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Easing of Rent Law Proposed : Santa Monica: A renters’ rights group will discuss endorsing rent increases for units voluntarily vacated as well as for existing tenants.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, the tenants group that gained control of the city by getting a tough rent-control ordinance approved in 1979, is now scrambling to relax the law to stop a growing number of evictions--and to save its political future.

SMRR members will meet today at 2 p.m. at the Retail Clerk’s Hall to decide on a series of proposals that would allow some rent increases for existing tenants and even larger increases on units voluntarily vacated.

“This may be the most important SMRR meeting in 10 years,” said Paul Rosenstein, a SMRR steering committee member. “We are proposing some dramatic and very substantial changes in rent control.”

Brad Jones, co-chairman of SMRR, and Rosenstein said in an interview last week that the proposals are designed to discourage landlords from using the 1986 state Ellis Act, which allows landlords to legally evict tenants and get out of the rental housing business.

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Owners of more than 1,000 units in Santa Monica have notified the Rent Control Board that they intend to evict tenants and go out of business since the law was enacted. Landlords have argued that rent control is so restrictive that their properties are more valuable vacant than with an apartment building.

Landlords said they believe public sentiment has swung against SMRR because of the massive evictions, and predict that the November municipal election, when three of the seven City Council seats and four of the five rent board seats will be up for election, will validate their position. SMRR members occupy the majority on both boards.

Carl Lambert, an attorney and landlord, said the only way to stop the evictions under the Ellis Act is by implementing vacancy decontrol, which would allow rents to increase to market levels whenever a unit is voluntarily vacated. An initiative petition is being prepared by a group of landlords and some tenants, according to Lambert, that would allow a form of vacancy decontrol.

Although SMRR leaders insist they still oppose vacancy decontrol, one of their proposals calls for allowing landlords to raise rents a certain percentage or dollar amount--not yet determined--whenever a unit is voluntarily vacated.

Rosenstein, who said the proposals were developed after discussions with landlords, tenants and housing specialists, said the proposals are not a change in the group’s basic objective of providing affordable housing but an attempt to deal with the current housing crisis in a realistic manner.

“Rent control has achieved its major goals in the 1980s, and now changes are needed to meet the challenges of the 1990s,” he said. “We have to do something dramatic because there is no hope for relief in Sacramento.”

Other proposed changes would allow landlords to recoup from existing tenants the cost of increased city fees and assessments, and reduce the paper work needed to pass on the costs for capital improvements such as a new roof.

The other changes proposed by the group’s housing committee would seek to establish a fund to subsidize housing for low-income tenants, require a minimum level of maintenance from landlords, create anti-harassment measures to protect tenants and set up a mediation process to resolve tenant-landlord disputes.

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The committee is also recommending that SMRR reverse its position opposing the rent board’s Incentive Housing Program and encourage participation for at least a year.

The program, which was adopted on a 3-2 vote in October, allows landlords to raise rents by as much as $900 on some units if an equal number of units are set aside with rents as low as $274 for very-low-income persons.

Both SMRR and Action, a local landlords group, denounced the program for giving the other side too much.

But rent board Chairwoman Susan Packer Davis said in interview that it is SMRR--in a desperate effort to save its political future--that is now giving landlords too much.

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“With our program we may give up something, but a least we get something back,” Davis said. “With their proposals we get nothing back. In fact, people who are in apartments now are going to have to pay more rent.”

Davis said SMRR’s proposal to reverse its position on the program is “almost laughable.”

“They trashed us all summer because they said it was vacancy decontrol,” she said. “Now they are the ones offering vacancy decontrol. I find it almost laughable. But I am very saddened by it. You have a few people who have their own political futures in mind offering proposals that will gut rent control completely.”

Jones denies that the group’s motives are political.

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“We’ve lost elections before,” he said. “Our first and foremost concern is to prevent the human tragedy that is taking place” with the growing number of evictions.

Apartment owner Lambert, however, is just pleased that SMRR is finally looking to provide some financial relief for landlords.

“I am in support of several of the things they are proposing,” he said. “They are saying that vacancy decontrol in some form is OK. This is what we have been telling them for 11 years.

“What is driving (SMRR) to the negotiation table is the realization that restrictive rent control has created the Ellis crisis and they better do something to keep the landlords in business. Tenants and landlords are now on the same side.”

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BACKGROUND: The tenants’ group, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, was instrumental in getting a tough rent-control ordinance approved in Santa Monica in 1979. In 1986, the state Legislature passed the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to legally evict tenants and get out of the rental housing business. Since the law was enacted, owners of more than 1,000 units in the city have notified the Rent Control Board that they intend to evict tenants and go out of business. SMRR is studying proposals to relax the law to stop a growing number of evictions.


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