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SANTA MONICA : Drive Seeks to Aid Rent Control Ally


San Fernando Valley voters may hold the future of Santa Monica's rent control law in their hands.

That's because the fate of rent control and the fate of state Sen. David Roberti (D-Van Nuys) could be one and the same.

Roberti, a staunch supporter of rent control, is the target of a well-funded recall effort led by the gun lobby in his new Valley district. The recall vote is scheduled for April 12.

A candidate for state treasurer, Roberti has to leave the Senate in December to comply with term limits. But his presence in Sacramento is needed by those trying to block a legislative effort to weaken rent control.

That is why Santa Monica rent control advocates are busy phoning Valley voters, urging them to keep Roberti in office.

"I've never felt that rent control was more threatened than now," said Michael Tarbet, a renters-rights activist in Santa Monica.

At a meeting of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights last weekend, Tarbet urged members to write state legislators and sought volunteers to work the phones for Roberti.

A bill by Assemblymen Jim Costa (D-Fresno) and Bernie Richter (R-Chico) is causing alarm because it would allow rents to go to market levels upon vacancy, something prohibited in Santa Monica. The legislation would also affect hundreds of tenants whose apartments remain under rent control even though other units in their buildings have been converted to condominiums.

The legislation is backed by landlord and real estate interests eager to get the bill signed this year by Gov. Pete Wilson in case the Republican is not reelected in November. "This is the year if they are ever going to do it," said Tony Trendacosta, attorney for the Santa Monica Rent Board.

For years, Roberti has blocked bills to weaken rent control by killing them in the Senate Judiciary Committee, preventing the issue from coming to a vote before the full Senate.

The current bill awaits Judiciary Committee action, but a hearing will not be set until after Roberti's fate is decided April 12. The bill was sent straight to the Senate Judiciary Committee without an Assembly vote so it could be heard on a few days notice. The Assembly has previously supported vacancy decontrol, so passage there is expected.

The measure has been given an earthquake angle by its authors: Richter says the legislation is needed to encourage reconstruction of apartment units, an effort made more difficult in places with unusually low rents. Landlords have made the same argument.

Besides staffing phone banks, Santa Monica rent control forces have sought support in Berkeley, West Hollywood and other rent control cities to fight the measure. "The situation is grave," said Steve Hopcraft, a political consultant hired to work against the bill.

Although state Sen. Bill Lockyer, Roberti's successor as president pro tem of the Senate, apparently will oppose the bill, Hopcraft said it is unclear whether Lockyer will be as committed to rent control as Roberti has been.

Asked how many committee votes he has lined up, Hopcraft said, "The only head count we're worried about is Roberti's head."

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