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.”
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.