After two failed attempts at revising the City’s rent control rules, Council will make a third attempt this Wednesday after the most recent meeting set of a firestorm of criticism and controversy. 

Council has scheduled a special meeting for August 3 to finalize amendments to the City Charter that would modify the formula for deciding rent increases in controlled units and authorize officials to suspend increases altogether in emergency situations. 

Debate on the subject began in April when the Rent Control Board (RCB) proposed several ballot measures to modify rent control rules. The Board wanted to require registration of all non-rent controlled units, increase required occupancy for owner evictions to three years from one, align Rent Control Board term limits with the City Council’s three-term limit and authorize the cancellation of Rent Control elections if they are uncontested. 

The RCB’s initial request made no mention of altering the formula for rent increases, however, at a subsequent meeting, the board also asked for a measure to reduce the maximum rent. 

The charter uses a formula for establishing rent increases that limit increases to about 75% of the rate of inflation or a specified dollar amount based on factors such as the size of the unit, up to a maximum of 6% per year. 

With inflation running at about 10% this year, the Board was forced to adopt the maximum increase of 6% triggering widespread concern among renters who said they would be unable to keep up with those costs. 

Council took up the requests on July 12 and rejected most of the Rent Board’s suggestions. Instead, Council began debate on its own ballot propositions that would lower the maximum rent increase from 6% to 3% and authorize the Rent Control Board to suspend all rent increases in a declared emergency. No decision was made at the July 12 meeting and discussions were continued to July 26 when a proposal from Councilwoman Lana Negrete upended the debate. 

Negrete’s proposal would have eliminated rent increases for all units with rents at or below the citywide median Maximum Allowable Rent (MAR) as reported by the Rent Control Board in 2021. According to the proposal given to Council, the MARs for 2021 were $1,528 for a studio, $1,995 for a one-bedroom, $2,500 for a two-bedroom and $2,791 for a three-bedroom. Units above the median would be subject to the standard increase formula and the proposal would expire four years from adoption. 

The proposal was met with criticism for its substance and timing. 

Critics said rent control units are not tied to income levels so tying increases to the amount of rent paid doesn’t guarantee individuals on fixed or low incomes will see relief. 

“So this is one of the problems I have is that this doesn’t necessarily protect the most vulnerable, because vulnerability isn’t just what you’re paying in rent,” said Councilwoman Gleam Davis. 

Davis said a wealthy individual with a long-term rent-controlled lease would be spared any increase while a more recent renter who works full time but pays childcare costs might not have the resources to shoulder a 6% increase.

She also said the idea’s impact on landlords could be unfair if corporate landlords with more recent purchases in the rental market could consistently raise rents while smaller, long-term landlords would get zero.

“But the mom and pops that you talked about, who maybe own a six-unit building that everyone’s lived in for the last 30 years, gets zero. And maybe that’s not a good thing.”  

Critics also said the measure was legally dubious as it eliminated any rent increases for half of property owners. Several councilmembers said proposing a radical change at 2 a.m., to empty chambers and without an analysis prevented substantive discussion about its merits. In addition, Council had no additional meetings scheduled prior to the deadline for adopting ballot measures on August 12. 

Negrete, who consulted with Councilmen Phil Brock and Oscar de la Torre on the proposal, said the theory was based on the idea that more expensive units are likely to have converted to market rate in their recent history and that if someone could afford modern rates, they could probably absorb a rent increase. She said as a renter herself, rent control allowed her family to stay in Santa Monica and her only goal was to respond to the avalanche of correspondence asking the Council to protect the most vulnerable renters in light of what she said was inaction by the Rent Control Board to propose a solution. 

“So the whole point was to address the people that are the most vulnerable,” she said. “And what I’m hearing is, well, Rent Control Board didn’t come up with anything, it didn’t spend any time on a thoughtful process that could look at rent control differently. And what I’m hearing is yes, maybe we do need to look at it and revise it. But that hasn’t been done. So there was an attempt to just look at it to make sure that we were addressing those who are the most vulnerable.”

She said the timing of the discussion was out of her hands due to the construction of the agenda that held other discussions earlier in the evening and the fact that Council only began its deliberations in July. Negrete also criticized staff for allowing details of her proposal to spread before its official announcement that night. 

Council ultimately agreed a special meeting was required to allow for more analysis and in the subsequent days, criticism of the idea mounted with Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights and progressive politicians announcing their opposition to the plan.  

On Monday, Negrete said she wanted to “table” her proposal and said she supported a solution with “uniform relief and stability.” She said the reaction to her proposal had created a twisted narrative about her motivations and while she believes new ideas are necessary to address the long-term problems, the falsehoods that have spread about her in the past few days have reiterated the importance of having civil dialogue. 

“I’m disappointed that my attempt to start a dialogue on this very important issue so quickly devolved into personal attacks and misinformation online,” she said. “With so many critical issues facing our city in the coming years it is imperative we provide a safe place to engage in civil discourse.”

No agenda was available by press time with the details of the Aug. 3 meeting but staff said Council will meet to debate reforms to rent control and information would be available at least, 24 hours beforehand. 

editor@smdp.com