Renters fed up with constant cost increases

By Joann Groff

After another hefty rent increase was posted on their doors, the residents of Archstone apartments in Calabasas are issuing charges of price gouging and calling for local government intervention.

Archstone has been criticized heavily for its frequent rent increases since taking control of the complex in December 2004. Renters at the apartments on Lost Hills Road formed a tenants’ association out of frustration.

Andrew Germain moved into Archstone three and a half years ago. But due to an almost 20 percent rent increase in his rent–and other issues with the management–he recently moved out of the 600-unit complex.

Germain’s rent was $1,245 when he moved into the apartments near Lost Hills Road, and was at $1,610 when he left.

“At one point when they were raising it to a new rate, I think from $1,400-something to $1,600, they said it was the new remodeled rate,” Germain said. “My apartment wasn’t even remodeled. They said I could move out for 10 days and they’d remodel it, but they wouldn’t pay for a hotel.”

Darren Proett, who spoke about the Archstone rental situation at a recent City Council meeting, also received a large increase.

“A neighbor of mine and me just recently got a 26 to 44 percent rent increase for one month,” Proett said. “It seems like every other higher-end city has some sort of rent stabilization or rent control.”

The increases were based on whether tenants signed a one-year lease or remained on a month-to-month basis, Proett said.

“Just consider waking up and looking in your mail and realizing your mortgage payment went up 26 percent,” he said. “You probably wouldn’t be too happy. . . . I love living in Calabasas. But it seems a shame for me to pay so much to stay here.”

Thoughts of rent control

Germain believes it’s time for the city to intercede.

Falguni and Vuong Trieu, who were given the choice of a $385 increase for a one-year lease (a 20 percent increase), or a $755 increase for a month-to-month lease (a 40 percent increase), are looking for outside help also.

“This is highway robbery and should not be tolerated in the community of Calabasas,” the Trieus wrote in a letter to the council. “In the face of price gouging, it is up to elected officials to represent the community and do the right thing. . . . This is not something that should be tolerated.”

Calls to Archstone Calabasas’ manager Alex Winborn were returned, but he said the corporate office would have to handle any questions.

Mayor James Bozajian admitted there’s been a history of problems with the Archstone management.

“I’m really quite exasperated,” Bozajian said. “I’ve found Archstone, of all the apartment owners in the city, that they’ve been the least responsive and most problematic when it comes to their public relations and in dealing with the city. My own impression is that the council is just about at its wits’ end in dealing with Archstone and its problems.”

Within Los Angeles County, the cities of Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Los Angeles currently have rent control measures in place. But Bozajian said Calabasas has little recourse.

“The city has explored various options exhaustively, but we are quite limited in what we can do,” he said. “The law is very complex in this area and we are preempted by state law in enacting the kinds of measures they want. They want rent control, and rent control per se is not something the city can do.”

Bozajian favors rent stabilization only as a last resort.

“I personally don’t want to go down the road of approaching rent control,” Bozajian said. “I don’t think that’s a fair way to handle the situation. But if the situation at Archstone continues, in my opinion the council may revisit that issue. . . . But personally, I don’t really want to go there.”

Inflation everywhere

Anthony Pecoraro, a 13-year resident, is president of the Tenants Alignment Association and a leading critic of the apartment owners. Pecoraro was a month-to-month renter, but when he received a rent increase of $305 for a year lease, or $625 for month-to-month, he opted to sign for the year.

“We have an investigation when gas goes up to $4,” Pecoraro said. “We have a public utilities commission that protects how much you pay for electricity, water because it protects the people. The city is seeing rent stabilization as interfering in private enterprise. It’s not. It’s protecting the people from greed, and from inordinate, insane increases that no one can bear.”

According to a RealFax data survey of Los Angeles County apartment buildings with more than 100 units, rent increased about 6.7 percent in the last year. Jack Kaiser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., said that jump has been very difficult for renters to absorb.

While some renters faced higher individual increases, the average hike at Archstone from 2004 to 2005 was 7.6 percent and from 2005 to 2006 was 8.1 percent, according to a report submitted by Calabasas Community Development Director Maureen Tamuri. Overall, Calabasas is experiencing about a 10 percent annual rent increase, Tamuri said.

Tamuri added that in some neighboring cities with rent control, the ordinance limits the increases to around 7 percent.

Germain said Archstone management takes extra steps to make price comparisons difficult.

“They price each unit differently so no one can compare,” Germain said. “They look at exact dimensions, which way the building’s facing, whatever they can to make them all different.”

Tamuri has looked into many of the complaints, which she said came from just a handful of people.

“We have found in general that rentals in Calabasas are not out of line,” Tamuri said. “They are on the upper end, but not out of line. Unfortunately, a lot of renters haven’t been able to keep pace with the market, but that’s not dissimilar to a lot of what’s happened in our community. A lot of people moved here years ago when it was affordable, but wouldn’t be able to buy a house now.”

Tamuri said the city staff isn’t being insensitive. The fact is, she says, people are willing to pay to live in Calabasas for the schools, the environment and the city services.

“The real estate market has established Calabasas as an affluent community,” Tamuri said. “When housing prices go up, it’s looked at as a good reflection on the city. This is the same thing.”

The city did enact a reporting statute in which the owners of apartment complexes must report all rent increases more than 5 percent. Bozajian said he thought the rent registration program deterred owners from increasing rents at “enormous” rates.

Other fees, too

In addition to the rent hikes, other fees have popped up.

The management began making all new tenants pay for their own water, trash and sewer costs. According to Germain, the bills weren’t based on the amount of those services residents were using in their apartments, but on the size of the dwelling.

“It couldn’t be based on what everyone was using because not everyone was paying,” Germain said. “It’d be based on the size of the apartment, not on the water gauge. So if I had a bigger place but was more ecologically concerned, it didn’t matter.”

The residents also oppose a new charge for parking. All units receive one assigned space, and must pay $50 for an additional space. Even residents of a two-bedroom apartment get only one space.

“They said it was to solve parking problems, but there were no problems before the assigned spaces,” Germain said. “And they can’t say they are charging for security because they aren’t there 24 hours and it’s not a gated community. So what are we paying for?”

Bozajian said the city has no control over the extra utility fees and parking charges.

“What exactly can the city do?” Bozajian said. “We can’t prohibit paying for parking. It’s private property. It’s just like any other enterprise–a restaurant. You don’t want to pay for parking, but you have to.”

The renters say rent control may be the only answer.

“The city’s response should be to stop the greed and corporate manipulation of the public market,” Pecoraro said. “They need to start implementing several aspects of rent stabilization.

“My dream was to live in Calabasas,” Pecoraro
said. “My dream is to live here for the rest of my life. But it’s
impossible. It’s just beyond what we can pay.”

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