On Sunday, while thousands celebrated the sunshine on Santa Monica beaches, a group of activists gathered in a dimly lit meeting hall nearby to celebrate the seventh anniversary of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, a powerful tenant organization priming for one of its toughest political battles.
Several dozen senior citizens and young activists, the core of the group's membership, snacked on birthday cake and coffee at the Retail Clerks Hall on 2nd Street as a string of speakers stressed the importance of mobilizing against a June 3 initiative called the Tenant Incentive Program.
The initiative would permit landlords to raise rents on vacant apartments, which is currently prohibited. The plan's supporters say that tenants would share in the profits. But leaders of the tenant organization have called the measure a thinly veiled attempt to destroy the city's rent control law.
"We're going to have a fascinating experience in June," said David Finkel, a Santa Monica Rent Control Board member who is leading opposition to the initiative. "We're going to find out where the immediate self-interests of the tenants lie. . . . The landlords want to see how selfish we are."
The crowd warmed to the challenge, especially when Finkel said the defeat of the Tenant Incentive Program could set the stage for success in November, when City Council elections will provide tenant activists with an opportunity to recapture City Hall.
"The way we come out in June will tell us how we're going to make out in November," Finkel said. "So we've got a double motive to fight this one."
Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), a long-time supporter, praised the membership of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights for its solidarity.
'Strong Core of Support'
"Usually a cause gets established and the organization (that started it) withers away," said Hayden, who appeared in a warm-up suit and running shoes. "SMRR (Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights) stands out as being unusual. It continues to have a strong core of organized support."
Hayden also predicted that the Tenant Incentive Program will be defeated.
"Anyone who has this explained to him will see this is ridiculous," Hayden said. "And this town is very good at rejecting the ridiculous."
The Tenant Incentive Program has been one of the most controversial proposals in Santa Monica since 1979, when Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights first campaigned for rent control. The initiative, which is backed by a landlord organization called ACTION (A Commitment to Insure Owners' Needs), was the subject of four lawsuits and is opposed by the entire City Council.
But supporters have characterized the proposal as a bonanza for tenants. Under the plan, they say 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 distributing 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, they say.
Supporters have already spent about $20,000 defending the Tenant Incentive Program in court. Now that the court cases are settled, Geoffrey S. Strand, a spokesman, said the landlord organization will go door-to-door in a effort to raise funds and build support for the initiative.
Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights leaders have said that they expect to spend at least $50,000 fighting the initiative. On Sunday, City Councilman Dennis Zane, a founder of the tenant movement, called the Tenant Incentive program a major threat to rent control.
"Seven or eight years ago we organized and we thought we won," Zane said. "But we're back again."