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Real Fears, False Hopes
By Frank Gruber
December 19, 2011 -- While over the past couple of weeks the turf war in Palisades Park over Nativity scenes has been attracting regional and national attention, much of the attention of Santa Monica government has been focused on nearly four acres of land on the other side of town. That is where residents of the Village Trailer Park have been trying to keep hold of the turf under their trailers.
At the City Council meeting on December 6 the council members debated a motion by Council Member Kevin McKeown to explore any options to save the trailer park, including the City’s purchase of the land. This resulted in the council adopting a substitute motion by Council Member Bobby Shriver to investigate whether the developer, a company headed by Marc Luzzatto, would be willing to sell. ("Santa Monica Officials Will Ask About Price of Trailer Park," December 8, 2011)
Then last Monday night the Landmarks Commission, which had ignored the trailer park for the five years Mr. Luzzatto has been developing his plans for it, voted to have planning staff study the merits of declaring the trailer park a city landmark.
So -- why all the action now?
Readers may recall that in 2007 the City Council managed to halt Mr. Luzzatto’s company from evicting the trailer-owner tenants. What’s crucial is that under state law the developers have the right to exit the trailer park business and evict the residents. The City forestalled eviction, on the advice of housing activists advising the residents, by entering into an agreement (a “Memorandum of Understanding” and known as the “MOU”), with the developers that kept the residents in place while the proposed development proposal made its way through the system. ("Evictions Halted," December 3, 2007)
The MOU has kept residents in their homes for four years, during which time the number of occupied units, which once exceeded 100, has dwindled to about 50.
But time goes on and two events occurred recently -- in October -- that activated another round of efforts to save the trailer park. One was that the City issued a massive Draft Environmental Impact Report on Mr. Luzzatto’s project, which means that he is significantly closer to negotiating a development agreement and receiving approval to build. The other was that Mr. Luzzatto, after a fire earlier in the year in a vacant trailer, began to remove vacant units from the trailer park that his company owned; when this occurred, residents used it as an opportunity to draw attention to their plight.
It was in this context, in early November, that Mr. McKeown, who has over the years made the plight of the trailer park residents one of his signature issues, asked City staff to study the City’s options, including purchase of the property. City staff responded with a staff report that stated, among other obstacles to saving the trailer park, that the cost of purchasing it would likely be more than $22 million.
Before analyzing the situation, it’s important to recognize two facts. One is that it is horrible to lose one’s home and be forced to move. The other is that in our society it happens a lot. It’s ironic but Santa Monica enacted rent control three decades ago because renters were losing their homes because of rising property values. Today hundreds of thousands of houses are in foreclosure and their occupants are losing their homes because of declining property values.
And that’s just capitalism. Government can be worse: in the idealistic name of urban renewal, hundreds of thousands if not millions of families lost and still lose their homes. Locally, the City of Santa Monica and the State of California destroyed neighborhoods, primarily minority, to build the freeway, the Civic Auditorium, and apartment towers on the beach in Ocean Park.
I have at times criticized people for being fearful of change, because I don’t believe that fear leads to the best decision-making, but history provides many reasons to be fearful of change.
By bringing this up, I don’t mean to be cavalier about the trailer park residents losing their homes. Just the opposite. But the tenants of trailer parks in California have a tenuous hold on the land underneath their trailers for a real reason, which is that state law recognizes that as California urbanizes, that land is too valuable and the trailers are too impermanent to maintain the status quo.
The current battle over the trailer park also plays out in the context of a strange housing crisis, where the suburbs are full of devalued empty single-family houses, while the demand for housing in the urban core of the region is exploding. As evidence for this, consider, at the high end, the rents the developer of the 56 small units at 401 Broadway expects to be able to charge ($1750 for 350 square feet; Santa Monica City Council Approves Development with No Parking," December 14, 2011) or, at the low end, the Los Angeles Times report on Saturday about the house in South L.A. that was subdivided into 40 tiny units, each rented out for $500 ( http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-illegal-housing-20111217,0,5010679.story).
Mr. Luzzatto proposes to build about 350 units of housing, of different sizes ranging from studios to two-bedroom apartments. One hundred nine of these units will be under rent control and of the rent-controlled units, 57 will be deed-restricted affordable. The existing tenants will be provided relocation assistance and priority if they want to move into the new development.
From a public policy perspective, there is no way that the City of Santa Monica should put the interests, regardless how valid, of the 50 or so remaining households in the trailer park ahead of the benefit of a private developer creating so much housing in their place.
Through it all, the politics are fascinating. Mr. McKeown must know what the inevitable is, but he keeps on bringing up the plight of the trailer park residents to his fellow council members. The upshot of his motion at the council meeting Dec. 6 was one of those now classic scenes on the City Hall dais where he proves why he will never be mayor of Santa Monica. I hope he enjoyed how uncomfortable he made his colleagues, because, by his own doing, he sure didn’t accomplish much.
The telling moment occurred when Council Member Shriver, apparently sensing that Mr. McKeown’s motion wouldn’t pass because it was too broad (note that Mr. Shriver had at first supported the original motion), offered a substitute motion. His motion was to have staff evaluate the value of the property, and it would have accomplished the core of Mr. McKeown’s motion. I say the value question was the core of Mr. McKeown’s motion because he had previously acknowledged that the only option to save the trailer park would be for the City to purchase it, and the basic issue about that is the price.
So -- if Mr. McKeown was truly interested in exploring that option, and if his motion was not going to pass (and it didn’t), wouldn’t you think that he would have voted for Mr. Shriver’s substitute? But he didn’t, and the motion failed one vote short of the needed four. It was only then that Mr. Shriver offered his second substitute motion, the one that only asked staff to find out if Mr. Luzzatto was interested in selling, which passed when Council Member Bob Holbrook, who had abstained on the first substitute motion, voted yes.
To summarize: when Mr. McKeown couldn’t get exactly his motion passed, he sunk one that would have achieved the same result.
Not that that result would save the trailer park.
As for the Landmarks Commission, I didn’t attend the meeting, but I heard from people who were there that commendably a majority of commissioners, including Barbara Kaplan, Roger Genser, Ruthann Lehrer and John Berley, expressed doubts that there was in fact something to landmark there other than the use as a trailer park. Ever since the commission landmarked Horizons West as a use, and then the fabled surf shop closed, the commission is concerned about landmarking uses. But nonetheless the commission voted to have staff research the issue further.
But since state law allows the owner to exit the trailer park business, this won’t mean anything either.
Change has been a constant in the short history of Santa Monica. I agree, it’s scary, especially if you’re losing your home. But it’s not constructive for anyone to respond to those real fears by raising false hopes.
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