The state Legislature's move to dismantle local rent control and the rapid advance of high-end development have combined in recent years to erode Santa Monica's reputation as a “People's Republic” governed by idealists with a social agenda.
But this election season has witnessed the rise of a new leftist coalition that could again earn the city the emnity of real estate entrepreneurs and the allegiance of a broad spectrum of progressive activists.
Over the past year, the group that long dominated politics in the city, Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, has joined forces with the Green Party and Local 814 of the Hotel Workers and Restaurant Workers to form a new political front that could assume a majority on the City Council.
The coalescing of Local 814 and the Greens with SMRR to endorse a slate for the three open seats on the seven-member council comes at a critical juncture for the city. The renters' organization, formed in the late 1970s on the single issue of rent control, is graying, balding and fighting a middle-aged gut. But now SMRR has now redefined itself and broadened its appeal, taking on new issues and bringing in new blood. “There is youth and there is diversity,” said Dennis Zane, a co-chairman of SMRR and former mayor of Santa Monica.
At the same time, the quickening pace of development means that decisions the City Council makes over the next two years will shape the future of Santa Monica for years to come. And so, a city once defined primarily by tenant-landlord strife is being defined in a new way, with tenants, wage workers and homeowners joining together to fight real estate speculation and its impact on quality-of-life.
Challenging SMRR on the city ballot is another new political organization – the Civic Forum – that presents itself as a moderate, rational and civilized alternative to the activist alliance group. One of the Forum's founders is Paul Rosenstein, a former SMRR member who became disillusioned by what he considers scare tactics used by the political organization to entice tenant's allegiances. “There's a certain kind of sectarianism and dogmatism that is unhealthy for our community,” he said.
Rosenstein argues that the Forum's position on affordable housing (he says he wants to preserve as much as possible) and development (some, he says, but not more than the city can handle) are similar to those of SMRR. But Rosenstein scoffs at the idea that Santa Monica's future is as dire as the activist alliance believes. “I think a lot of it is demagoguery and fear-mongering and trying to frighten tenants into voting for SMRR,” Rosenstein said.
While the Forum has attracted as members a range of community activists and supporters, one name stands out among the rest: Chris Harding, who is considered by many to be the most influential development attorney in Santa Monica. And two of the three candidates endorsed by the Civic Forum in earlier elections – including Santa Monica mayor Robert Holbrook – were backed by a more overtly right-leaning organization that predated the Forum.
SMRR members worry that if the council majority ends up going to members of the Forum, the council will allow excessive commercial development that replaces affordable rental housing with expensive condominiums – fostering a “Beverly Hills by the Sea” known more for high-priced housing and high-class hotels than high-end social programs.
The melding of labor, Greens and SMRR in this election is more a matter of coincidence than strategy. Some in SMRR call it fate. For years, SMRR had a loose connection to Local 814, but the groups moved closer recently as the union stepped up its activism and fought to keep its stronghold at the Miramar Sheraton Hotel, where hotel management was trying to bust the union. That battle, still ongoing, spawned a new community group called Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism, or SMART, consisting of activists, religious leaders and elected officials – many belonging to SMRR, many belonging to the new Civic Forum.
Arguing that much of Santa Monica's booming economy is based on a tourism industry carried on the backs of low-paid workers, SMART has been pressuring the Miramar, at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, to remain unionized. The group has also been working with Local 814 to organize workers at the other hotels in the city and has asked the City Council to pass a living-wage ordinance, which the council is expected to vote on next year. “We're for affordable housing in Santa Monica, we're for a diverse community in Santa Monica and we're for our members having a place to live in Santa Monica,” said Kurt Peterson, one of the lead organizers of Local 814. “The more high-priced condos there are, the more our workers can't afford to live here.”
While SMRR has turned its attention to how the lack of affordable housing affects wage workers, the organization has also become increasingly concerned about development. That interest made Michael Feinstein, then a well-known slow-growth community activist and co-founder of the Green Party of California, an attractive candidate for SMRR to endorse in the 1996 election.
“I embrace SMRR's overall platform, and my specific focus is on sustainable, instead of uncontrolled, development, which reflects the sentiment of growing numbers in our community,” said Feinstein, who next stands for election in 2000. “Too much commercial development creates an imbalance between jobs and housing availability, leads to unecological commuting patterns and places undue pressure on scarce affordable housing.”
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.”