economists, both liberal and conservative, have almost universally come out against it because it is a form of price fixing.

To truly tackle the issue of affordable housing, he said, the entire county needs to be rezoned allow for more density. Creating affordable housing, he said, means building taller buildings, closer together, and putting more apartments in neighborhoods of single-family homes.

"Would it change the character of the place? Absolutely," he said. "But the world has trade offs and you can either have less expensive housing and change the character of the place. Or not have less expensive housing and not change the character of the place."

Green said density is a particularly unpopular notion in Los Angeles, which has prided itself as a city of single-family houses.

"Back in the 40s, when the city was being planned out through zoning, the San Fernando Valley had lots of empty space so you could imagine building all these single-family houses. But we just can't do that anymore and have housing be affordable," he said. "So we need to start building up, and people just hate that." 

And that makes it hard for politicians to agree with him.

"I have some sympathy for the public officials," Green said, "because I think if they do what I would consider to be the right thing, they would get voted out of office."

Sahli-Wells, Culver City's mayor, said she may have unknowingly put a political-target on her back by just bringing up affordable housing in her community. She said other elected officials in Southern California have been reticent to do the same thing.

"When I’ve spoken to other mayors, I have heard, 'Yes, my community is going through the exact same thing that your community is going through – but I’m up for re-election.' Conversation stops," she said.

Last year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti outlined goals to end the city's housing crisis, which include building 100,000 new housing units by 2021, replenishing the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and using MTA-owned land for future housing sites. He hasn't said how he will reach that goal, which calls for a drastic increase in the pace of building in the city. And even in that speech, he touted his desire to raise the city's minimum wage to $13.25 per hour, which he said will make it a little easier for people to pay the rent.

Some Los Angeles city council members are proposing other programs, such as setting aside tax money for a trust fund for affordable housing that suffered when the state stopped setting aside funds for struggling communities under redevelopment agencies.