Landlords Say Their Petitions Can Force Vote on Rent Hikes

Times Staff Writer

A Santa Monica landlord's organization says it has collected enough signatures to force a June election on a measure that would significantly alter the city's rent control law.

The group, known as ACTION (A Commitment to Insure Owners' Needs), is calling for unlimited rent increases on vacant apartments with part of the profits going to tenants.

ACTION handed its petitions to the city clerk just one hour before last week's filing deadline. If officials determine that the signatures are valid, the City Council will be asked to call a special municipal election.

"We're ecstatic," said Geoffrey S. Strand, an ACTION spokesman. "This is a miracle. Nobody ever thought we could get this many signatures. . . . It shows that rent control is still the No. 1 issue in this town."

Support for Measure Seen

City officials have said they are opposed to the plan but Strand said ACTION's ability to gather signatures proves there is support for the measure.

Strand said ACTION members collected signatures at supermarkets from Jan. 8 to 24. "This basically says there's an extreme interest . . . in something that will stop this bitter rent control war," he said.

ACTION needed at least 5,560 signatures of registered voters to qualify the initiative for the ballot. Strand said the group gathered about 7,500 signatures and that private election consultants have determined that at least 6,000 of them are eligible.

City Clerk Ann M. Shore said the county registrar of voters will determine the authenticity of the ACTION petitions by comparing the signatures and addresses with its records. The county has until Feb. 25 to verify or reject the signatures, but Shore said it may issue a decision much sooner.

The ACTION plan, which was proposed in December, seeks to nullify a section of the Santa Monica rent control law that prohibits landlords from raising rents on apartment units that have been vacated.

'New Base Rent'

The plan would allow a landlord to establish a "new base rent" each time a tenant moves, in return for sharing the increased rent with his remaining tenants. Under the plan, the amount of one month's rent increase on a unit would be multiplied by 10 and the sum would be equally dispersed among the building's units.

For example, a landlord who raised the rent on an apartment by $400 a month would divide $4,000 among his tenants once. An apartment owner would not be allowed to raise his rent if the vacancy was created by an unfair eviction, as determined by the Rent Board.

ACTION organizers have said that the proposal does not harm tenants who stay in their apartments. They also contend that it would slow evictions when a statewide law that allows apartment owners in rent control cities to go out of business without permission of their rent boards takes effect in July.

So far, however, the plan does not appear to have much official support. A Rent Control Board spokesman called the proposal "transparently sleazy," charging that rents could skyrocket under the proposal, and the entire City Council has come out against the idea.

Mayor Christine E. Reed, who is affiliated with the moderate All Santa Monica Coalition, said that even if the measure qualifies for the ballot, she would be surprised to see it win.

Tenants 'Very Protective'

"I would be amazed if a measure were to be approved with all of the City Council members opposing it," Reed said. "Tenants in this community are very protective of the rent control law."

Councilman Dennis Zane, a member of the liberal Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the group that created the rent control law, also said the chances of the ACTION measure passing are "low."

"I think getting signatures to put something on the ballot when you have a lot of money to spend is easy," Zane said. "It's going to be much more difficult to try and pass it, especially when you have all of the council members . . . against it."

Rent Control Board administrator Howell Tumlin said he was surprised to hear that the ACTION members had collected so many signatures. Tumlin said he had been told that they were "scrambling" to make the Friday deadline.

Tumlin said he could not predict what would happen if the measure makes the ballot.

"I have no reading at all on the strength of support for this thing," he said. "There's always a chance of it passing. But if the plan is understood by people it certainly will be defeated."

Zane said the renter faction would probably spend about $50,000 to defeat the ACTION proposal if it qualifies for the ballot. ACTION's Strand said his group would probably spend no more than $12,000 to promote it.

"We'll probably have a low-key campaign," Strand said. "This plan will sell itself. We think our opposition will work hard to kill this thing. . . . But we also think that the tactic will backfire and people will vote for it."

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