The scheduled swearing-in tonight of Jay P. Johnson, a landlord who supports rent control, as the fifth member of the Santa Monica Rent Control Board has both sides of the rent control debate optimistic.
Some landlords, who have complained for years of the board's domination by tenant activists, say they are encouraged that they finally have someone on the board who "speaks our language" and understands the economics of owning and operating rental units.
Some tenants, meanwhile, say Johnson is a caring and compassionate person who is committed to progressive politics and understands the need to protect and provide affordable housing.
For his part, Johnson, 47, says having a foot in each camp will help him close the chasm between landlords and the rent board.
"If you don't know where both sides are coming from, how can you try to come up with any workable solutions?" he said in an interview.
Johnson's unanimous appointment last week by the four remaining board members cleared the way for the board's controversial Incentive Housing Program to get off the ground. It followed weeks of a deadlock that had threatened to indefinitely hamper board business.
The program, which allows landlords to raise the rents nearly to market level on some vacant units if an equal number of units are set aside for low-income tenants, was narrowly approved by the board in October, 1989.
The compromise program was designed in response to a growing exodus of landlords from the rental business in Santa Monica. Under provisions of a state law called the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to legally evict tenants and put their property to other uses, more than 1,000 apartments in the city have been taken off the market in recent years. In local parlance, the process is referred to as "Ellising."
As of early this week, 43 applications for the incentive program had been given out, but only 19 returned, according to rent board administrator Mary Ann Yurkonis. Last week, the board approved four contracts with landlords who will participate in the program.
Two of the four landlords, James Baker and Pat Cramer, took part in the negotiations that led to the creation of the program last year.
Baker has declined to comment on the program because he is a director of the board of a landlords group called Action, which officially opposes the program.
But Cramer, who has an interest in about 300 units, is a vocal supporter.
"I think the program will work," Cramer said. "It will be a big incentive for landlords to increase their cash flow. I don't think the program will stop all the Ellising, but I think it will slow it down."
The first of several buildings Cramer hopes to include in the program was approved last week. The 10-unit building has three vacancies. Cramer is being given credit for having an existing low-income tenant, so he will be allowed to raise the rents of two of three vacant units.
The average maximum allowable rent imposed by the rent board for the three single units is about $350. While he may be forced to lower the rent on one of the units to as little as $274, he can legally raise the rents on the other two single units to as much as $950, an increase of $600.
Cramer, however, said the market rate for such an apartment is about $600, and he expects to rent them for about that price. So while he may have to lower the rent on one unit by $76, he would still realize a net increase of $424 per month for the three units.
"I think more landlords will participate once they realize the kind of increased cash flows they can get," Cramer said.
Johnson, the newest board member, supports the program.
"I intend to aggressively recruit landlords to participate in the program," he said.
How successful he will be remains to be seen.
John Rodriguez, president of Action, said he does not know Johnson very well and is reserving comment until after Johnson addresses the landlords group at its monthly meeting on April 2.
"I am a little suspicious because of his involvement with (Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights) and other leftist organizations," Rodriguez said. "I'm guarded, but I welcome the opportunity to meet with him."
Although he is a landlord--with interests in about 12 rental units in Santa Monica--Johnson is also on the steering committee of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the organization that dominates city politics and whose members make up a majority of both the City Council and the rent board.
Johnson, a sales representative for Lee jeans, said he has a "25-year history of heavy involvement in numerous social justice movements and political campaigns." He was a recent election observer in Nicaragua, is a co-founder of the Committee Against Rand Expansion, and is a member of the Santa Monica Democratic Club.
Johnson said he intends to join rent board members Wayne Bauer and Susan Packer Davis in their silent protest of U.S. involvement in El Salvador by refraining from pledging allegiance to the flag at the beginning of each meeting.
Yet, Johnson is also a member of Action and of the Santa Monica Board of Realtors. He holds an undergraduate business degree.
"It seems incredible to me that a man can be a liberal and a capitalist," said apartment owner Baker.
But it may take that combination to bring peace to what has been an acrimonious relationship between the board and landlords.
"Jay is a person who will listen to all sides and decides what is best for all concerned," said Brad Jones, co-chairman of SMRR.
"I think he will bring some vitally needed compromises," Baker said. "Jay is a peacemaker. I thought I was beyond being surprised by anything the rent board did, but Jay's appointment was a surprise. Actually, astounded would be a better expression."