Vernon Council Leads New Era for Industrial City

Residents take on new importance.

By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer

The Vernon City Council’s meeting last week was a marked change from meetings of years past when councilmembers unquestioningly took direction and rubber stamped recommendations from a corrupt former city administrator.

Gone was the once shy, quiet and trusting council. Taking its place last week was a council that now demands answers from staff and is not afraid to put items on hold if not satisfied with the responses. It’s the latest indication that a new political era could be taking hold in Vernon in the wake of good governance reforms years in the making.

Mayor W. Michael McCormick

Mayor W. Michael McCormick

Spectators at the Oct. 6 council meeting likely did a double take as councilmembers diverted from their usual non-confrontational review of agenda items and spent nearly an hour grilling city staff about their recommendation to sell off city-owned housing in Huntington Park and to raise rents on some residential units in Vernon to pay for needed repairs.

Mayor Pro Tem Bill Davis

Mayor Pro Tem Bill Davis

While this type of discourse is common in other cities, it’s a far cry from business as usual in a city whose motto “Exclusively Industrial!” aptly reflects its long held focus on what’s best for the 8,000 businesses that call Vernon home, rather than its small residential population that only recently doubled in size and now totals about 200 people.

Most of the city’s residents – and its electorate – live in city-owned apartments and houses. Only five homes in Vernon are not city-owned properties. The prospect of raising rents did not sit well with the council.

Councilwoman Luz Martinez

Councilwoman Luz Martinez

Two councilmembers, Luz Martinez and Melissa Ybarra,  excused themselves from the discussion citing conflict of interest, leaving Mayor W. Michael McCormick, Mayor Pro Tem Bill Davis and newly elected Councilwoman Yvette Woodruff-Perez to push staff for more details and to justify their recommendations.

“If we’re getting money from selling the Huntington Park properties why do we need to increase the rent for tenants,” Davis asked staff repeatedly.

Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra

Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra

The city owns 31 housing units, 26 in Vernon and 7 in the neighboring city of Huntington Park. The homes were built in the 1940s and 1960s. In 2007, the city did a major remodel of 19 of the Vernon units but did not make repairs to the other 7 units due to a multi-million dollar budget deficit.

With city finances out of the red, staff has proposed renovating the remaining properties. They also have recommended the city sell 3 of the 7 single-family homes and condominiums it owns in Huntington Park.

Councilwoman Yvette Woodruff-Perez

Councilwoman Yvette Woodruff-Perez

Public Works Director Kevin Wilson said rents would be raised over $200 a month to recover the cost of improvements such as new appliances, kitchen and bathroom remodeling, new carpet, painting, water and heating system upgrades and lead abatement.

“If we’re going to do anything we need to do these minimal improvements” to avoid larger repairs down road, he cautioned the council.

Tenants are also facing a market-rate rent adjustment expected to take place in mid-2016, according to Deputy City Administrator Kristen Enomoto.

The city’s housing commission, however, says it’s unlikely current tenants can afford an increase over $250.

The figures alarmed the council.

“To increase rent would put a burden on the residents of Vernon” who already have to deal with the disadvantages that come with living in a heavily industrial city, Davis said.

For example, in Vernon “We can’t just walk to get some groceries,” he pointed out.

Only half the homes on a cul-de-sac behind Vernon City Hall have received needed repairs. The city is debating how to pay for the rest. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Only half the homes on a cul-de-sac behind Vernon City Hall have received needed repairs. The city is debating how to pay for the rest. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The focus on rental rates is new in the city, where for decades housing costs were kept artificially low to keep control of the city’s voter pool. During the last five years, however, in response to allegations of political corruption the city has adopted a number of reforms and rents that once were as little as $200 a month have been increased to get them closer to market rate, according to City Administrator Mark Whitworth.

The rate adjustments have brought rents to between $696 to $1,700 for 1 and 2 bedroom apartments and 2 and 3 bedroom single-family homes. The rental fee includes a 30 percent adversity discount to reflect the uniqueness of living in a city that does not have a park, library or amenities common in other cities.

“We don’t want to price people out of housing,” cautioned Stewart Leibowitz, legal counsel to the Vernon Housing Commission. “Most residents have been here a long time and we are uniquely sensitive to that,” he said.

If the city owns the housing units free and clear, why do we need to increase rents to pay for the rehab, Whitworth questioned.

“Where is that $700 to $1300 in rent going?” pushed McCormick.

Funds accrued from rent are used to maintain the properties and deal with issues that may arise, according to Whitworth. Though the costs vary per year, the 2014-2015 general maintenace cost of Vernon-owned housing was approximately $197,000 according to city staff.

“We’re trying to standardize and get the rent and homes” to uniform pricing, responded Enomoto, explaining that tenants in previously remodeled units pay higher rents for their units.

“We don’t want to be slumlords but we don’t want to overspend either,” said the city’s public works director.

Wilson argued that there should be a rent adjustment for tenants whose rents have not been raised to reflect the improved quality of the homes.

“They’re in good shape, but there are two distinct standards,” he said. “Some have clearly been remodeled and others haven’t and the rent reflects that,” he noted.

The mayor thinks money earned from selling off the properties in Huntington Park listed at $398,000 should be used to pay for remodeling residential properties in Vernon, which would cost $37,000 to $100,000 per unit depending on the extent of improvements needed.

“If you do minimal repairs residents might feel ‘the city doesn’t care about us,’” he warned.

McCormick did agree, however, that rents should be inline with other city-owned properties once repairs are made.

Leibowitz reminded the council that new city policies require rents be set at market rate. “We’re dealing with a different set of rules, to be perfectly candid,” he said.

The council decided to table the decision until they get more information and input from the public. Davis directed city staff to do more outreach to inform the public about potential rent increases before the council makes a decision.

Woodruff-Perez told city staff she wants to see a draft of any communication referencing the issue before it’s sent to residents.

“The more we discuss it, the more things come to light that need answers,” she said.

 
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October 15, 2015  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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