The Santa Monica City Council has unanimously adopted an emergency ordinance that forces apartment owners to pay $2,000 to $4,000 in relocation benefits to tenants who are the victims of no-fault evictions, but has rejected a motion to raise the benefits even higher.
The council action provides some protection for renters who may be forced to leave their apartments after Tuesday, when a new statewide housing law takes effect. The law, known as the Ellis Act, makes it easier for apartment owners who are frustrated by rent control to go out of business.
Some tenants and tenant supporters suggested that the council increase the benefits by at least $1,000. But council members called the payments adequate.
"Evicting tenants and demolishing buildings is the worst possible solution to rent control," said Councilman David G. Epstein. "We are adopting an ordinance that provides the highest benefits of any city in California that I know of. It won't right all of the wrongs . . . but it is reasonable."
The emergency benefits ordinance, which may be altered later, provides for a scale of payments. Tenants evicted from a bachelor unit will receive $2,000. Those living in one-bedroom apartments are entitled to $2,500. And people who have apartments with two or more bedrooms will receive $3,000. An extra $1,000 will be paid to elderly and disabled people who are evicted.
The adoption of the ordinance came after a three-hour public hearing and discussion. More than 25 people addressed the council, with the overwhelming majority speaking in favor of a generous relocation benefits program.
Several speakers said that no amount of money can compensate for the shock of being evicted, especially for the elderly. Forcing landlords to pay sizable benefits could discourage some evictions, they said.
"I am very happy that the council saw fit to add $1,000 (for handicapped and elderly people)," said former City Councilwoman Dolores Press. "People who are evicted from their apartments have no place to go in Santa Monica."
A handful of people spoke against relocation benefits. Two representatives from the Greater Los Angeles Apartment Assn. said Santa Monica tenants are already subsidized by the city's strict rent control law. They also suggested that the city reduce the amount of money paid to high-income tenants.
Walter Schwartz, an apartment owner, maintained that landlords also deserve compensation. "You are the representatives of all of the people of Santa Monica," Schwartz told the council. "Landlords are people and we need some balance in this program. . . . Landlords go through a lot of stress."
After the public hearing, the council discussed several possible changes in the emergency ordinance. Councilman Dennis Zane, a tenant activist, suggested the biggest change. Zane said that the payment levels were too low and called on the council to raise the fees by $1,000 in each category.
That motion was rejected by a 5-2 vote, with Zane and Councilman James P. Conn voting in favor. Then Councilman Alan Katz tried for a compromise. Katz said he objected to the sliding scale. He moved that the council order a payment of $3,000 to all tenants who are evicted.
Katz's motion was rejected by a 4-3 vote. Zane, Conn and Katz voted in favor of the plan. Mayor Christine E. Reed and Councilmen David G. Epstein, Herb Katz and William H. Jennings opposed the idea. After that discussion, the emergency relocation benefits ordinance was unanimously approved.
The council did not discuss a request that it relinquish control of the program to the city's Rent Control Board. The five-member board had requested the authority to administer the benefits program earlier this month, charging that the council was considering an inadequate payment package.
Rent Board Commissioner David Finkel authored the resolution condemning the council. Finkel said he did so because tenants deserve higher relocation benefits. But he did not repeat his charges at Tuesday's council meeting.
Before the meeting, council members charged that Finkel's charges were groundless. Reed said that the board acted irresponsibly.
"It doesn't serve them well to have temper tantrums on paper," said Reed, referring to the condemnation resolution. "Their motivation was 100% political. And no good will come from it."