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High Court's Action Kills Challenge to Rent Control

February 26, 1987|JAY GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writer

The U. S. Supreme Court has refused to hear a legal challenge to Santa Monica's rent control regulations, and in so doing has dealt a death blow to the primary legal attack on rent control in the city.

City Atty. Robert M. Myers said he was informed Monday that the court had rejected the 8-year-old Baker case, named after Santa Monica landlord leader James W. Baker.

"If this does not send a signal to landlords that rent control is here to stay, nothing will," Myers said.

Baker and three other landlords were plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which has been financed by the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles. In December, the four petitioned the Supreme Court to hear arguments contending that Santa Monica's regulations denied owners the right to a fair return on their rental investments. That right is guaranteed under the federal and California constitutions, the landlords' attorney, Stephen Jones, has argued.

However, the high court rejected the suit because it did not contain "a properly presented federal question" for it to decide, Myers said.

The original lawsuit was filed in April, 1979, less than 24 hours after voters approved Santa Monica's rent control law, which is one of the strictest in the country.

Several Superior Court rulings held that different portions of the law were unconstitutional, but in May, 1986, a state Court of Appeal overturned the lower court rulings.

In September, the state Supreme Court rejected the landlords' request to hear the case.

Both sides agree that the suit was the primary legal challenge to rent control.

Baker said the high court's decision means landlords have lost another battle. However, he said, the war against rent control will continue, with the focus on getting another case to the newly constituted state Supreme Court. Three of the four California justices who voted to reject the Baker case were turned out of office by voters in November.

"I think it is now up to us to redouble our efforts to get the issue of fair return before the (new) California Supreme Court," he said.

"I just don't think Americans are designed to bow to tyranny of any kind," Baker said. "And that is what we are dealing with in Santa Monica and now in West Hollywood, absolute tyranny. The movement is going to go on with ever greater vigor."

In addition to legal challenges, Baker said his group will continue to lobby in Sacramento for state legislation that would weaken or eliminate rent control. But he said it was unlikely that his group would try to change Santa Monica's rental regulations by working within city government.

"The local political level is almost impossible," he said.

About three-quarters of Santa Monica residents live in rental housing.

Myers has fought the Baker case since it was filed, first as an attorney for Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and since 1981 as city attorney.

"It has been a long battle," he said. "What was frustrating was that we were often unsuccessful in the lower court. But we have been very successful in overturning adverse decisions.

"An appropriate eulogy for the Baker case is that landlords should now accept that which they cannot change through litigation," Myers said.

Baker said the association, which spent almost $800,000 on the Baker suit, will hold "a major strategy meeting" this week to decide how it will continue its fight against rent control.

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