The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

A Political Lull

By Frank Gruber

As I wrote a week ago, the major drama at this year's convention of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) revolved around the "Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic" (RIFT), which SMRR failed to take a position on. But an even more striking action the assembled SMRRs didn't take was their failure to endorse any candidates for City Council other than the SMRR incumbents, Richard Bloom and Ken Genser. ("SMRR Endorses Genser Bloom," August 4,2008)

I can't recall a year when there were four City Council seats at stake when SMRR did not endorse at least three candidates.

By endorsing only two, SMRR was in effect choosing not to challenge the other two incumbents, Herb Katz and Bobby Shriver. Neither of them sought a SMRR endorsement, although Mr. Shriver was at the convention collecting signatures for his nomination papers, and Council member Bob Holbrook was there collecting signatures for Mr. Katz (who was ill).

Coincidentally, my reading last week was a book that chronicles the history of the battles over rent control in Santa Monica in the late '70s, the rise of SMRR out of that movement, and how SMRR governed and participated in local politics in the '80s.

The book, which I highly recommend if you can find a copy, is Community versus Commodity: Tenants and the American City. Published in 1992, the book was written by two academics, Stella M. Capek and John I. Gilderbloom. Prof. Gilderbloom had himself been involved in the battle over rent control because in the '70s he had studied rent control for the California Department of Housing and Community Development, and his studies were used to support it.

Wow; times have changed. I wasn't involved in Santa Monica politics in the '80s, but from reading the book I cannot imagine that anyone who was involved then would have foreseen a time when SMRR would give a bye round to its opposition.

While I don't believe that we have come to the end of politics in Santa Monica, and it's always possible that a classic left-right issue like the living wage will arise again, it's worth considering why at the moment city council politics are so tranquil.

And I use the word "tranquil" for a reason; despite the fact that some residents -- the proponents of RIFT come to mind -- argue that the City Council is "out of touch" with the desires of Santa Monicans, I doubt that any of the incumbents will have to break a sweat this year winning reelection.

Santa Monicans are happy, and for all the theorizing I might do, I'm sure the main reason SMRR did not endorse a third or fourth candidate this year is that no one from SMRR's regular ranks believed that he (or more pertinently, she) would have a chance of defeating any of the incumbents.

What do Abby Arnold (2002), Patricia Hoffman and Maria Loya (2004), and Gleam Davis (2006), have in common? All four women failed, despite being endorsed by SMRR, to become that "additional" SMRR council member. They might have tried again, but then who wants to be a sacrificial lamb?

But the reason that underlies the perception that the incumbents are too popular to defeat, and the reason for the current stasis in Santa Monica politics, is that rent control is not now a hot button issue.

As I see it, this fundamental change happened because of compromises, implicit and explicit, from both sides.

For most of the anti-SMRR side, and certainly the part of that side that can win elections (i.e., the part identified with the business community as a whole, not just landlords), there was a realization years ago that rent control was not worth fighting, because it was a core issue not only for the majority of city residents who are renters but also for a substantial portion of Santa Monica's (liberal) voters who aren't.

But that realization didn't end rent control as an issue, because at the state level, anti-rent control forces managed to pass two laws, the Ellis Act, allowing property owners to exit the rental business, and Costa-Hawkins, mandating vacancy decontrol, that gave SMRR new rent control-related grounds to run on locally, since the laws either allowed landlords to evict tenants or gave them incentives to do so.

Yet oddly enough, Costa-Hawkins, which became fully effective in 1999, seems to have led to the current lull. This is because SMRR has tacitly accepted Costa-Hawkins.

Of course, according to its platform "SMRR will work for repeal [of Costa-Hawkins] or an amendment to limit the amount of rent-increase upon vacancy." Such efforts would be futile now, with a Republican governor, but the important fact is that SMRR and its allies made no serious efforts to repeal Costa-Hawkins in the years early in this decade when a Democrat, Gray Davis, was governor and the Democrats controlled the legislature.

SMRR used the fear of eviction in city council campaigning after passage of Costa-Hawkins and beefed up anti-harassment laws to protect tenants from eviction, but the non-SMRR council members did not oppose these laws.

SMRR may have simply concluded that it could not win a battle in Sacramento to repeal Costa-Hawkins, but SMRR also had a positive reason to back off: vacancy decontrol has the beneficial effect of reducing the motivation for landlords to use the Ellis Act to exit the rental business. Fighting condo conversions has always been as integral a part of SMRR's program as keeping rents down.

So where are we in the post-rent control politics era? One of the more important changes that Capek and Gilderbloom identified in their book as having occurred in Santa Monica because of the rise of SMRR was the empowerment of residents -- renters -- who in the normal course of American politics did not play a political role. This has been a lasting change in Santa Monica politics, resulting in a change the role of local government.

The way this plays out is that the winners -- or perhaps it's better to say "survivors" -- in Santa Monica politics from both the local left and the local right are those who embrace (i) the idea of "progress," and (ii) defining progress to mean change that benefits as wide a public as possible. Before SMRR, the local business elite that ran Santa Monica defined progress solely in economic terms. They favored, in Capek and Gilderbloom's language, "commodity," not "community."

This change in attitude means that today, instead of fighting over vacancy decontrol, SMRR and its opposition generally came together both to protect existing tenants and to support the building of more affordable housing to replace the cheap rentals that are lost as rents increase on vacancy.

And while SMRR typically endorses a range of candidates who generally support investment in the city, both by government and by private developers willing to play by strict rules that seek to enhance public benefits, those SMRR opponents who can win elections, and their supporters, no longer run against SMRR on social policy grounds like law and order or by bashing the homeless.

Disagreements among council members over, for instance, development issues, tend to be based on the details, and their votes cross "party" lines, as evidenced by the recent votes on height limits in the draft land use element.

It's true that there are "outliers" and outlying events. Two years ago the Edward Thomas Company, owner of two luxury hotels on the beach, went after Council Member Kevin McKeown specifically with attacks that tried to link him to complaints about the homeless, but the campaign was a spectacular failure: Mr. McKeown received more votes than any other candidate.

Meanwhile, in the same election, the same Edward Thomas Company bankrolled the campaign for Measure V, the beach clean-up tax that was supported by progressives from both sides of the figurative aisle, and the SMRR-dominated school and college boards rely on business support when it comes to campaigns for parcel taxes and bond issues.

The other outliers are those residents who don't trust our local government and don't believe that anything good ("progress") can come from change, however that government tries to manage it. Their views -- which vary among them -- run the gamut from opposing parcel taxes, bond issues, and the building of nearly anything, to supporting ballot box government measures that would reduce the power of City Hall (the latest of which is RIFT).

They generally characterize all property owners, developers and business people as "greedy," and public institutions, such as the City or Santa Monica College, as expansionist and oppressive.

In the past I've called these residents names like "right-wing nihilists" or "Santa Monicans Fearful of Change." No doubt these are cheap shots, but I think they are largely accurate. The rest of us believe in both government and progress.

If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at . If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email
The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.
Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon