LAUGHING MATTERS — I’ve lived in Santa Monica long enough to remember BRC. (Before Rent Control.) Things were very different. For example, in the early 70’s Ocean Park was almost edgy. In fact, O.P.’s nickname was “Dogtown,” and it wasn’t because we loved dogs.
In those days at the Shores’ twin towers of the 532 units 200 were vacant and rents started at $245 a month. (Today that’s a utility bill.) Now the cheapest apartment is $3,000 and yet the buildings are full.
Then came gentrification and by 1977 people were moving here in droves. (Actually it was in BMWs, which soon replaced VW vans.)
Landlords began raising rents $50 or $100 a month and more. Evictions were rampant and there was virtually no protection for residents. Heaven for landlords, hell for tenants, especially the elderly on fixed incomes.
Thanks primarily to Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) something was done i.e. rent control. (If not I wouldn’t be writing this, which means right now you might be doing the crossword puzzle.)
SMRR has been the most powerful political organization in Santa Monica for almost 40 years. In the past ten 77 percent of the SMRRs City Council endorsees and 80% of their Santa Monica-Malibu school board picks were elected. That’s powerful.
This brings me to last Sunday’s SMRR convention held inside the rather hot cafeteria at John Adams Middle School. It was a classic exercise of small town democracy. The passionate and packed crowd of 500 sweating, schmoozing and shouting created a circus atmosphere. (Politics meets Barnum and Bailey.)
Emotions were high still carrying over from the controversial Hines project, which has made this election year like no other in recent memory. But in the ultimate anti-climax, no city council candidate was endorsed. In SMRR’s almost 4-decade history that had never happened before. Why now?
Apparently, SMRR has a rule that a candidate must get 55 percent of the vote to receive an endorsement. When I polled various anonymous insiders why, the consensus was “That’s how they like it.” (Ouch!)
After the first ballot no candidates met the magical 55 percent threshold, not even Kevin McKeown, seeking his 5th term. In a stunner, Mayor Pam O’Connor with 90 votes, Parks and Recreation Chair Phil Brock with 76 votes and former Mayor Michael Feinstein with 60 votes, didn’t even make it out of the first round.
When the 2nd ballot didn’t yield candidates with 55 percent and a 3rd ballot was squashed, this put the endorsements into the hands of the secret SMRR Steering Committee. I say “secret” because who they are is a secret and when they will make their endorsements, or how, is also a secret.
SMRR clearly has a weighty decision to make, one that might require the Wisdom of Solomon. (Perhaps I’m over-dramatizing a tad. Okay, more than a tad.)
The fairest solution might be to endorse the top 3 vote-getters starting with McKeown. But Frank Gruber garnered the 2nd most votes and he doesn’t seem to be terribly popular with SMRR’s governing body.
It appears that SMRR’s power brokers would like to endorse McKeown and Planning Commissioners Sue Himmelrich and Jennifer Kennedy. Except that Himmelrich came in 4th (well behind fellow Commissioner Richard McKinnon) and Kennedy came in a distant 5th.
If SMRR endorses Himmelrich and Kennedy they might have a mini-revolt on their hands. Many SMRR members will justifiably complain that the process was not democratic. On the other hand, the Steering Committee could argue that their purpose is to elect people to the council, and other elective bodies, who share the values of the SMRR platform.
As for the 55 percent rule, SMRR insiders note that it’s to ensure stronger support than just a majority and that Democratic clubs usually use 60 percent as their threshold. Either way, I have a feeling things could get testy. Actually they already are.
In looking back, that SMRR came to power originally and has maintained it for as long as it has is a staggering achievement. Over the years they have survived well-funded attacks from landlords, developers and hotels and have come out the stronger for it.
It’s also fair to say anyone in a rent-controlled apartment, myself included, owes a great deal to SMRR. My concern, however, is that, with all its success, SMRR might not be listening carefully enough, especially during this volatile election cycle. Time will tell.
Hopefully we’ll soon have the crucial council endorsements, maybe even by the time you read this. (It’s annoying that we have to wait but perhaps it isn’t easy finding a Solomon?)
I see by my word counter that I’ve used up my allotted 800 so I’ll leave you with two final thoughts. One, thanks for reading this all the way to the end. And two, it’s okay now to go to the crossword puzzle.
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or firstname.lastname@example.org.