CITYWIDE — In the People’s Republic of Santa Monica, tenants rule.
That is borne out with a quick count of elected officials. Five of the seven City Council members, four of the five Rent Control Board members and six of the seven members of the Board of Education were all backed by Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR), a group formed in the late 1970s to fight for rent control laws in the city by the sea.
Gearing up for the 2012 election, SMRR dollars — $73,000 of them at last count — will be reaching out to thousands of voters, and when tenants here vote, they tend to go for left-leaning policies, people and measures.
A $385 million school bond measure, which will appear on the November ballot as Measure ES, enjoys far more support from renters than amongst homeowners, whom they outnumber two to one, according to polling data gathered by Goodwin Simon Strategic Research. A full three-quarters of apartment dwellers polled supported the bond, and 55 percent said that if SMRR got behind the measure, they were more likely to support it.
Despite the fact that tenants outnumber homeowners in most of Los Angeles, their influence is not felt to the same degree as in Santa Monica. That may have something to do with the nature of the tenant voting base which, while huge, is also diverse and heterogeneous.
Renters come from all walks of life, speaking different languages, holding different politics and political interests. Corralling that into a political force and channeling it in the same direction is difficult at best.
Larry Gross has been working at it for years.
Gross is the director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, an organization that works to organize low- and moderate-income people to fight for economic and social justice.
The multi-racial and multi-ethnic coalition helped organize renters in West Hollywood to protect rent control and incorporate the city in the 1980s, which at one point was just another neighborhood in the county of Los Angeles.
Having seen them in action, Gross knows the power and influence tenants can have — if they can be compelled to act. Organizers in Santa Monica have had notable success, he said.
“I am a whole-hearted believer that tenants are a political force, a sleeping force that if tapped into on these issues as is done in Santa Monica, they have tremendous influence on elections,” Gross said.
Rooted in rent control
In Santa Monica, much like West Hollywood, the galvanizing force behind the organization of SMRR and the rise of tenant power was rent control, a policy which artificially holds down prices on rental housing to the benefit of tenants and the distress of many landlords.
The direct influence of rent control is a near-freeze on prices, which allows people to stay in their homes even when prices of housing around them go up.
The indirect impact, however, is the knowledge that a tenant can expect to stay in place over the long term, a feeling which supporters, like SMRR co-chair Patricia Hoffman, say causes a normally unstable population to put down roots and invest in a community.
That means joining civic life, participating in public debate and, sometimes, passing expensive school bond measures.
“It created a really stable population,” Hoffman said.
That security and stability transformed Santa Monica by changing tenants from a group that could be ignored into a political force, said City Councilmember Kevin McKeown, a renter himself and firm supporter of SMRR.
“I lived here before rent control,” McKeown said. “Tenants were considered transients, and were rarely involved in governance or community affairs at the level we take for granted now, after three decades of rent control.”
The year was 1979.
Hoffman and her husband, Gene Oppenheim, had returned to Santa Monica after a three-year relocation to Seattle. Their move away from the city by the sea had a helping hand from their landlord who raised their rent $100 from $165 to $265.
Although that sounds like a dream now, the couple had made $3,600 that year and Oppenheim was still in school, pursuing a career as a doctor. The rent hike was too much, and the couple left.
They came back in June 1979, just months after the spring election in which a newly-minted organization, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, had pushed rent control through by popular vote.
“There was a real sense of optimism, success and idealism,” Hoffman said.
A coalition of community groups had campaigned for rent control in the 1978 election, only to fail. There were many theories about why that was, but they focused on Proposition 13, said Denny Zane, a former mayor and one of the original founders of SMRR.
That was the year that Californians passed Proposition 13, a measure put up by tax-hawk Howard Jarvis meant to stop runaway property taxes in their tracks. Many believed that if property tax rates stopped increasing, rapidly rising rents would also stop.
“(Howard Jarvis) always said you don’t need rent control, just Proposition 13. The only reason rents are going up are property taxes … . Some share of renters probably believed that,” Zane said.
And yet rents continued to rise, and Santa Monica tenants decided to take more concrete steps, spurred forward by the 1978 loss.
“I would say that the first rent control law that failed was close enough to think that if we had worked harder, we could have won,” Zane said.
Less than one year later, SMRR proved that point by campaigning for and winning rent control in Santa Monica. Over the next 20 years, SMRR would be responsible for electing 17 members of the City Council — many of whom were re-elected at least once — and held an iron grip on the makeup of the Rent Control Board until Robert Kronovet, a landlord, snagged a spot in 2008.
A dynasty had been established, and Santa Monica’s rental community was at the head of it.
People jokingly refer to Santa Monica as “the People’s Republic.” It takes only a glance at the SMRR party platform to glean the reason why.
McKeown describes it as “the most complete and nuanced expression of local progressive political values I’ve ever seen,” and one thing is for sure — it’s complete.
The group’s platform started with rent control and tenant protections and expanded to encompass environmental values, land use policies, the value of the arts and even workers’ rights.
In part, the breadth of the tenants group’s platform speaks to what it takes to keep an organization like SMRR relevant and capable of maintaining a passionate base because, similar to a Las Vegas buffet, there’s something for everyone.
That’s critical in a place that has changed as dramatically as Santa Monica. The town, once a product of the aviation industry in the 1940s and 1950s, is now called Silicon Beach because of its concentration of tech start-ups.
In 1990, the median household income was $36,000 and 46.6 percent of the population was employed as managers and professionals in specialty occupations. As of the last census, median household income was over $66,000 and the average household income was above $100,000. Almost two-thirds of residents earned their money in management, business, arts or sciences.
Gary Painter, a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, said that organizations that want to stay in control over the long term have to be flexible in order to bring new people into the fold.
“You would expect that political power would wane over time, without a doubt,” Painter said. “But these groups are fairly adept at figuring out who new constituencies might be and changing their platforms and policies.”
What exactly SMRR will have to do to remain as top dog in Santa Monica remains to be seen.
Hoffman estimates that over 4,000 new units, not subject to rent control, are already in the planning pipeline to be built in Santa Monica in coming years. Many of those are small units, 375 to 425 square feet in size and can cost upwards of $1,700, if current prices hold.
That fact concerns McKeown, who sees it as a threat to the stable renting community that Santa Monica has worked so hard to form.
Young people that take advantage of those small studios, also called SROs, which stands for single room occupancy, may see them as stepping stones to other forms of housing later when they decide to have a family and need more space.
That doesn’t breed the same level of participation that has been the distinguishing feature of the Santa Monica rental community for so many decades.
“My concern is not that short-term tenancies make SMRR’s progressive platform less relevant, or that the short-termers will go in some other direction politically. I think not,” McKeown said. “What I worry about is that more and more new Santa Monicans will simply be disengaged from longer-term local issues.”
The true impact of the new renting population is yet to be seen, but SMRR, and the constituency that it represents, isn’t going down without a fight.
“The population may or may not get involved. They may not be much of a factor at all,” Zane said. “But SMRR will reach out to them, knock on every door and build familiarity.”