City Council has concluded interviews for appointees to the city’s new Rent Stabilization Commission. As we wait for an announcement, very likely on August 5th, this may be a good time to review the origin of the commission and to suggest some opportunities for commission focus once it is up and running this fall.
City Council in March agreed to create a Rent Stabilization Commission comprised of six voting members: two tenants, two landlords, and two ‘at large’ members. The total nine appointees includes an alternate for each category in case a voting member cannot attend (two members must be present in each category for the commission to conduct business). All commission members must reside in Beverly Hills.
The commission idea emerged from tenants in roundtable discussions with landlords in 2017. We proposed a board or committee comprised of both tenants and landlords to “serve as the first avenue of dispute resolution” on matters related to rental housing. It was one of the few areas of agreement. However tenants and landlords disagreed on the role of any commission: tenants envisioned a city commission that would have a voice on rent stabilization policy issues (like habitability) while landlords were looking for something more akin to a mediation board that would hear disputes.
Tenants pointed to Santa Monica and West Hollywood where (respectively) elected and appointed bodies enjoy a formal role in housing policy. Landlords instead pointed to Culver City’s landlord tenant mediation board which provides voluntary dispute resolution but has no formal role in advising on policy matters. Tellingly, the Culver City board’s meetings are not televised or even archived. Beverly Hills city staff plugged the Culver City model.
City Council discussed the commission or board concept on several occasions and each time councilmembers noted approvingly that tenants and landlords agreed that some kind of a body should represent our individual and collective interests.
Council choosing to designate a standing commission meeting rather that an ad-hoc or some other committee was a surprise. While committees come and go, a commission is an enduring fixture. Committees can be formed and dissolved by a simple council vote but commission membership and responsibilities are specified in the Municipal Code. A commission is a real commitment to rent stabilization.
Moreover, Council’s decision to charge the new commission with advising Council on rent stabilization ordinance amendments was more surprising still! That was more than what tenants had recommended at the roundtable discussions two years prior. Watch Council’s discussion.
The New Commission is a Departure
The creation of the Rent Stabilization Commission was a surprise for a few more reasons. First, the city already has eleven standing commissions and there is no appetite in City Hall to create a new commission. In fact just two years earlier City Council had rebuffed then-Mayor John Mirisch’s request to create a new arts and culture commission. Other cities have one but Beverly Hills has focused less on culture and performance and more on fine art (hence we had a Fine Art Commission). Council decided to expand the purview of the Fine Art Commission rather than stand up a new commission.
Second, Beverly Hills once had a Rent Adjustment Commission but it was eliminated in 1998 (as part of a set of broader changes to commission structure) and its responsibilities are now handled by a hearing officer. That Council chose to create a new commission after the city had disbanded a commission charged with similar tasks was a surprise.
Third, Council sidestepped an opportunity to placate tenants and landlords with a disempowered committee and instead created a representative body that would give a real voice to those directly affected by the commission’s actions: tenants and landlords. The earlier commission had itself grown out of a 7-member Rent Adjustment Board (created in 1979). Members to both bodies were selected for “having no bias or interest regarding the subject of apartment rent controls” (according to the ordinance that created the commission). This commission is majority tenants and landlords – not homeowners — with biases and interests regarding the commission’s work.
(Giving tenants and landlords a voice on our own commission was nothing to take for granted. City staff had recommended that tenants and landlords comprise a minority of seats on the commission. ‘Neutral’ homeowners would be the majority. But tenants pushed back and Council agreed: tenants and landlords are now the majority on our own committee.)
Finally a key difference between the new Rent Stabilization Commission and other city bodies is the size of the commission: six voting members for the commission in contrast to every other commission that has five. Why is that significant? Because over the past few years the city has undertaken a laborious process of standardizing commissions. Six members is a departure. What’s more, City Council convened two back-to-back interview panels (each comprised of two councilmembers) to interview applicants. That too is a departure.
The Commission’s First Task: RSO Amendments
The new Rent Stabilization Commission remit is formalized in the ordinance that created it:
Unless otherwise specified herein, the duties of the Rent Stabilization Commission shall be as follows: A. Make recommendations to the City Council concerning amendments to Chapters 5 and 6 of Title 4 that have not been resolved by the City Council; and B. Perform any other functions that may be designated by resolution or motion of the City Council. – 2–2–502. POWERS AND DUTIES OF THE COMMISSION
That is, amendments to the rent stabilization ordinance is the commission’s first task, which should keep commissioners busy for 6 months or so (probably pushing ordinance amendments to the next City Council).
In terms of scope, councilmembers enumerated some issues that the commission should focus on (as we reported in an earlier post, RSO Commission’s Agenda: Ordinance Recommendations). At the same time, though, Council was clear that the commission could consider whatever issues it wanted to discuss. Renters Alliance is prepared to provide the new commissioners with a list of recommended ordinance tweaks!
Once the ordinance amendments recommendations are behind it, City Council will direct the commission to turn to its ongoing responsibility: to adjudicate certain disputes and appeals. What those will be is not yet known but we can look to a February 2019 staff report summary that accompanied a draft rent stabilization ordinance (subsequently set aside by Council) for clues:
- Chapter 5 appeals concerning the status of a building manager, pass-throughs for capital expenditures and utility surcharges;
- Chapter 6 appeals concerning non-payment of a relocation fee in cases of hardship or ‘owner occupancy’;
- Chapters 5 and 6 appeals concerning relocation fee claims by multiple tenants; rent decreases arising from a reduction of a housing service (including habitability); and rent adjustment for the purpose of maintaining net operating income; and,
- Disruptive tenant applications.
Again, those responsibilities may be assigned by City Council in the future. The commission’s remit today does not include hearing ‘disruptive tenant’ applications from landlords (read more about that). Instead those applications are heard by a two-member Council subcommittee (formed for the purpose).
Our Take: This is a Tangible Sign of the City’s Commitment to RSO
The decision to create the Rent Stabilization Commission is the most significant and tangible sign of the city’s commitment to tenant security and sustainability since Beverly Hills created the rental unit registry in 2017. The registry allows the city to track landlords, units and tenancies for the purposes of enforcing the ordinance. This commission will allow tenants and landlords a voice in how the Rent Stabilization Program evolves over time.
The city has already taken two key steps to effectively regulate rental housing in Beverly Hills. First came the reasonable cap on the annual rent increase and a required relocation fee in cases of involuntary termination of a tenancy. (Both were introduced in January 2017. Read more about RSO.) Then came an end to no-just-cause evictions in November 2018. That ‘original sin’ in the rent stabilization ordinance provided landlords with a powerful tool by which they could evade state and local tenant protections with no accountability.
While creation of this commission is but an interim step toward an amended rent stabilization ordinance, it is also arguably the most high-profile sign of city support for rent stabilization since the original ordinance was adopted four decades ago. The commission will meet every second Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. Will you be there to ensure the commission protects tenants’ rights? We will!