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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

November 4, 2016 -- If you want to be elected to the Santa Monica Rent Control Board, make sure you’re an incumbent or win the endorsement from Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR). If you can do both -- even better.

These are usually the rules for winning a rent board election. But this year could be different in what has been an unusual campaign.

There are four candidates running for two seats. Christopher Walton is the lone elected incumbent, and he’s been mostly silent this campaign. He has raised no money and didn’t even seek SMRR’s endorsement.

SMRR is backing Anastasia Foster, who was appointed in February to fill a vacancy on the board, and consumer rights attorney Caroline Torosis. The two candidates have also endorsed each other.

Challenging the SMRR slate is Elaine Golden-Gealer, a Realtor and landlord who heads Action Apartment Association, an organization that has sued the rent board several times.

Golden-Gealer is a regular at rent board meetings, using jokes and off-beat PowerPoint presentations to challenge a board she sees as too cozy.

"I am a true outsider who is running as an outcumbent and would represent an independent voice in a one-party town,” Golden-Gealer told The Lookout

Foster and Torosis do not see Golden-Gealer as simply an outsider or somebody who would bring a landlord’s perspective to a board in which all the elected members reached the dais with a SMRR endorsement.

They consider her to be a threat to the very existence of the board, with Foster calling the possibility of a Golden-Gealer victory "a grave concern."

Torosis added, "I would be extremely concerned that this landlord's allegiances to Action Apartment Association would significantly impede her ability to serve fairly and impartially on the board."

If Golden-Gealer were to win, she would become just the second person elected to the rent board without SMRR’s backing. The only person to do this was Robert Kronovet in 2008 ("Historic! SMRR Foe Wins Rent Bd Seat," December 3, 2008)..

What followed were four years of lively meetings and Kronovet often being the odd man out in 4-1 vote tallies. He also proposed various measures that never got much past the proposal stage. But Kronovet had a platform.

He was unable to repeat the upset in 2012, placing third in the election for two seats -- far behind the second-place candidate

Golden-Gealer said she has not sought advice from Kronovet, nor does she have the same people working on her campaign who helped him win.

She also said she accepts that rent control is the law of the land. Her focus is on creating legislation for a tenant ownership plan (TOP), in which tenants could purchase their homes ("Home Ownership 'Elusive' in Santa Monica, Housing Report Says," July 31, 2013).

"Tenants who don't buy would continue to be protected by current rent control laws," Golden-Gealer said.

She added, "Ownership is like rent control on steroids. In fact, one TOP sale would prevent all the tenants in an entire building from ever being Ellised.”

Santa Monica had a policy similar to Golden-Gealer’s plan in effect from 1984 to 1996 with the Tenant Ownership Rights Charter Amendment (TORCA) ("TORCA Owners Seeking to Occupy Their Units Get Legal Boost," October 20, 2005).

While Golden-Gealer said TORCA worked well and to the financial benefit of those who made the tenant to owner transformation, her opponents say TORCA was disastrous and was not renewed for a good reason.

“TORCA effectively removed 3,300 rent control apartments from the market forever, with only a small handful of tenants completing the arduous process to become owners or remaining as renters,” Foster said.

Trying to do something like TORCA again would require actions by more than just the rent board. Voters would likely have to approve it. So Torosis said it’s deceptive for Golden-Gealer to even use that as a platform.

Torosis said her goals as a rent board commissioner include creating "increased tenant stability."

"Vacancy decontrol incentivizes harassment and unfair evictions," she said. "I will work to make sure our tenant harassment ordinance is enforced, particularly as to our most vulnerable tenants."

Torosis added, "Other goals include working with the City Council to evaluate our current relocation expenses and to ensuring they adequately compensate tenants who are displaced by the Ellis Act or other no fault evictions in our current market."

Foster said she has rented in Santa Monica for 10 years and has been a landlord in other areas.

Because of this background, Foster said, she brings a unique perspective to the board with "an ability to cut through rhetoric to seek practical solutions on a case-by-case basis."

Among other goals, she wants to improve how tenants are notified of their rights.

Last month Foster proposed the creation of a document that would outline the rights, and tenants and landlords would be required to sign it at the time of the lease.

The document would also be mailed to all rent-controlled tenants in the city. (“New Santa Monica Tenants Should Receive Official Notice of Their Rights, Rent Commissioner Says,” October 14, 2016).

"Information is power, and the many problems that come before the board every month could be solved earlier with clear cut information in people's hands,” Foster said.

She added, "I actually love policy-making and I love fighting for a just application of the law."

To see the candidates' full answers to questions from The Lookout, go here.

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