Supporters of a controversial June ballot measure that would empower Santa Monica landlords to raise rents on vacant apartments will go back before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge today in a last-ditch effort to persuade the city to acknowledge that the plan provides cash payments to qualified tenants.
The landlord organization known as ACTION (A Commitment to Insure Owners' Needs) charged that the so-called Tenant Incentive Program was shortchanged in the ballot description approved by the City Council Tuesday night.
The group said the council ignored an order from Judge Warren Deering, who on Monday ruled that it should change the ballot language. Geoffrey S. Strand, a spokesman for the group, said the judge should specifically request that the council include information about tenant compensation in the ballot description.
"We feel that the judge's interpretation was objective and unbiased," Strand said. "To have anything other than that on the ballot would show . . . political prejudice."
City Atty. Robert M. Myers disagreed. He said Deering's order pertained to the framework of the ballot description, not the exact language. Myers said he has objected to including a reference to payments because he is not convinced that tenants would receive any compensation under the plan.
"There are numerous ways the ballot could be drafted to describe the measure," Myers said. "To suggest that existing tenants receive payments is false and misleading. If the plan passes, it will require interpretation."
The Tenant Incentive Program would amend the portion of Santa Monica law that prohibits a landlord from raising the rent on a vacant apartment unit. Under current law, the city's Rent Control Board awards annual increases. Landlords say the measure provides for a portion of the income from increased rents to be distributed among remaining tenants. The council, which unanimously opposes the plan on grounds that it would weaken rent control, placed the initiative on the ballot last month after backers gathered enough signatures to force a June 3 vote. In its ballot description, the council said rents on vacant apartments would be temporarily decontrolled under the plan, then recontrolled once a new rent was set. They made no mention of cash payments to tenants.
Backers argued that rents would still be controlled under the plan because apartments would remain under jurisdiction of the city's Rent Control Board. They charged that the word "decontrol" was used to scare tenants and demanded that the council acknowledge that tenants would be paid.
Deering ruled on Monday that the council should strike the words "decontrol" and "recontrol" and say that the plan would establish a "new base rent" on "controlled" units. He also said that the council should add that the plan would provide "cash payments" for certain qualified tenants.
On Tuesday, however, Myers suggested another alternative. He told the council that it should agree to remove "decontrol" and "recontrol," but should not add the portion pertaining to cash payments because his office had determined that landlords would not be obligated to make any cash payments.
Attorney Sherman Stacy, who is representing backers of the plan, warned that the council would be taken back into court if it followed Myers' advice. "We can go back to court at 10 a.m. Thursday and argue (or) you can take safe harbor and adopt the judge's language," Stacy said.
John Jurenka, a landlord who supports the plan, said the council would violate the public trust by following Myers' suggestion. "The citizens have (given) us their support on this thing," Jurenka said. "I don't know why the City Council is fighting them."
Councilman Dennis Zane moved that the council adopt Myers' ballot language. But Councilman David G. Epstein said it might be wiser to follow the judge's exact instructions.
"Given the fact that the City Council is opposed to the (Tenant Incentive Program) in substance and we're urging voters to oppose it, we should bend over backwards to be fair," Epstein said. He failed to persuade the majority of his colleagues. The council approved Myers' language by a 5-2 vote, with Epstein and Councilman William H. Jennings opposing the motion.
When landlords go back into court today, they will again explain the complex formula they have devised for providing cash payments to tenants. They say that, under the plan, an apartment owner would share the profits from his rent increase with his remaining "qualified tenants" by multiplying the amount of one month's rent increase by 10 and dispersing the sum among the building's qualified units.
For example, a landlord who raised the rent on an apartment by $400 a month would divide $4,000 among his tenants one time, according to the landlords. An apartment owner would not be allowed to raise his rent if the vacancy was the result of an unfair eviction as determined by the city's Rent Control Board and the unit would be under rent control again once the rent had been raised, they have said.