Santa Monica's dominant political group has abruptly scrapped a rent control initiative, fueling scattered dissension within the organization's ranks just six months before municipal elections.
Leaders of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights said the proposed initiative, which would have tightened the city's already tough rent control law, was pulled because of technical errors in the way it was written.
Revising the measure and re-submitting it at this late date would not have left enough time to circulate petitions qualifying the measure for the November ballot, sponsors said. The deadline for collecting approximately 5,400 signatures is June 10.
And rather than forge ahead with a doomed effort, they decided to stop it.
'Sad and Disturbing'
"We had the best of intentions, but there were human errors that couldn't be fixed," said Dolores Press, co-chair of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights.
"It is very sad and deeply disturbing that this happened, but it happened," she said. "And we thought we would be putting the tenant community at greater risk if we had gone ahead."
Landlord advocates who vehemently opposed the measure were delighted to see it being withdrawn.
However, the move dismayed some members of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and gave rise to accusations that a handful of leaders dragged their feet in the initiative process because of fears that the controversial measure would hurt candidates supported by the renters' group in November's City Council elections. Several leaders denied the charge.
"Whether it was conscious or unconscious, the delays were inexcusable," said Susan Davis, a Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights member who also heads the Rent Control Board.
Davis said she and other Rent Control Board commissioners first asked Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights to consider the initiative as a way to close loopholes in the rent control law.
The initiative would have extended rent control provisions to apartments in certain two- and three-unit buildings that currently are exempt. It also would have added restrictions on landlords' discretion to make evictions to allow family members to take over apartments.
The idea was approved overwhelmingly at a Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights convention on March 13. However, some members of the organization's steering committee at later meetings began to raise concerns over how the issue would affect the election in November, Davis said.
Potential candidates "were looking at it as 'how will this hurt me' . . . and putting political ambitions before the needs of the tenants of this city," charged Wayne Bauer, another Rent Control Board commissioner and Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights member.
Several leaders of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights denied that ulterior political motives were behind the withdrawal of the initiative and voiced continued support for the substance of the measure.
"There was no backing off of SMRR's support for the initiative," said Judy Abdo, a steering committee member. "SMRR is strongly in support of having the strongest possible rent control law. . . . The problem was in the language, not the substance."
Abdo and other leaders said they will press ahead with efforts to end alleged abuses by landlords of the rent control law.
The debate over whether to go ahead with the initiative appears to have revived divisions within Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights between moderate and liberal factions.
The 9-year-old organization came out of the tenants' rights movement, rising to power on the heels of Santa Monica's 1979 rent control law, considered one of the strictest in the country.
By pulling the initiative, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights runs the risk of appearing disorganized or indecisive early in a crucial election year. Four seats on the seven-member City Council are up for election, including two seats that currently are occupied by Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights members.
'Obligation to Tenants'
"I think we should have gone ahead (with the initiative)," said Julie Lopez Dad, a Rent Control commissioner and Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights member. "We have an obligation to tenants, who are now more vulnerable than before. . . . We were hurt by not going forward with this, by not giving it our all."
Others defended the decision.
"There was a feeling that dropping it was not nearly as bad as having it fail to qualify for the ballot (or) having had a legal challenge from the landlords and losing the suit," Press said.
The initiative would have eliminated a rent control exemption that exists for two- and three-unit buildings when the owner lives in the building.
Those units are exempted as a concession to the "mom-and-pop" owners who traditionally had the smaller buildings. However, tenant advocates charge that an increasing number of young, wealthy people are buying such buildings as an investment, raising the rents and driving out long-time tenants.
The initiative would also have put a new restriction on evictions that a landlord can make to allow family members to move into an apartment. It would have allowed such evictions only for dependent children, spouses, parents or grandparents.