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Familiar Tenant Battle Cry Raised Statewide

By Teresa Rochester

April 2 -- From San Francisco to San Diego, a broad-based coalition kicked off a campaign this week to bolster renters rights throughout the state in an effort to provide "decent and affordable" housing for working families in neighborhoods close to their work.

Locally, members of the powerful tenants group Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR), including Mayor Michael Feinstein and Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown, publicly stepped into the fray, pledging their support and participation in "Renters Together," the coalition of community groups, churches and labor unions spearheading the effort.

"We're here to re-embark on a battle for the middle class," McKeown said. "I say the middle class because they are the ones getting squeezed. In a community like ours, where land cost is too high, the dream of homeownership is beyond the middle class."

Renters Together is backing three bills currently being considered by the state legislature that would fund more affordable housing, strengthen tenant protections and reform noticing for evictions and security deposits.

Proposed Assembly Bill 2330 would allow tenants who pay security deposits that are more than the equivalent of one month's rent to pay the difference in six monthly installments. The bill also would allow tenants who have lost their jobs and are collecting compensation to apply as much as a month's rent's worth of the deposit toward the following month's rent. The tenant would have to pay the money back over six months.

The bill also would give tenants a chance to fix problems before they move out so they can get all of their security deposit back. Turnaround time on giving a deposit back when a tenant moves out would drop from three weeks to two weeks, the group contends.

Tenants also would be protected from retaliation by their landlords if they demand repairs or file any suits regarding tenancy.

If approved Senate Bill 1403, sponsored by Senator Sheila Kuehl, would protect tenants from "unwarranted intrusion." Landlords would have to provide written notice before entering.

"These protections ensure that people who aren't doing anything wrong and are honest tenants aren't manipulated out of their homes so people can raise the rent," Feinstein said after the conference.

A third bill under consideration in the senate calls for a $2.1 billion bond on the November 2002. If the measure is approved, rental housing would be created for low-income seniors, disabled people and families with children.

Bond money would also be used to fund homeownership programs and create emergency shelters, farm worker housing and incentives for local governments to approve affordable housing developments.

"Our struggle right now is to work on these bills," said long-time SMRR organizer Michael Tarbet.

The statewide coalition will continue its outreach efforts and likely lobby lawmakers. Organizers of the movement include ACORN, the country's largest organization of low and moderate-income families. The organization, like SMRR, has been instrumental in living wage efforts throughout the country.

California's new tenant movement has also garnered the support of labor unions, clergy and progressives, including the Green Party, which counts Feinstein and McKeown among its ranks.

The statewide effort, which will include a demonstration at the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, has been in the works for about six months and includes organizing branches in Pasadena, Glendale, Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego.

Press conferences will take place in some of these cities to "to express their dissatisfaction over the way state laws are slanted toward owners' interests," Tarbet said.
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