First published in the Nov. 20 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
When Kari C. moved into her two-bedroom apartment about eight years ago, she thought she had a great deal.
She was paying just $1,500 a month in rent, and her landlord — an independent owner — had raised the price by just $50 over five years, Kari said.
Then, in 2019, the owner sold the building to a major property management company. Soon after, according to Kari, she received a letter: the company was increasing her monthly rent from $1,550 to $2,150.
Kari, who asked that neither her surname nor the company’s name be identified because she fears retaliation, said she was “absolutely worried” that she was going to get priced out of her apartment. But a statewide rent control law that took effect capped the rent increase to a more affordable degree.
“The only thing is that, because the other apartments around Burbank are so highly priced, I can’t move,” Kari said. She added that while her rent didn’t increase in 2020, it was raised by $140 per month this year.
Burbank’s median rent is typically higher than in Pasadena, Glendale and Los Angeles, according to data from Apartment List, an online rental listing service. Several local tenants who spoke with the Leader said they fear rising costs, which increased this year after a brief decline during the pandemic, will eventually force them to move.
Data from Apartment List indicates that the overall median rent (not including utilities) in Burbank — including all dwelling types and bedroom counts — was about 15.4% higher in October 2021 (at an estimated $2,300 a month) than in October 2020 (about $2,000 a month). For comparison, overall median rent increased by less than 1.7% between October 2018 and October 2019.
Part of the reason the surge is so extreme is that rent generally declined for most of last year; the overall median rent in Burbank fell from an estimated $2,160 in March 2020 to about $1,960 in January 2021 before beginning to climb again.
Still, last October’s figure was more than 5% higher than during the same month in 2019, before the pandemic-induced decrease. The median rent charged for a one-bedroom unit in October was about $1,830 (up from $1,740 in October 2019), while a two-bedroom unit cost an estimated $2,570 this October and roughly $2,450 in the same month in 2019.
Apartment List analysts attributed nationwide increases in rental prices to a surge in households competing for homes. In the early months of the pandemic, the service said in a report, people consolidated under the same roofs — some, for example, moved home to live with their parents. That trend is now reversing, according to Apartment List, and with houses becoming increasingly expensive, many home-seekers are turning to rental units.
California’s rent control law limits annual increases to either 5% plus inflation or up to 10%. Though landlords cannot raise rent annually at their whim, they can adjust prices to their liking and in accordance with market demand after the unit becomes vacant.
Gigi Baez-Rosa, COO of local property management company PRC Management, said that a scarce inventory of rental housing is a major driver of rental pricing. She added that the growing prevalence of working from home may be another factor.
“I don’t think that’s going to change, even with COVID numbers getting better,” Baez-Rosa said. “People want to live somewhere that’s comfortable and more updated, and they’re willing to pay [more] for that.”
Konstantine Anthony, a Burbank City Council member who has advocated for rent control and other tenant protections, said he fears the elevated rent prices will become the new normal. The city is trying to encourage new housing development, he added, but new units can take years to build.
“My worry is that we continue down this path, and the local tenants who’ve lived here for years are absolutely going to get priced out of the city and have to leave,” said Anthony, who is a renter himself.
Another tenant, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid backlash from his apartment’s management company, said he used to dream of affording a house in Burbank. But when his rent jumped by $600 after a new owner purchased his building, he said he realized it would never happen.
California’s rent control law is too little and too late, according to the tenant, adding that he feels Burbank has failed to protect its renters.
He’s moving to Montana.
SMALL OPERATIONS REPORT FINANCIAL STRESS
Many local tenants told the Leader they would rather work with “mom-and-pop” landlords than corporations, believing independent property owners are more lenient when it comes to rent increases.
According to a study conducted by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, many small, independent landlords prefer to negotiate with tenants over unpaid rent rather than go through an arduous eviction process.
The study also noted that nearly one third of such landlords reported increased financial pressure to sell their properties during the pandemic, potentially reducing the supply of affordable housing. Many expressed frustrations with eviction moratoriums, believing some tenants could have paid rent but opted not to.
Catlan Brinsley, a Burbank resident and rental property owner, said revenue from her building plummeted when two of her tenants experienced financial difficulties during the pandemic. Both are still waiting for the state to process their rent relief applications.
Still, for her Burbank tenants who are elderly or have a disability, Brinsley said she’s charging far below market rate. And while she frequently receives offers from entities wanting to buy her building, she doesn’t feel pressured by them. She did, however, recently sell her apartment complex in L.A., frustrated with what she felt was overbearing bureaucracy and confusing requirements.
“As someone who is not in the big business of real estate, it’s very hard to stay on top of every changing rule,” Brinsley said, “and they’ve changed so quickly over the last year and a half.”
IMPROVING RENT AFFORDABILITY
Tenants who spoke with the Leader generally advocated for a stricter rent control policy. Anthony, prior to joining the City Council, co-authored a local rent regulation measure last year that voters ultimately rejected. But he predicted that as Burbank’s renter population grows, so will demands for tenant protections.
“It’s an issue that everyone’s talking about,” he said, “and I’m hoping that starts a larger conversation about what it means to rent, what it means to own … how do we make tenancy viable again rather than simply [making you] locked in for your entire life.”
“I’m 40 years old, and I can’t afford to buy a home because I’ve spent my entire life savings on renting.”
But Dan Soderstrom, a Burbank realtor and landlord, said rent control would disincentivize owners from taking care of their properties, though he noted that the statewide regulation hasn’t affected his usual increases to his tenants’ rent. The market, he is confident, will eventually stabilize.
“It’s basically a supply and demand issue,” Soderstrom said. “Too many people want to be in our fair city, for a lot of reasons.”
Kari, whose rent increase in 2019 was limited by California’s rent control law, said she still wants a stronger policy, and even helped collect signatures for Anthony’s measure. She also believes that the city of Burbank should encourage more independent ownership; like many, she’d much prefer to rent from a private landlord.
Though her current apartment is great, Kari added, she wants something different. But with the cost of rent so high in Burbank, she feels she’s stuck with the deal she has.