Enticing rich tourists to Santa Monica by building towering hotels with ocean views and then collecting a 14 percent bed tax to pay for the city bureaucracy is the inner game plan for a city that has the second highest ratio of citizens to city staff in the state, 31 to 1, according to a report by the State Controller’s Office. While much has been made of attempts to get the City Council to take seriously what residents think about just how tall the hotels should be, many of us who have been participants have come to the conclusion that the fix is in. It has been for a long time.
I confess that I have gotten caught up in the planning language, trying to figure out what is meant by “TDM” and “FAR” and telling fellow residents that knowing all of this is important to our ability to be effective in the process of shaping our city. I wanted to believe this was true, that informed residents really could make a difference. More and more it appears to me that the people who run Santa Monica do not care what residents want, be they renters or homeowners. Public meetings and workshops are, in my view, a method used to keep people distracted from the hidden agenda of a group of politicos and developers who are working together to overbuild Santa Monica in a way that profits them while destroying the quality of life for residents.
While there used to be two opposing political forces in our city — Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) and the Chamber of Commerce — they are now united. SMRR originally developed its base by supporting and protecting renters and demonizing the Chamber of Commerce. Today they are in alliance on development.
Renters are under the belief that SMRR will protect their rights. But last Thursday night the Rent Control Board announced that — as much as they hated to do it — they were going to have to give the developer the permit he wanted to shut down Village Trailer Park and evict the fragile population of elderly renters that has been fighting for years to hang onto their homes.
It was a defining moment.
Members of the public begged the Rent Control Board to, in the words of one, “Make a difference and correct the mistake made by Santa Monica City Council (in approving the development agreement).”
“These are the people you are supposed to protect,” said one speaker.
“Take a stand. The residents of Village Trailer Park are worth the fight,” said another.
Rent Control Board commissioners said they had been told they had no choice but to allow the park to be closed. Commissioner Todd Flora was in tears and visibly shaken as he read a prepared statement: “There is no one on this dais that wants to vote to approve a removal permit,” said Flora. “I didn’t think I would vote to remove people from their homes. I know you see a ‘yes’ vote as abandoning our principles. If we walk this legal tightrope we could lose it all.”
After the meeting, when asked by a group of disappointed residents what “lose it all” meant, Flora said the developer’s threat of a lawsuit would have been “for $50 million” and this could have wiped out Rent Control. “I have a responsibility for 25 people (Rent Control Board employees) and their retirements.”
“Why should the staff be of greater concern than protecting renters?” asked a resident. “Aren’t members of the Rent Control Board elected to protect renters?”
Flora, who was endorsed by SMRR for Rent Control Board, said the day-to-day operations of protecting renters could have been defunded by the Village Trailer Park developer’s threatened suit. “Our people are scared of his lawyers.”
Where, residents are asking, is the SMRR leadership on this final loss by the residents of the trailer park? Its closure underscores for many just how far from its original values SMRR has wandered as it uses its political clout to forward the interests of the wealthy while leaving the neediest of Santa Monica further and further behind.
After voting against the residents he was elected to serve, Commissioner Flora asked for understanding, saying “We want to survive and keep serving you. I ask you to be faithful.”
Faith was the operative word. Blind faith.
This column was written by Tricia Crane with research by the other contributors to Our Town, including Ellen Brennan, Zina Josephs and Armen Melkonians. Our Town can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.