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By Lookout Staff

November 4, 2016 -- The Lookout sent questions to the four candidates running for Santa Monica Rent Control Board. Three responded. Here are the questions and unedited answers.

Why should residents vote for you?

Elaine Golden-Gealer, challenger
Rent control is here to stay, so can we talk about something else for a change? How about my TOP--Tenant Ownership Plan? I support legislation to allow tenants to purchase their apartments if they can make a deal with their landlords. Tenants who don’t buy would continue to be protected by current rent control laws. 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!

In the 1990s, a wildly successful program where tenants could buy their apartments (TORCA) resulted in a number of tenants becoming owners. Those who bought and eventually sold their units realized an average of a 1,000% profit on their down payments!

SMRR has controlled the agenda here for close to 40 years and they alone are responsible for the overdevelopment, the gridlock and the transformation of our beach city into a regional commercial hub. Their policies have helped tenants in some ways but harmed them in others. And now, by supporting No on LV, they are in championing the million-dollar campaign against renters and residents. The sad truth is that big developers who only care about profits, will tear down older buildings and Ellis tenants and to build gigantic apartment buildings with tiny expensive rental units.

I am voting Yes on LV because I do not want to change our city into Manhattan; I prefer we remain more like Manhattan Beach! I am a true outsider who is running as an outcumbent and would represent an independent voice in a one-party town.

Anastasia Foster, incumbent
Residents should vote for me, because as a 10-year renter, I understand firsthand the issues that renters face. I also know exactly how a landlord runs a building, because I have been a landlord in another jurisdiction. I have a unique perspective and an ability to cut through rhetoric to seek practical solutions on a case-by-case basis. I've worked on the SMRR renters' hotline, assisting dozens and dozens of citizens with many different kinds of issues: maintenance woes, roommate issues, harassment and many others. I've driven Meals on Wheels for almost 6 years, and I have so many Seniors for whom I've advocated. All of this work has given me a deep understanding of the difference good policy can make. That's why I sought the appointment on the Rent Control Board earlier this year. I know I can do the work it takes to improve people's lives.

Caroline Torosis, challenger
I have committed my adult life to ensuring that government is transparent and accountable to the people it serves. I strongly support Santa Monica’s rent control law, and as an attorney who has worked in government and consumer protection, I have seen attempts to derogate tenants’ rights firsthand. Tenants’ rights deserve to be protected, and both landlords and tenants should be entitled to fair and reasonable rent controls. I am here to ensure that all residents are entitled to stability, safety, privacy, dignity and peace in their homes.

I will bring my experience making policy and serving commissions at the County level to promote an efficient and dynamic relationship with Rent Control Board staff and the public. Throughout my professional career, I have been able to build consensus among many divergent viewpoints and will be able to bring these skills to listen to members of the community, staff and commissioners. I will hear the concerns of all residents, and ensure that the law is enforced fairly.

As our economy continues to recover and the incentive to sell property and redevelop and re-rent it grows, tenants are most vulnerable. Tenants pay the bill for property ownership; however, they are afforded none of the benefits of home ownership such as equity, stability and the ability to plan for fixed costs into the future. Tenants comprise over 70% of the population in Santa Monica, and contribute to the diversity and stability of our City.

Therefore, over the next two to four years, I would work to accomplish goals promoting increased tenant stability. Vacancy decontrol incentivizes harassment and unfair evictions; I will work to make sure our tenant harassment ordinance is enforced, particularly as to our most vulnerable tenants. 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. Additionally, I would work to adopt and enforce laws to stop new forms harassment, including harassment by negligence of basic maintenance issues and intentional vacancies used to target holdout tenants. I will also work to better coordinate communication between City agencies to ensure a collaborative, integrated response and follow through on issues facing landlords and tenants. I believe that my experience, passion, and knowledge of the subject matter and policymaking ideally suits me to serve on the Rent Control Board.

Editor’s Note: Additional questions found below were individualized for each candidate

Golden-Gealer: If you are elected, you will still be one vote of five on the board with four people who will disagree with you on many subjects. Will it be possible to accomplish anything?

I earned my living for close to 40 years negotiating compromises between opposing parties. These proven, battle-tested, real-world skills are badly needed and all too rare in government. Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) claims to support diversity, but when someone like me with ideas they may not agree with knocks on the door, they slam it in my face and call me names. According to my math, I could not overcome SMRR’s tight grip on power on the Rent Board with only 1 of 5 votes. I am a David without even a slingshot to fight against the SMRR Goliath!

Foster: Your time on the rent board has been brief. What do you think your accomplishments have been in that time?

I really love this work. I was appointed to an unscheduled vacancy in February and have served for 9 months. In that time, I have already proposed what I think is an important policy change that will serve both renters and landlords very well. I've proposed a required document that would be read and signed by landlord and tenant at the time of lease signing. It would be a "greatest hits" highlight reel of all the categories of the rent control law, Measure RR, & the Tenant Harassment Ordinance, including: what to do about maintenance issues, the special rights of those 62 & over, disabled or having young children in the home, harassment issues clearly defined, construction rules for buildings that are being rehabbed with tenants in place, eviction rules outlined and many more items. The same document would then be mailed to every rent-controlled tenancy in the city. 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. I've also helped to set precedent for how we deal with assessing Owner Occupancy issues, and I've worked with other thought leaders from around the state at the Housing California conference in Sacramento. There is much to do. I'm not content to just "be in office." I actually love policy-making, and I love fighting for a just application of the law.

Torosis: You are one of two challengers for this election. What is your connection to rent control and why did you decide to run?

I am a consumer protection attorney and I have advocated my entire career for those who would not otherwise have a voice. As a certified mediator, I have mediated hundreds of cases between tenants and landlords; both tenants looking to be treated with dignity in their homes, and landlords trying to make a decent living. I have counseled tenants on their rights and responsibilities and assisted tenants and landlords in reaching agreements to avoid eviction. I recognize the importance of facilitating communication between landlords and tenants, as well as proactive outreach to these populations. I have seen firsthand that education on rights and responsibilities is the first line of defense.

I will bring my experience making policy and serving commissions at the County level to promote an efficient and dynamic relationship with Rent Control Board staff and the public. Throughout my professional career, I have been able to build consensus among many divergent viewpoints and will be able to bring these skills to listen to members of the community, staff and commissioners. I will listen to the concerns of all residents, and ensure that the law is enforced fairly.

I am passionate about serving the public and transparent government and my independence is a core component of my public service. I will bring an experienced, yet new voice that will be accountable to the residents of this great City.

Golden-Gealer: You are on a possible path to be the first non-SMRR endorsee to win a rent board seat since Robert Kronovet in 2008. Have you sought any advice from him on what that is like both as a candidate and a member of the board?

I am not an establishment apartment industry candidate. I am an independent voice and have not discussed my campaign with Robert Kronovet. Neither he nor the people involved in his campaign have been involved in mine. Please note: in almost 40 years, there has only been one non-SMRR backed owner on the Rent Board. That should say something to every resident who supports diversity in Santa Monica. Owners pay half of the $5 million rent control budget, 85% of which goes to pay the salaries and benefits (averaging $109 an hour) of the 25 anti-owner Rent Board employees. It’s like going to a restaurant, paying half the bill but not getting to eat or even sit at the table. What’s worse, we have to do the dishes.

Foster: Are you supporting any other candidate for rent board?

I am supporting Caroline Torosis for the other seat that is up for election. Caroline is an attorney who has chosen a life in public service in LA County. She has mediated hundreds of disputes between landlords and tenants. She is a volunteer and a fundraiser for causes she believes in, and she truly cares about people. During this election, I have seen her true colors, and she is a wonderful person with an incredible work ethic. I trust her to do this job. I want you to send her to the dais with me to help do this good work.

Torosis: Are you supporting any other candidate for rent board?

I am supporting Anastasia Foster. The two of us are running together as Santa Monica's Renters' Rights Team. We have been endorsed by Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, Santa Monica Democratic Club, Unite Here and State Senator Ben Allen, among many others.

We share a passion for protecting the diversity and vibrancy of this community, and ensuring that Renters are entitled to peace, stability and dignity in their homes. We are both active policy makers, and I have been impressed with Anastasia's commitment to tenants and to fair enforcement of the law in her time on the Board. I know that together, both of us will be champions for renters’ rights, while maintaining an open dialogue with the concerns of all residents of this progressive city.

Golden-Gealer: A campaign mailer calls you a wolf in sheep's clothing and an "anti-rent control landlord." Is this an accurate description of you, and if not what do you say to those making that claim?

Come on, have you ever seen a wolf or a sheep who always wears a hat! I am obviously not supported by SMRR but people may be surprised to know I am also not supported by the mainstream power-brokers within the apartment and real estate industries. I meet the textbook definition of an outsider. I am known as being an apartment industry disrupter. I have a well-documented record of independent thinking. I am committed to sound public policy above partisan politics. I have taken several positions unpopular among many in the landlord community, but am a resident interested in supporting the best policies whether from the left or right. I have spoken out against and confronted those in our industry who I see as abusing the Ellis Act.

I support Yes on LV, a position which is opposed by the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA) and Political Action Committee the California Association of Realtors (CAR) neither of which have supported my candidacy. I endorse measures GH and GHS which increases the sales tax to support affordable housing, a position which is also opposed by the both AAGLA AND CAR.

Wow, can anyone explain to me how I could overturn rent control? I didn’t know I was that powerful! Where did they got that idea? Should I laugh or just say thank you for the undeserving and ultimately ridiculous compliment? Close to 40 years of rent control and it is still here! Nevertheless, in every election, SMRR plays the Chicken Little card to scare renters into keeping them in power. By the way, SMRR needs to convene their metaphor committee. How can I be both a wolf in sheep’s clothing and a fox guarding the chicken coup!

Where is Wikileaks when we need them? Rent Board members who are also renters have voted to limit rent increases, may well have violated the law. When there was an owner on the Board, he was forced to leave the room when there was a vote concerning rent increases.... but tenants on the Board, who also have a personal interest in the rent increases, sit like innocent Cheshire cats, while voting to protect their budgets. There is an example of this on a videotape of a recent Rent Board meeting for anyone who has no life.

Foster: There is a possibility that a person for only the second time who is not endorsed by SMRR could be elected. Is this something people should be concerned about?

It is a matter of grave concern for me. It is not simply "having a landlord's voice" on the Board. This year's challenger is not only a Landlord, but also the President and the very soul of the Action Apartment Association of Santa Monica. Her organization has attempted to eradicate rent control in this town since its inception. The Rent Control Charter explicitly states that its mission is to preserve rent-controlled units in this city. Her organization's dozens of lawsuits against the Board have sought to defund our entire agency, and their actions against the Tenant Harassment ordinance directly weakened renter protections. TORCA conversions like the "TOP" plan she proposes was already tried here. It was allowed to sunset for a reason--it had many unintended consequences and didn't unfold as many hoped it would. 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. In any event, it's not as simple as it sounds. Those who do remain as renters have many complicated issues and higher tax passthroughs to pay. People may have different opinions of SMRR, but as a member I can tell you this--no one knows more about Rent Control than the people who helped write it and have fought for the preservation of rent controlled buildings and tenants' rights for over 3 decades. SMRR endorses Rent Control Board candidates diligently. I'm proud that Caroline Torosis and I got that endorsement this time.

Torosis: There is a possibility that a person for only the second time who is not endorsed by SMRR could be elected. Is this something people should be concerned about?

Residents should be extremely concerned that the president of the landlord group, Action Apartment Association, who has worked to eradicate rent control in Santa Monica, is pursuing a seat on the Rent Control Board. With her as their leader, Action has sued to defund the rent control, and eliminate protections for tenants against tenant harassment. 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. Furthermore, this candidate is a condo realtor who has repeatedly promoted a so-called “tenant ownership plan” without disclosing that she would stand to benefit from such condo conversions. Moreover, this so-called “tenant ownership plan” is particularly deceptive as a platform for rent control because it is not within the jurisdiction of the Board to enact.

I believe that the prominence and prevalence of renters in our community is part of what makes Santa Monica so progressive. We need to protect the diversity of our community and ensure that our residents are able to age in place, even if they cannot afford to purchase property here. The anti-rent control candidate poses a direct threat to that, and should be concerning to all residents.

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