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Evictions Predicted as Landlords Fail in Bid to Ease Rent Control : Santa Monica: Landlord-backed Prop. U is defeated. Tenants rights advocates' rival measure, Prop. W, will be decided by absentee ballots.


Once again, Santa Monica landlords came up empty at the polls in their quest for relief from the city's tough rent-control law, and they warned of a probable surge of evictions by property owners who decide to quit the rental business.

Landlords also failed to break a consecutive winning streak by tenants rights advocates in the race for four seats on the city Rent Control Board.

Voters on Tuesday decisively rejected a landlord-sponsored ballot measure, Proposition U, that would have lifted rent controls from apartments that are voluntarily vacated.

Meanwhile, the fate of a competing measure backed by tenants was still undecided Wednesday.

The tenants' measure, Proposition W, was ahead by less than 100 votes with results from all precincts tabulated. But the final outcome will not be known until sometime next week, after an estimated 4,000 to 4,500 absentee ballots are counted.

Proposition W proposed allowing rents of voluntarily vacated apartments to increase to specific "threshold levels." These levels would allow for significant rent increases for some apartments, but the threshold levels the measure called for would still be well below the free-market rates sought by the city's landlords.

Although the city's powerful tenant organization, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, maintained its tight grip on the Rent Control Board, there were predictions that the new panel would consider giving landlords some economic relief.

If Proposition W loses after absentee ballots are counted, rent board commissioner Jay Johnson, who won reelection Tuesday, said he wants to determine how tenants--as compared to homeowners--voted for Proposition W before deciding what measures the board should take.

The board has the authority to implement the provisions of Proposition W, but Johnson said he would not want to enact measures "that fly in the face of the will" of tenants.

However, Johnson said he expects the new board to have a better relationship with landlords than the outgoing board, whose members often fought among themselves as well as with landlords.

Johnson said that the issue of landlords who are stuck with very low rents is likely to be addressed quickly. Under the city's rent control law, rents are based on 1978 levels, and annual rent increases have ranged from 3% to 6% over the last decade. As a result, some landlords collect as little as $400 for two-bedroom apartments. Comparable apartments in nearby parts of Los Angeles rent for twice that.

Tenants rights advocates have been prodded to make changes because landlords have recently been fighting back by taking advantage of a 1986 state law, the Ellis Act. It allows landlords to evict tenants and go out of business, provided they give adequate notice and pay relocation fees.

Owners of more than 1,100 units have filed notice with the city of their intent to go out of business, although not all of them have followed through on their applications.

Carl Lambert, an attorney and landlord, predicted that as a result of Tuesday's election, many landlords will now go forward with their evictions, and that other landlords will also begin the eviction process rather than continue to accept low rents.

"More evictions under the Ellis Act are going to occur," Lambert warned. "The tenants are the victims."

The streak of electing only SMRR-backed candidates to the Rent Control Board continued. In addition to Johnson, voters elected tenant attorney Lisa Monk Borrino and child development specialist Suzanne Abrescia to four-year terms. Teacher Robert Niemann, who was also endorsed by SMRR, was elected to a two-year term.

Three other housing-related issues were on the Santa Monica ballot, all of which passed:

* Proposition R, which will require that 30% of all new multifamily housing on an annual basis be set aside for low- and moderate-income people.

* Proposition V, which essentially places the city's existing condominium conversion law into the City Charter.

* Proposition X, which exempts state-owned property from the city rent control law. The measure won by less than 1%, which baffled many election observers. It was directed at resolving a question of whether cabanas at the former private Sand and Sea Club fell under rent control.

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