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Bridging the Chasm : After Months of Talks, Santa Monica Landlords and Tenant Leaders Reach Accord on Rent Control Changes

June 15, 1989|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

When landlord James Baker and tenant advocate Wayne Bauer smiled and shook hands at a City Hall press conference, it was as if the walls of Jericho had tumbled and the Red Sea had parted, all at once.

The two men for a decade have been bitter rivals on opposite sides of Santa Monica's most divisive issue: rent control. Yet last Friday, they appeared together to announce an agreement that introduces major changes in the rent control law.

It took marathon meetings, uncharacteristic secrecy, frantic phone calls and plenty of persuasion. But after more than two months of negotiations, the deal was struck.

The new program will allow a landlord to roughly double the rents on some vacated apartments if the landlord sets aside an equal number of vacant apartments for low-income tenants.

Two Goals

Advocates of the plan, called inclusionary housing, say it addresses two elusive goals of rent control: assuring that poor people have access to affordable housing while giving landlords a fair return on their property.

Until now, Santa Monica's rent control law has been considered one of the toughest in the nation--partly because Santa Monica, unlike other cities, does not allow landlords to raise rents when their tenants move out.

Backers of the new program say it will encourage landlords to rent out units that they have preferred to leave vacant rather than rent at low rates. At the same time, it will ensure that low-income people are in low-rent apartments, reversing what many see as a trend of wealthy professionals moving into inexpensive apartments.

In one form or another, the concept of inclusionary housing has been kicked around for years. But no one could agree on how it should work. Rent control officials were especially reluctant to allow apartments to be removed from their authority, and a plan adopted in February was a bust.

So it came as a surprise to many observers when Bauer, long seen as the most unbending member of the Rent Control Board, emerged as a key negotiator committed to forging an agreement with the landlords.

"I think it's the hardest thing Wayne Bauer ever had to do," said Lisa Monk Borrino, a tenant attorney and longtime friend of Bauer.

Bauer said he saw the light earlier this year. He likes to tell the story of how he was watching the news and saw Israelis and Palestinians fighting on the West Bank, both sides adamant in their positions, unwilling to compromise, and both sides getting hurt. Not unlike the two sides in Santa Monica, he thought.

"It seemed so clear to me we would have nothing but polarization and war (unless) we try to find common ground, put our own animosities aside and do what is best for the people we represent," Bauer said.

A greater motivation, however, may have been the less-than-encouraging reception Bauer and other rent control commissioners got from the Legislature when they traveled to Sacramento in early spring to lobby for changes in the so-called Ellis Act.

The Ellis Act, written by former state Sen. Jim Ellis (R-El Cajon), is a 3-year-old law that allows landlords to evict tenants and go out of the rental business. Many Santa Monica officials see it as the greatest threat to rent control in years. Several hundred Santa Monica tenants are facing the prospect of eviction by landlords using the Ellis Act.

Bauer may have decided that reaching some sort of accommodation with the landlords was the only way to stave off continued use of the Ellis Act.

So, arriving back in Santa Monica from Sacramento, Bauer called Baker. Jim Baker owns 75 apartments in the city and is a director of two vocal landlord organizations. He filed the first lawsuit against rent control the day after the law was passed on April 10, 1979, and has been fighting it ever since.

On the phone, Bauer told Baker he wanted to meet with him and two other prominent landlords, Carl Lambert, president of the landlord organization Action, and Pat Cramer, a part-owner of several buildings. Bauer considers them part of the "honorable opposition." The enemy, yes, but landlords who at least treat their tenants fairly and who are willing to talk.

"He felt comfortable selecting us," Baker said. "He knew we weren't militants."

Things nevertheless got off to a shaky start, according to both sides. At the first meeting in April at City Hall, with rent control administrator Mary Ann Yurkonis also present, the tension and anger were palpable, participants said.

Going into the meetings, Baker said he still had his doubts about whether Bauer was really willing to negotiate in good faith. Bauer said Baker seemed so hostile that he wouldn't even look at him, addressing Yurkonis instead.

Ease in Tensions

But after considerable sparring, and as time went on, the tension began to ease. Each side seemed to realize the other was serious and committed, participants said.

"There's a real history of mistrust, and with good reason," Bauer said. "(But) we tried to keep personal feelings out of it and tried to focus."

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