Landlords took the first step this week in their effort to rip the heart out of Santa Monica's rent control ordinance by filing notice with the city clerk that they will circulate an initiative to allow rents to rise to market levels when an apartment is voluntarily vacated.
The city attorney will review the proposed Voluntary Vacancy Decontrol and Recontrol Charter Amendment of 1990 within the next 15 days. If it meets legal requirements, supporters will have until June 8 to collect signatures of 15% of the city's registered voters, or about 8,300 people, which would qualify the initiative for the ballot.
Carl Lambert, an attorney and rental property owner, would not say how much money would be spent on gathering signatures, but said he expects contributions from what he termed "free-enterprise organizations" throughout the nation and from the political action committee of Action, a local landlords group.
Lambert said the initiative is an attempt to give landlords a less drastic alternative to the only means they have of getting out from under the burden of rent control--evicting tenants and getting out of business under provisions of the state Ellis Act. Since that law was implemented in 1986, more than 1,000 apartments have been or are scheduled to be taken off the Santa Monica rental market.
The landlords' plan for "vacancy decontrol recontrol," Lambert said, is "a compromise between the unfair rent control that we have had, and no rent control whatsoever. . . . I think tenants need to examine their own security and make a decision whether they want a fair rent control system that protects them, or lose their homes when a developer decides it is more economic to knock down an apartment building and build condos."
Under current law, the maximum allowable rent on an apartment is not affected by a vacancy. This provision is the principal reason that Santa Monica's rent control system is one of the strictest in the nation.
The initiative comes after the city's dominant political group, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, earlier this month offered its own proposals to stop the massive evictions.
The tenants' group is proposing allowing units with very low rents to rise to a standard level, as yet undetermined, when units are voluntarily vacated, and allowing the rents of all voluntarily vacated units to rise a certain percentage or a fixed dollar amount.
Rent control advocates have said in the past they oppose full vacancy decontrol because it would eventually lead to the loss of most or all low-cost housing in the city and would encourage landlords to force existing tenants out.
But Lambert and other landlords have rejected the proposals of the Renters' Rights group as too little, too late. Lambert said his initiative provides protections for both existing and new tenants, while giving landlords real financial relief.
Under the landlords' proposal, existing anti-harassment regulations would remain, including allowing the Rent Control Board to seek injunctions to stop harassment.
After April 10, 1990, apartment owners who evict tenants to make the units available for themselves or relatives who later move out would not be allowed to consider those units as voluntarily vacated under the initiative. Also, any vacancy occurring in a building in which the landlord files a notice to evict under the Ellis Act, but never proceeds with the evictions, would not be considered a voluntary vacancy for two years from the time of the filing.
In cases where an apartment is voluntarily vacated and a higher rent is imposed, the unit would become subject to rent control at the new higher level. The rent board would determine the maximum allowable annual rent increase.
Lambert said vacancy decontrol will encourage landlords to stay in business by making it once again economically undesirable to tear down apartment buildings.