In August, North Hollywood resident Jacob Swanson, 36, heard from his building’s property manager that rent for his apartment would increase from $1,850 to $2,000 per month, higher than the typical yearly increase he was used to.
Eager to know the reason for the higher rent hike, he emailed the property manager to ask if repairs or upgrades were planned for the building. The reply he received didn’t mention any repairs; instead, the building’s manager blamed the increase on “the upcoming election.”
Renter advocates say Los Angeles landlords and building managers are hitting tenants with rent hikes in advance of November, when voters will decide on Proposition 10, a statewide ballot initiative that would lift restrictions on rent control in California cities.
Larry Gross, director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, tells Curbed he’s heard of three such instances in the past week, including the email that Swanson received.
That email does not mention Proposition 10 by name, but notes that owners of the building, which is not covered by LA’s rent stabilization ordinance, are “facing rent control” in November.
In some cases, Gross says landlords are using the price increases to pressure tenants into voting against the measure. He’s received notifications from tenants in two different buildings about rent increases explicitly tied to the ballot measure.
A letter shared with reporters bears the letterhead of Rampart Property Management, an LA-based firm with more than a dozen available apartments listed on its website. It informs tenants of a pending rent increase in response to the ballot measure.
“In preparation for the passage of this ballot initiative we must pass along a rent increase today,” reads the letter.
Gross says that the tenant who brought the letter to the coalition lives in a building that is not subject to rent control restrictions, and now faces a $700 increase.
But the letter also includes a promise from the property manager to reevaluate the new rental prices following the results of the election.
“If the ballot measure fails,” says the letter, “we will revisit the rent increase with a desire to cancel it with new leases.”
Gross says the coalition received a similar letter from an attorney working with a tenant in Historic Filipinotown. Signed by Curtis C. Arndt, a Santa Monica chiropractor who owns a small apartment complex in the neighborhood, the letter states that “if the proposition does not pass, I will then consider rolling back rents to their current level.”
Neither Arndt nor Rampart Property Management responded to requests for comment on the letters.
Gross says he’s heard reports of similar messages being sent to tenants in other parts of the state. When coupled with increases in rent, he argues, political messages like these constitute “voter intimidation.”
He maintains that when landlords or property managers offer vague assurances that rents will be reduced if the proposition fails, they attempt to convince tenants to vote against their own long-term financial interests.
“It undermines the whole electoral process,” says Gross.
In Swanson’s case, the email he received tying his rent hike to the election wasn’t sent until after he asked for clarification.
“I don’t think it’s voter intimidation,” he says. “It’s more like pre-punishment. He doesn’t even know if it’s going to pass yet, but I’ve got to pay the toll in case it does.”
If approved by voters, Proposition 10 would repeal the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act, a state law that prevents cities from restricting rental prices on single-family homes, condos, and buildings constructed after 1995.
Cities would still have to pass new regulations for the ballot measure to have any impact on California’s housing market, but the initiative would open the door for many newer buildings—including the one Swanson lives in—to be placed under rent control moving forward.
Zev Yaroslavsky, a senior fellow at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and a former Los Angeles County Supervisor, calls rent hikes in advance of the election “raw, ugly, and unethical.” But he also says he’s seen these tactics before.
In 1978, when Yaroslavsky sat on the Los Angeles City Council, many local apartment owners reportedly promised to lower rental prices following passage of Proposition 13, a ballot measure that slashed California’s property tax rates.
As the Los Angeles Times reported at the time, not all those landlords followed through; some even raised rents, speculating that city leaders would move to restrict prices.
Those fears were borne out when the City Council imposed a six-month rent freeze in October of that year. Following the freeze and other temporary measures, the rent stabilization ordinance went into effect, limiting rent hikes to between 3 and 8 percent annually.