Waving signs and miniature American flags in an unusually vivid display of discontent, landlords marched on city halls in Santa Monica and Los Angeles to protest "radical" rent control.
The rallies on Tuesday were organized by a Santa Monica-based landlord group, the Foundation for the Defense of Free Enterprise, in connection with similar demonstrations in New York and elsewhere.
The landlords are charging that strict rent control denies apartment owners a fair income, discourages the construction of new housing, aggravates a severe housing shortage and benefits the wealthy more than the poor.
"We can't make ends meet," said Toni Lancaster, 71, who described herself as both a landlord and a renter. "Landlords don't have any rights in this city. Somebody better stick up for them."
"I am subsidizing my tenants, and they make more money than I do," complained Gale Williams, who rents out six apartments just south of Santa Monica Boulevard. "Who am I to subsidize them?"
"I have clients whose tenants are doctors, professionals . . . people who drive BMWs . . . paying $175, $210. . . . It's ridiculous," said Tom Nitti, an attorney for several Santa Monica landlords.
Defenders of rent control maintain the law is necessary to guarantee tenants affordable housing and protection from unfair evictions.
In the Santa Monica protest, the landlords waved signs saying: "Help the needy, not the greedy" and "Rent control and drugs: Both destroy neighborhoods." Several signs were decorated with a hammer and sickle and read: "Soviet Monica, rent controlled"--an allusion to the city's reputation as a bastion of liberal politics.
The take-to-the-streets form of protest represented a relatively new tack for many of the participating landlords, who tended to be owners of small buildings and who generally belong to small, loosely knit coalitions. Some observers likened the Santa Monica rally to the early, volatile days of rent control when the law was first passed in 1979.
About 500 landlords protested at the New York state Capitol in Albany, according to news reports, and another group rallied outside the Los Angeles City Hall.
Law's Author Confronted
In the Santa Monica rally, close to 150 landlords from Santa Monica and West Hollywood, accompanied by music from a brass quintet, strung red, white and blue balloons from City Hall's front awning and marched in a circle outside the building. Then, several protesters, their placards in hand, stomped into City Hall and up the stairs to the office of City Atty. Robert Myers.
Myers, author of Santa Monica's rent control law, met briefly with the landlords who marched into his office and demanded to see him.
"I allowed them an opportunity to express their discontent," Myers said later. "There was a high level of emotion and very little intellectual dialogue. . . . One person claimed I was bringing Soviet Communism to Santa Monica, another said I was using Hitler tactics."
The Foundation for the Defense of Free Enterprise has proposed a plan that would require landlords to contribute to a fund for the homeless in exchange for phasing out rent control by June of the year 2000.
The plan would also allow 10% annual rent increases, with 5% of all increases going into the homeless fund.
City Councilman Dennis Zane, a member of the liberal Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights political organization, called the plan a masquerade and dismissed the landlords' complaints on Tuesday as old news.
Santa Monica and West Hollywood have rent control laws that are considered especially strict because they prohibit landlords from raising the rent when a tenant vacates an apartment.
Initiative On Again
In a related development, an on-again, off-again rent control initiative appears on again.
Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights is sponsoring the measure, which is intended for the November ballot and would bring two- and three-unit buildings under rent control. Those buildings are currently exempt from rent control when the landlord occupies one of the units.
Sponsors of the initiative unleashed a political storm within their ranks last week when they withdrew the measure because of technical errors in its wording. They said they didn't have enough time to revise and resubmit it.
But a "surprise" ruling by Myers gave them enough time.
Myers issued an opinion that new state election codes--which require city attorneys to write summaries of ballot measures--do not apply to charter amendment initiatives. The new rules only apply to initiatives that would change ordinances, Myers said.
So Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights revised and refiled the measure. Sponsors hope to begin circulating petitions by the end of the week; around 5,400 signatures are necessary to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
Landlord groups immediately cried foul, charging that Myers' ruling circumvented the rules for political convenience.