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Santa Monica Seeks to Void Challenge to Rent Control

November 26, 1987|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

The City of Santa Monica has filed a motion in federal district court seeking dismissal of a lawsuit that attacks the city's rent control law, labeling the landlord-sponsored legal challenge a "transparent . . . shotgun approach."

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 21, Santa Monica City Atty. Robert Myers said.

The city responded to a lawsuit filed in September, Lena Schnuck vs. the City of Santa Monica, that seeks to have the city's rent control law overturned on constitutional grounds.

Legal Assault

The suit is part of a new legal assault on rent control being mounted by a recently formed group of California landlords, the Foundation for the Defense of Free Enterprise, who hope an increasingly conservative federal judiciary will be more sympathetic to their cause than state and local courts have been.

Myers said Santa Monica's 8-year-old rent control law, considered one of the toughest in the nation, has withstood the test of numerous lawsuits, and said he was confident the new challenge would be "ultimately unsuccessful."

"Every effort to bring fairness to the landlord-tenant relationship has been met with lawsuits by landlords who claim their property rights have been violated," Myers said.

"Obviously this (the foundation) is a group that desires to overturn important protections that have been developed for tenants . . . so that landlords can oppress their tenants without fear of regulation."

Santa Monica, where 80% of the residents are renters, voted rent control into law in 1979.

Spokesmen for the foundation, which plans at least five additional anti-rent control suits, claim to be gathering support from similar organizations in other parts of the country.

'National Front'

"It looks like we are going to have a national front," said Geoffrey Strand, a Santa Monica landlord and spokesman for the group.

He said apartment owners associations in Boston and New York promised to file friend-of-the-court briefs in the Schnuck suit and to help with fund raising.

The foundation was formed in Santa Monica earlier this year and claims members from West Hollywood, Los Angeles, Berkeley, San Jose, San Francisco and Palo Alto.

According to the Schnuck suit, after 89-year-old apartment owner Lena Schnuck suffered a stroke earlier this year, her family sought to evict a tenant from a one-story unit in her apartment building. Schnuck already occupied a two-story unit in the building but needed the one-story apartment because of her physical condition.

However Santa Monica's rent control law prohibits eviction when the landlord already occupies another unit in the building. So, the suit alleges, Schnuck's family was told she could not evict the tenant. The suit claims Schnuck was therefore deprived of use of her own property.

Suit Called 'Unfocused'

In its 34-page response, the city calls on the court to reject the challenge, calling it "unfocused" and without merit.

"While couched in legal theories, plaintiff's suit amounts to little more than a transparent effort to interject the federal judiciary into a political dispute," the motion says. "While this case unquestionably arises from plaintiff's strong disagreement with the city's rent control law, clearly such a disagreement cannot provide the constitutional basis to challenge this law."

The motion adds that Schnuck's "smorgasbord of constitutional violations" has already been rejected in earlier cases in other courts.

"Perhaps no other rent control law in the country has been litigated and affirmed as often as this law. . . . It is simply too late in the day for such attacks on the basic foundation of rent control to withstand scrutiny," the city's motion states.

The city's response goes on to say some of the specific charges in Schnuck's suit are "reflective of plaintiff's shotgun approach to this litigation, alleging a vast array of constitutional violations with little regard for the actual facts of the case and established legal principles."

No Discrimination

The city says that while Schnuck's plight "at first blush . . . is sympathetic," her suit fails to prove she has been denied "economically viable" use of her property. It defends the rent control law as a "rational" means to protect tenants and preserve housing that does not "unconstitutionally discriminate" against landlords.

It says Schnuck's complaint also fails to offer specific proof of its contention that members of the Rent Control Board are biased.

The Schnuck suit also alleged that rent control has made it possible for tenants to "sell" the right to occupy an apartment to future tenants, or for tenants to sublet their apartments at higher rents, pocketing the difference.

The city's response denies that such practices are a result of rent control laws and suggests Schnuck include a provision in leases that prohibits unauthorized transferences. Violation of that provision would then subject the new tenant to eviction.

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