The Westside Rentals headquarters, near 10th and Wilshire in Santa Monica, gives off a boiler room vibe à la the real estate office where Jack Lemmon toiled in Glengarry Glen Ross. When I walked in on a weekday morning at 8:30, two sales reps were on the phone amid an empty bullpen of desks. I imagined elderly landlords on the other end of the line, keepers of undermarket “Spanish charmers” who had no idea what “upload photos” meant. But I was probably wrong.
Company president Kevin Miller was out back, pacing the alley on his Bluetooth. Even as the apartment hunt has gone digital, Miller cleaves to the increasingly antiquated notion that landlords and renters want to at least meet and exchange awkward conversation, in person, before leases are signed and keys handed over. “It’s still a touch-and-feel game,” Miller assured me. And Westside Rentals, given its deep roots with local landlords and ongoing associations with property management companies, laps the field.
Miller, who has close-cropped hair and a business-casual style, has worked at Westside Rentals since 2000. He started when he was 26, having just moved to L.A. from Kansas City. At first he burned through his money staying at the Marina del Rey Marriott. He needed a job. In Miller’s telling, one Sunday he walked into Westside Rentals’ office on a whim and left his résumé. He returned the next day and met the company’s founder, Mark Verge, who put him to work.
A Santa Monica native, Verge had built his business by making it easy for landlords to list with him. He’d take photos, do credit checks, everything a landlord might need—and he’d do it all for free. Make the renters pay to find you, was essentially Verge’s pitch—and the more properties he listed, the firmer a lock he had on the market. (“It was like a toll road business,” Verge would later tell me. “You wanted to find an apartment, you had to go through our toll road.”)
In the years since its founding, and as swaths of L.A. neighborhoods have been gentrified, Westside Rentals has moved into places not even slightly west leaning, like Atwater Village and North Hollywood, making the company’s name the ultimate misnomer. Miller described its coverage area to me in broad terms: from the beach east to Pasadena and from Santa Barbara south to Pacific Beach in San Diego.
The morning I met Miller for a “walk-and-talk,” we traversed miles, up and down those palm tree-lined Santa Monica flats south of Wilshire. How, I asked as we soldiered on, does Westside Rentals persevere so many years later, with incursions by tech-based disruptors? Miller responded with a salesman’s nothing-but-blue-skies optimism, citing his company’s rental business, leasing business, and its latest venture, a real estate business called WSR Brokerage. It would be “powered by Westside Rentals.”
The mixed metaphor of an apartment-finding business touting home ownership was still sinking in when we stopped short in front of a cozy-looking complex on Arizona Avenue with a distinctive Westside Rentals sign out front. It was a bull’s-eye: a two-bed, one-bath unit for $1,600 a month.
Miller began to deconstruct the beauty of the sign system, which focuses renters’ attention in situ, in the moment. “What better lead for a landlord than someone right out in front of their place?” Miller asked. “Why? I’m looking at your building, I’m on the street, I’m in the community. Obviously I like what I see from here. Now you just have to close me on the inside.” The sign is also meant to signify that you have entered a scam-free zone, safe from the likes of the “Craigs-list Killer,” the subject of a TV movie Miller would refer to repeatedly over several conversations.
After our walk-and-talk, we went to Santa Monica Seafood Co., where I tried without luck to press Miller for specifics on Westside Rentals’ membership numbers. Miller would speak only in historical terms. “Westside Rentals has helped nearly 2 million people find a place to live,” he said. “And that’s, mind you, just paid [subscribers]. We probably have helped 5 to 7 million because of shared passwords.” (Miller later e-mailed to say that rental memberships were up in 2015, after two years of being flat.)
When we first sat down, I mentioned I was having trouble contacting Verge, the company’s founder-owner. Miller made a phone call, and Verge appeared moments later, somewhat magically, dressed head-to-toe in exquisite cotton fibers. Verge is into restaurants and bars now (the back of his business card lists six). He ordered a Pellegrino and stayed for about 30 minutes, during which time he spoke about his brief stint a few years ago as CEO of Santa Anita Park. (“I was going to save racing,” he said.) As for Westside Rentals, Verge reminisced about his early days, when he was hustling for guesthouses to list. He credited Miller for taking things to “another level of crazy” in the 2000s with lawn signage. “We’re still nuts,” Verge added, referring to the company’s determination to outpace the competition. Then he left, saying his wife was waiting in the car.
I had been given my own Westside Rentals password to go exploring beyond the pay wall. Without a membership, you can look at pictures of places for free (listed with neighborhoods, not addresses), but to find out exactly where a unit is and who’s willing to rent it to you, you must use a “click now to view contact info” button that plunges you into a cold-water bath of payment options. I wish I could say my password led me to an enchanted forest of guesthouses on the grounds of tony Brentwood estates and ever-so-vintage duplexes in Mid Wilshire. It didn’t. I did feel some protection, though—at least $60 worth—from the clutches of a scam artist. Despite what some users suspect, the inventory, based on my follow-up calls, seems all too real.
To further test that gut feeling and to gauge their experiences, I spoke to landlords who’d posted listings on Westside Rentals. One swore by the company. Four others, strikingly, told me they had listed their properties on other services as well. One had initially used Craigslist to post her Burbank unit, only to receive a call from a Westside representative asking whether the company could add the apartment to its database (she agreed, though she wasn’t thrilled that two large lawn signs promptly appeared).
When I asked Alex Azod, a renter’s agent for Saba Property Management, where Westside Rentals—for so long the 800-pound gorilla—now fell in the pecking order, he equivocated. While the average Westside Rentals client “is more put-together financially,” the service isn’t “head and shoulders above the rest,” he said. Azod himself owns a home in Mar Vista, and he recently renovated the space over his garage. He said he found a tenant after listing the studio on Westside Rentals, Trulia, Zillow, RadPad, and Craigslist—and this only after the unit had failed to get much action on Airbnb. (Relatedly, in a report last March about the impact of Airbnb on affordable housing, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy found that “as many as 12.5 percent of all housing units in Venice have become Airbnb units.”)
Talking to renters yielded similarly mixed reviews. One 25-year-old assistant to a TV development executive told me she was living in a house in Westchester with six film school classmates from Loyola Marymount when she and her boyfriend decided they wanted a place of their own. First she turned to Craigslist, an experience she described as “terrifying.” So she borrowed a friend’s Westside Rentals membership and scored a fixed-up, $1,200 studio off the Venice Boardwalk.
Corrina Wright, on the other hand, has lived for eight years in a Koreatown triplex with her husband and now-ten-year-old daughter. In mid-2015, she vowed not to spend another Christmas there. “It’s so outdated,” she said of their two-bedroom, one-bath apartment, which is so decrepit that parts of the roof blew off in a stiff wind.
On the recommendation of a realtor friend, she signed up with Westside Rentals. Her parameters: $3,000 a month for two bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths, with a dishwasher, cats allowed, in a building somewhere in that nexus of Koreatown, Mid City, and Miracle Mile. In the 60 days her membership lasted, she said, “I didn’t find one apartment even to look at.”
After her membership expired, Wright happened to drive by a building that looked promising. It had a Westside Rentals sign out front. She texted the code on the left to the number on the right and was instructed to register her mobile phone with the company—in other words, to pay to start the sign-up process again.