By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
This year, SMRR is backing two Democrats and a Green on its slate - Kevin McKeown, who also was endorsed by Local 814, SMART and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Santa Monica's police and firefighters unions also backed McKeown, the first time those unions have endorsed SMRR members over more conservative candidates.
In the past, SMRR has been divided over development. Some, like former Mayor Judy Abdo, strongly supported new major projects, relying on developer fees to pay for the social programs that helped earn Santa Monica its reputation as a progressive city. Still, many of the approvals for hotel and office projects occurred during 1984 and 1988, a period when SMRR lost its council majority and when the real estate market was booming - a situation similar to what SMRR will face if it loses the upcoming election.
Today, pro-development voices within SMRR are being drowned out by those who fear that Santa Monica will become overrun with condominiums, studios, hotels and office buildings.
That slow-growth posture has helped SMRR bridge a gap that long has divided the city: homeowners versus tenants. The two factions joined together this summer to block a development binge in the neighborhoods north of Montana Avenue, where speculators had begun tearing down smaller, Spanish-style homes and replacing them with large houses critics dubbed "monster mansions."
The council voted unanimously for an emergency ordinance restricting the size of homes that can be built in the area.
Any effort to preserve affordable housing must overcome two powerful new factors, each the result of changes in state law. The first is "vacancy decontrol," which allows landlords to re-rent empty apartments at whatever the market will bear. SMRR worries that vacancy decontrol will tempt landlords to harass tenants into leaving, and eventually wipe out whatever affordable rental units are left in Santa Monica. A recent city study predicted that as many as two-thirds of rent-controlled units in Santa Monica could rise to market rates by 2003.
In addition, more building owners are taking advantage of the Ellis Act, which makes it easier for them to opt out of the landlord business and convert their rental buildings to condominiums. City housing officials say that, since May, the number of applications to take advantage of the Ellis Act has been higher than in previous years.
If the trend continues, SMRR fears, the number of apartments in Santa Monica will plummet. Rosenstein, however, says SMRR is overreacting. "There will be a small amount of condo development in the near future," he said, but most Santa Monica landlords "want to make vacancy decontrol work. They don't want to sell buildings. Right now, there is no rush to build condos."
Concerns about the future of affordable housing in Santa Monica and the importance of an SMRR majority on the City Council came to a head during debate over the housing element of Santa Monica's general plan - a blueprint of how the city will provide affordable housing in the long term. Facing a lawsuit filed by development attorney Harding on behalf of a group called the Santa Monica Housing Council, the City Council voted 4-3 to settle the case by reconsidering the city's housing policies.
The year and a half of discussions about Santa Monica's housing situation culminated in a vote last summer, when the City Council agreed to allow developers to pay fees in lieu of building affordable housing on the sites of projects they are building. That means developers who decide to tear down existing apartment buildings and turn them into condominiums are not required to make some of the on-site units affordable to low- and middle-income tenants. Instead, they can pay the city, which uses the fees to build affordable housing elsewhere.
The three SMRR council members argue that the fees are too low to subsidize viable off-site projects. Rosenstein, who voted with the majority for the in-lieu fees, said the city had worked long enough on finding a solution and could come up with nothing better.
"We were backed into a corner," he said. "We were afraid of losing lawsuits and being slapped with big penalties for not following the law. If renters want, they can vote for people who are going to tie up the city in millions of dollars' worth of litigation."
Zane sees it differently. "They like to say there's nothing we can do, but what they really mean is they don't want think about it," he said.
The new alignment in Santa Monica politics has already given rise to pre-election feuding. Tempers flared recently when Mayor Holbrook accused Feinstein of using a City Hall copy machine to run off Green-campaign material. Holbrook turned the matter over to Santa Monica city attorney Marsha Moutrie.
Moutrie, who calls it a routine referral because the city cannot delve into allegations about its own elected officials, has sent the case to the District Attorney's office. However, a resident who also is Holbrook's neighbor placed an item on a recent City Council agenda, asking what the city planned to do about the allegation.
The meeting turned into a public flogging of Feinstein by Holbrook, who vowed that he would rather lose the election than let the copy-machine incident go unresolved, and Rosenstein, who called for an independent attorney to investigate the matter.
Zane called it "Green baiting." "The only issue about green in this election is the green of real estate money that is attempting to hold on to a majority of the Santa Monica City Council," he said. "That's the only green Santa Monicans have to worry about."