The heated Santa Monica City Council campaign will not produce any winners until Nov. 4. But it is already obvious that landlords are the big losers.
Every candidate has pledged allegiance to the city's rigid rent control law this year. The only point they disagree on is who best supports it.
Julie Lopez Dad, David Finkel and Dolores Press, who are affiliated with Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, contend that they own the bragging rights to rent control because their organization created and championed the law.
Mayor Christine E. Reed and Councilmen David G. Epstein and William H. Jennings, who are backed by the All Santa Monica Coalition, claim that they are the true rent control team because they have protected it while in office.
Councilman Alan Katz and Zora Margolis, two independents in a race for a special two-year term, are also running pro-rent control campaigns.
The reason: The candidates who attract the most renter votes are likely to win on Election Day, when four at-large seats are up for grabs. Recent voter surveys have shown that some people care about toxics, the homeless or development. But almost everybody cares about rent control.
"This is a single-issue city," said Geoffrey S. Strand, one of the spokesmen for ACTION (A Committee to Insure Owners' Needs) an apartment owners association. "Renters vote for the candidates who show that they are the most hated by the landlords."
Criticism used to be leveled at the 7-year-old rent control law, considered one of the nation's toughest because it prohibits landlords from raising rents when vacancies occur. But politicians have learned that it pays to be pro-rent control in a city where 80% of the residents are tenants.
In recent mailings, candidates from both of the political organizations have wrapped themselves in the rent control blanket.
"By voting for us on Nov. 4, you will be reelecting the team you can trust to protect and defend your renter's rights," said the coalition. The tenant faction answered: "To protect and defend rent control, vote for the candidates you can trust!"
Santa Monicans for Renters Rights and the All Santa Monica Coalition have been archrivals for most of the 1980s. The coalition, the more moderate of the two, has incumbency on its side. Reed, Epstein and Jennings have more than 20 years of experience among them. But the renters rights group, with its populist agenda, has established a better rapport with the city's tenants over the years.
70% Go to Polls
Santa Monica has about 50,000 registered voters and about 70% of them go to the polls. The tenant faction in the past has had the solid support of 10,000 to 12,000 voters, mostly renters. The coalition has a core voting group of 8,000 to 10,000 people, mostly homeowners. So the campaigns are aimed at the remaining Santa Monica voters who could go either way on Election Day.
The All Santa Monica Coalition will spend about $250,000 on its campaign. The candidates and 15 to 20 coalition supporters have been walking door-to-door every weekend since late September. The coalition's goal is to reach about 70% of the city's households. They have also done phone work and mailings.
The coalition is counting on a sweep, but the race may be close. "The best thing we've got going is that the city is working," said campaign manager Colleen Harmon. "People are pleased with the way Santa Monica is being run."
Santa Monicans for Renters Rights expect to spend about $100,000. If one of its candidates wins, the council's factions will be evenly split. If two of its candidates win, Santa Monicans for Renters Rights will assume control of City Hall. The group will step up its door-to-door campaign in the coming weeks.
"The biggest challenge for us is to make sure the voters understand that we are the people who established rent control and the people who fight for it," said Charlotte Houghton, a Santa Monicans for Renters Rights campaign worker. "We are also the people who brought helter-skelter growth under control."
Founded in 1979
Santa Monicans for Renters Rights came together in support of rent control in 1979, when many tenants were being evicted because of skyrocketing housing costs and demolitions. The group has focused most of its energy on tenant concerns since then, and its members held the council majority from 1981 until 1984.
During that time Santa Monicans for Renters Rights created nonprofit corporations to promote the revitalization of the Santa Monica Pier and the Third Street Mall, and resolved a long-running dispute over the fate of the Santa Monica Airport. The group also promoted passage of the city's land-use plan.