Popularity Contest; and the Winner is . . .

For more than 30 years Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) has been the dominant political organization in Santa Monica. I’d argue that now it’s more popular than ever.

Why do I say this at a time when residents are supposed to be so angry? Start with the last election, when SMRR candidates ran the table and for the first time won every race for City Council, the School Board, the College Board and the Rent Board. SMRR has by far the most powerful brand in Santa Monica politics. The power of that brand is based on performance: residents know that Santa Monica, notwithstanding the issues we have, is among the best-governed cities in the region, one that provides excellent services.

When it comes to the development issue, which these days generates the most headlines, Santa Monica, among the cities in the region that have historically been employment centers, is the one that has best managed development. Notably, when nearly every other Southern California city subsidizes development, Santa Monica requires that developers subsidize city services and capital investments. This has been the case ever since SMRR took charge in 1981 — when, in the words of William Fulton, Santa Monica was the first Southern California city to “confront the growth machine.” Since the ’60s population has boomed in Southern California, but for 50 years Santa Monica’s population has hardly budged.

As population has turned over in Santa Monica, and as the battles of 30 years ago over rent control faded into history, many have predicted that SMRR’s popularity would wane, but that hasn’t happened. Newcomers have high opinions of SMRR precisely because they have come from elsewhere and know in comparison just how well Santa Monica is governed (and they know that traffic is just as bad outside of Santa Monica as in it).

What I’m saying is contrary to the narrative that we read about in the local papers and online, but I don’t know any place where politics is about happy people expressing gratitude for their happiness — nor should it be. Everyone and every government makes mistakes, and that goes for Santa Monica, too. But according to a decade of consistent scientific polling, the real people who live here — not necessarily the people who purport to speak for them — are happy with their city and with local government. Even the critics appearing before the City Council or the Planning Commission typically preference their criticisms with “I love it here, but . . .”

In this context it was a shocker to read a column last week in the Daily Press written by longtime local activist Tricia Crane for a column-writing collective called “Our Town” that consists of Crane and fellow anti-development activists Ellen Brennan, Zina Josephs and Armen Melkonians. In the column, entitled “Taking from the poor, giving to the rich,” the Our Towners lit into “the people who run Santa Monica” who did “not care what residents want.”

According to Our Town, Santa Monica’s vaunted public development review process, one of SMRR’s achievements, was “a method used to keep people distracted from the hidden agenda of a group of politicos and developers who are working together to overbuild Santa Monica in a way that profits them while destroying the quality of life for residents.”

The immediate instigation for the column was the Rent Board’s decision to grant developer Marc Luzzatto a removal permit to allow him to proceed with his development on the site of the Village Trailer Park (VTP). According to the Our Town column, the failure of SMRR leadership to get the board members to ignore the advice of their attorneys (who advised that it was unlikely the board would prevail against Luzzatto in a lawsuit) and deny the permit was evidence for “just how far from its original values SMRR has wandered as it uses its political clout to forward the interests of the wealthy while leaving the neediest of Santa Monica further and further behind.”

Ouch.

And it’s not just the Our Town writers; the mantra of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) is, “Take back our city!” Take it back from whom?

A couple of things. For one, do you believe that the anti-development opposition to the VTP project (which will consist nearly entirely of workforce and affordable housing) is based on the plight of the trailer park tenants? (Who, by the way, could have been evicted seven years ago under state law if the City and Luzzatto had not reached a deal to keep them there.) I’m not doubting that Santa Monica’s anti-development activists feel bad, as we all do, for people losing their homes, but I suspect that if there had been a tannery there instead, and Luzzatto wanted to replace that with 400 apartments, the Our Town writers and SMCLC would have protested and argued that Santa Monica needs to preserve its tanneries.

While declaring that they are not against “all development,” the anti-development side conveniently finds “special” arguments to use against any specific development (for example, while condos are too big and luxurious and serve the rich, workforce apartments are too small and austere and the tenants can’t afford them), but the real problem is that they never tell us what development they would support. Development needs to be regulated, but anyone who argues that there shouldn’t be, or won’t be, any development can’t be taken seriously.

For two, what about the bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you angle? The anti-development faction in Santa Monica has never elected anyone to City Council without an endorsement from SMRR, and even those they have elected have at least been in favor of building housing. The anti-development forces who use SMRR every two years to pursue their agenda reject the members of SMRR, and the SMRR council members, who support regulated economic development and investment in Santa Monica. SMRR’s strength, however, and the ability to achieve its goals, depends on respecting a range of views within.

SMRR prides itself on being a “big tent” organization, and that strategy has worked well. You have to wonder what are the limits to that strategy. “Big tent” can easily become “battered political organization syndrome,” where disproportionate efforts are spent trying to accommodate a faction that plainly doesn’t like SMRR and won’t be happy until it has the whole tent.

Thanks for reading.

7 thoughts on “Popularity Contest; and the Winner is . . .

  1. If Frank’s comment that VTP could have been closed under state law years ago but for an agreement between Luzzatto and the City is an example of how much research he does, no wonder he’s so enamored with SMRR. The fact is–no matter how many times that Big Lie was told, and between the City and Luzzatto it grew many very long noses–not only could VTP not have been closed under state law years ago. It still can’t be closed, over a year after the City and the RCB colluded with Luzzatto to give him a development agreement and a removal from rent control, in return for a $5 million bribe to the City. The reason VTP is not closed today is NO ONE CAN BE EVICTED. That is why up to six City employees at a time repeatedly came out over the
    seven years before 2013 and tried to convince us there was no hope, so we should take one of the deals Luzzatto offered and move.

    As for the comment of my old friend from when we sat next to each other at the Rent Control Board meetings for what seems like decades, Leslie Lambert. To say that collusion between City staff and developers is an insulting and uncivilized (??) claim–what would any of you call it if you went into City Hall by chance at 4:30 on May 1, 2013, and saw Luzzatto inside a conference room with the planner assigned to VTP, other suits, someone else apparently from the Planning Department, and Barry Rosenbaum, Deputy City Attorney? What would you call it when you found out they met for YEARS without notice to any of the residents, without a record being kept of the contents of the meetings, without any guarantee whatever that truly illegal (and certainly uncivilized but common) crimes like bribery did not occur?

    The VTP residents will be vindicated in court, and it will be very expensive for the City to pay damages for the irreparable harm it caused, but you just keep saying in the meantime how well-run SM is. That is why the Grand Jury gave it a D when it investigated cities after the Bell scandal.

    I more than anyone want this City to be truly well-run, and to benefit all kinds of people, not just the rich. For almost eight years now I have seen the City collude with developers–first in a confidential agreement in 2006, a full year b/4 the Council did anything in public, as we learned recently through an FOIA request–to try to convince us we should move. I believe now that all along they knew we could not be evicted. That is why it was so necessary to pressure everyone into moving. These are almost HALF of the only permanently rent-controlled units in the City. What is civilized about trying to take them away from SM voters who passed rent control and give the land to developers to build a five-story with two levels of underground parking for almost 800 cars future slum?

    All I ask is that you all do some research before you make statements.

    Brenda Barnes
    Former RCB Attorney and Manager
    Former Attorney for Landlords Fighting SM Rent Control
    Homeowner at VTP since 1986

  2. Frank, an excellent article. I completely agree with all your points. As a long-time resident of Santa Monica, I have seen much change in our city. And, in my opinion and for the most part, it has been positive and has, among other things, resulted in a wonderful residential community in our downtown. A trend occurring in many urban communities throughout the country. Expo Line to nowhere? Where did that come from? When completed, it will connect to many other LA communities and bring workers in who now spend half their lives heading west and east on the I10 during rush hour. Loved your tanneries point. Keep it up.

    If people are tired of traffic, get on a bus or get a bike. I won’t stoop to addressing the claim of collusion by City staff. It is insulting and uncivilized.

    • The EXPO is not just the train TO nowhere, it is the train FROM nowhere.
      The Expo’s proposed stops do not come close to providing transport for the demographic of Santa Monica workers you seem to think it does. Nor will it provide Santa Monicans with access to downtown LA.

      • That’s odd since it ends at 7th and Fig and connects to other light rail that can take you out of downtown or to Union Station with downtown stops along the way. My two offices were each a block from a red line station and I really wish the Expo line had been running a year ago.

  3. Thanks so much for pre-digesting what is complex and constantly evolving. No longer do landlords get most of the mistrust and vile resentment at SMRR steering committee meetings. Now its developers and city staff. Where does more housing come from if not from the efforts of developers and staff, under the direction of city council?

  4. There’s another more valid reason why SMRR candidates have consolidated their control over Santa Monica, that you failed to mention, Frank. The fact that you neglected to mention the alliance between development, city employees and SMRR, that never existed until SMRR swiched sides. The electorate was ignorant of this alliance in then last election and easily duped. The assumptions you are making won’t hold in the 2014 election as residents are awakening from their complacency as the impact of current development is being felt.

    I find myself more and more suspicious of Mr. Grubers motives in writing these pro-development blogs. Could it have anything to do with his failing to get the SMRR endorsement in the last election, so he is jumping on the pro-development bandwagon to increase his chances of getting more endorsements in the next election?

    Most people who work in this community don’t vote here, and in any case the primary concern of workers, visitors and residents is the impact that all the construction has had on the traffic chaos and parking crunch. The damage that has already been done is beyond the pale. The city council is more interested in increasing revenue from as many sources as possible. More parking structures bring in much more revenue as density increase. The council has also approved higher parking fees and parking tickets, which are also a huge revenue stream, especially as the meters malfunction.

    I wish Mr. Gruber would write an objective blog on the real powers that rule this city. I wish he would investigate how many SMRR members work for the city and are benefiting from the increased revenue stream? I wish he would identify which SMRR members hold upper management positions in the city and in local non-profit public service agencies? I wish he investigate which current and past city council members have dipped in to the public till as consultants, grant holders, etc.?

  5. VTP is a “poster child” for what is wrong in SM.
    One need only ride through Santa Monica to see the vast amounts of construction taking place: expensive apartments, a light rail system (which I dup EXPO–the train to nowhere), condos and other projects which have little or no value to “normal” residents. While the VPT permit taken on its own may be an overreaction from its critics, I do not think these people are too far off the mark when we look at the Big Picture.

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