The Santa Monica City Council has empowered the Rent Control Board to pass regulations that would protect tenants from unfair evictions and discourage a demolition derby when a new statewide housing law takes effect in July.
But it voted last week to deny the board the power to develop a relocation-benefits program for displaced tenants. The council will conduct a public hearing on benefits later this month and may administer such a program itself.
Slap in the Face
Some called the move a slap in the face to the rent board, which had asked to oversee the program. But Councilman David G. Epstein said the council favors a broader plan than the board proposed.
"We may still have the rent board enforce it," Epstein said. "But we want a program that (affects) more than just the people who are evicted because of the new law or people living in rent-controlled apartments."
Epstein said the city will consider a benefits program that would cover people living in mobile home parks that are not protected by rent control. Benefits could also be given to people who are evicted because an apartment owner wants to move a relative into his building, Epstein added.
The new law, which was passed by the state Legislature last year, will allow landlords to go out of business without permission from authorities. Known as the Ellis Act, it supersedes a Santa Monica law that requires apartment owners to obtain Rent Control Board approval to close their buildings.
Santa Monica has no relocation plan. In other cities, such as Beverly Hills, a tenant evicted through no fault of his own is entitled to receive $1,500 to $2,500 in benefits from his landlord.
At Wednesday's special council meeting, several apartment owners said they should not be forced to pay costly relocation benefits.
"The Ellis Act is supposed to guarantee an apartment owner the right to go out of business," said James W. Baker, a landlord spokesman. 'You should not demand an unreasonable and overpowering ransom for someone to go out of business."
"You may well be creating your own monster here," said K. B. Huff, another apartment owner. "I urge you to show some restraint."
But rent board Commissioner David Finkel said a relocation program would have to provide realistic benefits to tenants. "We have to anticipate all of the social and economic problems for an uprooted tenant," Finkel said.
Councilman Alan Katz said the board was the logical agency to administer the benefits because it handled most other rent control matters. Katz also said the city might not have time to create a benefits program because the law goes into effect July 1.
But City Atty. Robert M. Myers said the council can still beat the deadline for enacting tenant protections if it makes a decision by the end of the month. And the council unanimously backed the plan to hold a hearing May 27.
After Tuesday's council decision, rent board Administrator Howell Tumlin said the board would have been best qualified to enact such a program.
"We have a lot of experience with the kinds of issues that are important to tenants and apartment owners," Tumlin said. "We are the agency that these people turn to when they have questions about administrative matters."
Some landlords who are frustrated with Santa Monica's rigid rent control regulations have predicted that a demolition derby will occur when the law takes effect. But Tumlin said the law also allows local authorities to discourage widespread evictions by enacting special tenant protections.
The rent board has already held one public hearing on local regulations and another is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday at City Hall.
Tumlin said the board would probably enact a regulation that would prevent a landlord from evicting a tenant protected by rent control, then renting the empty unit at a higher price. He said the board would also require a landlord to obtain permission to use his building for anything other than apartments.
"The Ellis bill allows you to evict your tenants and it allows you to sit with your building empty," Tumlin said, "but it does not allow you to use your building for any other purpose without permission from the rent board."
Once the rent board enacts its regulations, Tumlin said, he does not expect many landlords to use the new law as an excuse for going out of business.