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CES In The News
Los Angeles Times
Saturdayday May 22, 2010

L.A. council blocks rent freeze, triggering protests
Police clear unruly crowd after demonstrators disrupt meeting.  Lawmakers' 10-5 vote cleared the way for a 3% increase on July 1.

By Phil Willon and Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles City Council on Friday effectively scuttled a proposed four-month freeze on rent increases in the city, igniting a chaotic protest by tenant rights advocates inside the City Hall chambers that led to three arrests.

The proposed ordinance would have prevented owners of 630,000 rent-controlled apartments from raising rents between now and Oct. 31 to provide a respite for tenants buffeted by the recession. Instead, the council voted 10 to 5 to send the measure to a committee for further study, a procedural move killing the proposed freeze and allowing landlords to raise rents by up to 3% on July 1.

After the vote, outraged tenants and renters rights advocates who had been waiting five hours for the measure to be considered started shouting at the council. The protesters, dominated by members of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, brought the meeting to a standstill with loud, echoing chants of "No justice, no peace!'' and other slogans.

Dozens of officers from the Los Angeles Police Department and the city's General Services Police Department were called in after protesters filled the main aisle of the John Ferraro Council Chamber and refused to leave. Officers holding batons formed a mini skirmish line and began pushing the unruly crowd outside, and tackled and arrested three members of the community group.

"It was obvious that the small group disrupting the meeting wasn't pleased with the vote, and they were displaying their displeasure in a very violent manner," said Councilman Dennis Zine, who was chairing the meeting and ordered officers to "get them out now'' after several protesters ignored pleas for order.

Pete White, founder and co-director of the community group, identified the arrested members as Deanna Weakly, Steve Richardson, and Gerardo Gomez. Gomez was injured when his face smacked into one of the benches as police restrained him, according to White.

White, along with about 40 protesters, said he was en route to LAPD's Central Division station, where the three would be booked. The group planned to remain there until the suspects gained their release, White said.

Councilman Richard Alarcon, who proposed the rent freeze, said that during his years working for Mayor Tom Bradley and serving on the council he had never seen the "council lose control of its chamber'' and called the arrests a sad day in the city's history. But the protest and subsequent clash, he said, were triggered by a council vote that threatens to send some low-income renters onto the streets.

"These people are passionate. It's a very sad day for renters who are going to have to pay more rent when many of them cannot pay their bills now,'' Alarcon said. "What we saw today was an expression of their anger.''

Alarcon's proposal would have imposed a four-month moratorium on rent increases at buildings constructed before 1978 that have six or more units, a group that is governed by the city's rent control law. Under the law, owners of rent-controlled properties are eligible to impose 3% rent increases on July 1.

The freeze would have given the council time to consider rent control reforms and consider a comprehensive study on the issue currently underway by the city's Housing Department, Alarcon said.

However, several landlords testifying before the council said any rent freeze would be financially devastating to them, noting that they were being hit with higher utility bills, insurance costs and property taxes.

The freeze was derailed by a motion from Council President Eric Garcetti, who said it would be wiser for the council to wait and tackle the broader rent control reforms instead of addressing the issue with a piecemeal freeze. Voting against Garcetti's motion were council members Alarcon, Jose Huizar, Herb Wesson and Paul Krekorian.

"Not passing this means that the rent burden will increase here in the city, where 58% are paying unaffordable rents and 31% are paying 50% or more of their income to rent," said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a renters rights group. "Not passing this is to side with injustice at a time when people are being laid off, furloughed, foreclosed upon and have to chose between paying rent, medical expenses, food and clothing."

The council on Friday also approved an ordinance that requires lenders to register foreclosed homes and face fines of up to $1,000 per day if foreclosed homes fall into disrepair and become a blight to a neighborhood. The ordinance is expected to raise up to $5 million a year for the city, money the council wants to use to reduce the number of layoffs needed to balance the budget.

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