From Renters Write - March 2014

Protecting Your Rights

When I hear that rent-controlled households are being frog-marched out of their homes with gags in their mouths, I get angry. So do my SMRR colleagues on the City Council.

We recently passed an ordinance extending new protections to renters threatened with eviction, and made vulnerable to giving up their rights through “agreements” that property owners tie to relocation benefits. Councilmembers Tony Vazquez and Ted Winterer joined me in bringing this to the Council’s attention.

Here’s what happened: When Texas-based developer Trammel Crow was pursuing condo development at 301 Ocean Avenue, they evicted 47 rent-controlled households. We found out that renters were being asked to sign a relocation agreement that forbade them from testifying at any hearings about the property. When we pointed out the right of any individual to be heard by the Rent Board, Landmarks Commission, Planning Commission, or City Council, Trammel Crow withdrew the gag clause.

Then, the owner of Village Trailer Park began proceedings to evict vulnerable seniors who owned their mobile homes but rented the land, under Santa Monica’s rent control law. Again, the owner circulated “agreements” pressuring residents to sign away their rights in exchange for relocation benefits. Here is what one “agreement” said:

“(Clause 14) Non-Opposition. You agree not to directly or indirectly oppose, or assist anyone else in opposing, the Park’s proposed closure and/or development of Village Trailer Park and/or any other nearby property owned by or under the control of the Park or its affiliates. Without limiting the foregoing, you agree not to appear at any public hearing, file any administrative appeal or lawsuit, or communicate verbally or in writing with any City of Santa Monica official regarding the Park’s proposed closure and/or development.”

We on your City Council rely on full and unimpeded community testimony in making our decisions. These attempts to muzzle defenseless residents, already threatened with eviction, were unacceptable to us.

Making matters worse, the evictions and efforts to silence testimony seemed to be succeeding without consequences to the property owners. While rent-controlled apartments overlooking the Pacific at 301 Ocean sat forlornly vacant for years, Trammel Crow’s Brad Cox ascended to the chairmanship of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce. Then Trammel Crow sold the property at inflated value, because the renters were no longer a “problem” and the price included the rights to develop the site for condos. The entire sad adventure had been just a money-making scheme.

Likewise, Village Trailer Park has just issued a “final eviction notice” clearing the Park by March 6th of this year. News reports have surfaced that VTP owner/agent Marc Luzzato has formed a “partnership” with a Houston-based developer. Suddenly, the property appears to be worth perhaps three or more times as much as when it housed vulnerable seniors. Again, local residents are being ousted to yield profits for out-of-state interests.

Our new ordinance prohibits landlords from making agreements with their tenants that prohibit or limit those residents from participating in our City’s public process.  The prohibition includes entering into such agreements, enforcing such agreements, or withholding relocation fees to strong-arm a tenant into such an agreement.  The ordinance also voids all such agreements which may already exist.

This new law strengthens the City’s public process, and clarifies Santa Monica residents’ absolute right to conversation with and representation from their city government.

We know that even with the many renters’ rights and anti-harassment measures we have enacted for tenants in Santa Monica, the power in landlord-renter matters can all too often be abused by unscrupulous landlords. Shame on Trammel Crow and Village Trailer Park for their actions. Thank you to my Council colleagues for once again strengthening tenant protections.