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Candidates Tackle Rent Issues, as SMRR Challengers Boycott Landlord Forum

By Cindy Frazier
Senior Writer

September 13 -- Landlord activists peppered a roster of candidates for various elected posts with questions about property rights and wealthy tenants during a election forum Monday night that generated polite applause for most of the candidates.

The forum sponsored by ACTION Apartment Association, an activist local landlord group, drew three of four council incumbents seeking reelection and two challengers, as well as a candidate for Santa Monica College Board of Trustees, and one seeking to unseat 41st Assembly member Fran Pavley.

Outside the forum at Roosevelt Elementary School, two council challengers boycotted the event, accusing candidates who attended of turning their backs on renter issues.

“This is a silent protest against the SMRR (Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights) candidates who are participating” in the forum, said David Cole, who made an unsuccessful bid for the council four years ago.

Bill Bauer, one of Cole’s running mates on “Team for Change” -- a three-person slate challenging the long-dominant SMRR faction -- said he refuses to give the landlord group “credence” because the group is planning a lawsuit to overturn the city’s rent control charter amendment.

Cole and Bauer particularly scoffed at the fact that Ken Genser -- a longtime SMRR advocate -- had agreed to attend the landlord-sponsored forum.

“We’re doing a better job of representing the renters than SMRR,” Bauer said.

“SMRR has dropped the ball,” Cole agreed. Fellow slate member Kathryn Morea was attending another political event, one of several Monday.

Inside the meeting, ACTION president Gordon Gitlen, a local attorney, told about 50 members that the group is planning a major legal assault against rent control laws that have been in place for 25 years.

Landlord advocates have long sought to eliminate protections that can keep tenants in their units for years with minimal increases in rents.

Gitlen thanked the candidates who agreed to participate in the forum and had a few choice words for the protesters.

“All the candidates were invited, but some ‘girlymen and women’ didn’t want to be associated with us,” Gitlen said, using Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term for his political enemies.

“We are planning a lawsuit to establish owners’ rights,” Gitlen added.

Gitlen said candidates -- some of whom could not attend because of other political forums -- would be invited back for a second round at the group’s next meeting, Monday, October 4.

For his part, Genser quickly established his pro-renter views, telling the group that he is a “strong supporter of renters’ rights and an advocate for affordable housing” -- and yet elicited surprisingly strong applause from the audience.

“I’m here to listen to your views and answer your questions, and I thank you for inviting me,” Genser said.

Other candidates sought in various ways to appeal to the landlord group.

”I know what it’s like to run a business,” said Herb Katz, a council incumbent who described himself as an independent. “As an architect, I can help with planning issues.”

Candidate Matt Dinolfo said he supports renters’ rights, but added, “I understand your issues and I am respectful of your rights and opinions, even though I may not agree with them.”

Council incumbent Michael Feinstein, who lost out on a bid for a SMRR endorsement said, “This community has to work for everyone. I thank you for providing housing and believe that you should be respected.”

Council candidate Jonathan Mann said he sees both sides of the landlord-renter issue.

“I’ve been a renter and I’ve been a landlord and I don’t like being either,” Mann said.

Man told the crowd about fighting an eviction in Santa Monica and dealing with difficult tenants in Berkeley -- another city with strong rent control laws --where he owns a condominium.

“Owners deserve a fair return, but we must prevent the scourge of evictions,” Mann said. “I have no compassion for speculators, but we need more respect for people who live here and own property.”

The landlords wasted no time in telling the candidates what their chief concerns are -- how to get more rent from tenants who can afford it and how to rout the homeless from the city’s streets and parks.

Several audience members said they are fed up with long-term tenants of rent-controlled units who have prospered but still pay low rents, and asked the candidates how owners can increase rents for those individuals -- possibly by making annual rent adjustments based on renters’ income.

“There are many tenants in Santa Monica who are wealthier than (property) owners,” said attorney Rosario Perry. “How do you justify wealthy tenants having below-market rents? What purpose is served?”

Gitlen tried to appeal to the candidates’ sense of social justice. “How do you justify the disparity between a tenant with a Rolls Royce and the need of seniors for affordable housing?”

Despite the fact that the Rent Control Board, and not the City Council, determines the annual rent adjustment, the council candidates took the question on.

Katz was the only candidate who thought that tenants should pay based on their income.

“There should be a sliding scale” for rents, Katz said. “The inequities have damaged the whole system and the landlords suffer.”

Genser agreed that “there are tenants with Bentleys,” but said that many landlords choose to rent to wealthier individuals, and that he would oppose removing rent controls for occupied units.

Feinstein said that renters who have prospered “need security in their homes, too,” and that “we don’t want to penalize those (tenants) who have done well.”

One man in the audience drew a parallel between rent control and the homelessness.

“There is no rent control in Culver City, and no homeless,” he said. “Why? Rent control is just a means to get political power.”

On the homeless issue, Katz was the only candidate to offer a new proposal: give the homeless a place to sleep at night -- possibly a beach parking lot.

“We need a designated area, with toilets, and could pay them to clean it up every morning,” said Katz, who is seeking a fourth four-year term. “This will decrease the homeless population by half, but it will cost money.”

Genser admitted that the City’s homeless policies “have failed,” but defended the council’s efforts in trying to curtail the influx of transients and to provide venues for homeless persons to get off the streets through the city’s programs.

“The majority on the council have tried to discourage feeding in the parks, because it gives the impression that Santa Monica is a good place to be homeless,” said Genser, who is seeking his fifth term.

But Genser acknowledged that an ordinance designed to reduce feeding programs by putting a limit on the numbers served has not worked.

“People split up their groups to get in under the limit,” Genser said. “Free meals encourage people to live in the parks, and the City is trying to discourage that.”

Heather Peters, who is running against incumbent Fran Pavley to represent the 41st Assembly District, told the group she is supported by the Howard Jarvis Taxypayer’s Association, which spearheaded Proposition 13, the groundbreaking ballot initiative which slashed property taxes in the 1970s.

Peters, a Santa Monica businesswoman with a professional mediation service, says she decided to run for assembly after legislators failed to pass a budget by the required deadline.

“I’m tired of partisan bickering in Sacramento and want to stop the siphoning of local tax revenues by the state,” Peters said. “Fran Pavley voted for every job-killer bill and supported giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, and now she wants to impose a county income tax.”

Peters said she would cut wasteful spending by conducting a thorough audit of State finances and seeking to streamline the state government, and to cut back on exorbitant salaries given to school superintendents.

“One San Diego school superintendent makes more than our governor,” Peters said.

Tonja McCoy says she hopes to become the first Malibu resident elected to the College Board in 15 years. “The board needs balance,” she said.

McCoy says Malibu needs its own college campus to serve some 500 students who now commute to Santa Monica, and she supports the proposed college bond to build such a facility, which she says could reduce traffic impacts in Santa Monica.

“We should not limit the growth of SMC and deny students the opportunity for an education,” McCoy said.

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