From Renters Write, July 2009

Thirty years old — really, you don't look a day over 29...

Happy Birthday, Rent Control!

“Happy, fortunate, successful” – the meaning of the Latin felix in Santa Monica’s motto, Populus Felix en Urbe Felici (“Fortunate People in a Happy City”) – are words that also come to mind on auspicious occasions such as the anniversary of a significant achievement. The Rent Control Charter Amendment, passed by Santa Monica voters in 1979, was certainly a remarkable feat of community organizing and citizen self-empowerment. Even more remarkable, three decades later – and despite challenges from determined opponents – our rent control system continues to achieve its intended effect: promoting the vitality and stability of the community by protecting tenants from unreasonable rent increases and preserving the supply of affordable housing.

Back in the 1970s, soaring rents, loss of affordable housing to demolitions and condo conversion, a high inflation rate, and other factors created a perfect storm of pressure on Santa Monica tenants, especially seniors. Prop 13 exacerbated matters: The proponents of that measure promised that part of the property tax savings to landlords would be passed on to tenants in the form of rent reductions. Its passage in 1978 instead led to rents spiraling higher even more rapidly, as those promises proved hollow.

We renters responded with an energetic grassroots campaign, conducted precinct by precinct, neighbor by neighbor. We marshaled a coalition that included many seniors on fixed incomes struggling to remain in their longtime homes, together with a group of young activists who had cut their teeth opposing the war in Vietnam, supporting the farmworkers, and fighting to protect the environment.

With the stunning victory of that 54.3% Yes vote, our unlikely coalition – by then known as Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights – proceeded to build on the achievement of one of the strongest rent-control laws in the country to transform a stodgy little city dominated by real-estate, business, and banking interests into a pioneering bastion of innovative civic accomplishment.

Our forward-looking values are now embedded everywhere you look in Santa Monica, from our widely heralded sustainability policies to our widely copied pedestrianized Third Street Promenade, from our superlative social services to our superb Lifelong Learning opportunities – and much more than can fit in this brief anniversary overview. Protecting tenants and preserving our affordable housing remain at the core of our concerns, and here, despite opposition from numerous quarters, we have much hard-won success to celebrate. Our SMRR-backed electeds have stayed on the case in protecting our gains and finding creative new ways to ensure that the socioeconomic diversity we cherish will remain a vital feature of our community, despite powerful market forces that would have it otherwise.

Until the rent-control revolution, community decisions on housing and development were in the hands of business interests. One of SMRR’s greatest accomplishments has been expanding public participation, giving all residents – homeowners and renters alike – a stronger voice. With their housing secure, renters have engaged in our community as full partners, joining boards and commissions and forming SMRR-backed majorities on all of Santa Monica’s elected bodies, from City Council to School and College Boards.

The diligence of today’s SMRR-backed members of the Rent Control Board and its staff keeps rents stable in Santa Monica for existing tenants, while guaranteeing that landlords can maintain their properties and earn a fair return on their investments. In June, the Rent Control Board held the general rent adjustment to just 1%, in keeping with the negligible rise in owners’ expenses, but built in flexibility and fairness by including a floor of $8 and a ceiling of $16 dollars in the range of allowable increases. In these tough economic times, this fair formula keeps Santa Monica rent increases for this coming year well below the 4% permitted in neighboring Los Angeles.

It is too often forgotten – or not widely enough known – that Santa Monica’s Rent Control Charter not only protects and stabilizes longtime tenants but also covers more recent neighbors who started off paying market-rate rents. Rent control provides tenants with eviction protections as well as limits on annual rent increases.

So let’s take a deep breath and – all together now! – blow out those thirty candles and wish a very hearty Happy Birthday to Santa Monica Rent Control!