Santa Monica in 2018: Are All Politics Still Local?

(Note: I haven’t written here about Santa Monica politics since my last blog last summer on the Downtown Community Plan, but I was invited to give a 20-minute talk to the Santa Monica Rotary International Club about the current state of politics here. I gave the talk last Friday, March 23. What appears below is a slightly edited version of my remarks to the Rotary. Much like the travelogues I wrote in the fall about my trips to Norway and Spain, my opinions about the current state of Santa Monica are illustrated—mostly with headlines, to prove to the Rotarians that what I was talking about truly happened.)

Greetings and thanks for inviting to share my thoughts about Santa Monica.

To review my credentials, I’m a former columnist, sometime blogger about Santa Monica, and twice-defeated candidate for City Council. Losing makes me, of course, an expert to talk about Santa Monica politics and issues. In fact, you’ll find during my talk today that losing city council election or two here is a basic qualification for anyone who think he knows how to make Santa Monica government better.

I’m going to start with an update on the development wars. Local governments in California have more control over land use that they have over most issues, and therefore it’s no surprise that development has often been the most contentious issue in local politics, especially in affluent communities where government otherwise does a good job delivering services. Santa Monica has been no exception.

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The most recent wave of anti-development activism crested in 2014 with the defeat of plans to redevelop the Paper Mate factory site. This came after a then new anti-development group, Residocracy, had gathered signatures to put the City Council’s narrow approval of the redevelopment plan on the ballot, and the Council revoked its approval rather than have the plan go to a popular vote.

Flush with that victory, Residocracy again gathered signatures, and put a restrictive development measure, Measure LV, on the ballot in 2016. The anti-development wave then, however, hit a seawall when Measure LV lost decisively.

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It shouldn’t have been a surprise that LV lost, given that a similar measure in 2008, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic,” (“RIFT”), had also lost.

What the votes on both initiatives showed is that that while there is a large minority of Santa Monica voters who are motivated by the anti-development message—a bit less than 40 percent of all voters who show up at the polls—those voters are, nonetheless, a minority. It’s telling that no city council candidate running on an anti-development platform has ever won election on his or her own, meaning without an endorsement from Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the most powerful political group in the city.

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In fact, what we’ve seen in the past two elections is that if SMRR withdraws its support from an incumbent it previously endorsed because SMRR’s anti-development wing sees the incumbent as too friendly to development, the incumbent — Pam O’Connor in 2014 and Terry O’Day in 2016 — nevertheless wins reelection. Meaning that following the views of SMRR’s anti-development wing has cost SMRR two seats on the City Council. It used to be that O’Connor and O’Day owed their election to SMRR; now they don’t.

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Getting beyond the politics of development and into the substance of development decision-making, the 13-year process—I have called it “Santa Monica’s long municipal nightmare” —to update the City’s land-use plans finally climaxed in 2017 with passage of the Downtown Community Plan, the “DCP.” We can at least hope that the DCP is the final major plan to come out of the process that started in 2004 with the update to the City’s General Plan. That process was supposed to take two years but took six. Then it took another five years to pass a zoning ordinance to implement the General Plan, then another couple of years for the DCP. Thirteen years—kind of amazing when you think that the plans themselves are supposed to guide the City’s development for only about 20 years. Not to mention that with the defeat of the Paper Mate project, which was the key project for redeveloping the old industrial properties near Bergamot Station, the most important parts of the General Plan update, which focused on the industrial zone, are now irrelevant. We may as well start over now, but the idea of another 13 years is frightening.

The DCP itself was an uneasy compromise. Pro-housing activists did in certain contexts get the theoretical possibility of more development, but by a 4-3 vote the council included financial burdens that developers say as a practical matter will prevent new construction.

In the context of the state and regional housing crisis, which has put on the spot anti-development politicians, especially who those consider themselves to be progressive, the council members who voted to impose the burdens on developers agreed to revisit the plan if it didn’t result in housing being built.

This has led to a de facto truce while people wait and see.

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In that regard, three hotel projects in downtown, including this one designed by Frank Gehry, are coming back with plans that conform to the DCP; but there is always discretion, and we’ll see if they get approved.

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At the moment there is considerable apartment construction going on under the old standards — this photograph shows the groundbreaking for an affordable housing apartment building on Lincoln that was financed by the developer of a market-rate project — but it’s still an open question whether anyone will build under the requirements of the new zoning ordinance and the DCP. So — stay tuned.

Going beyond the development wars, Santa Monica has a lot of purely political news recently.

For one thing, we’re seeing something that has not been much of an issue in Santa Monica for a long time, perhaps not since the days when Raymond Chandler channeled Santa Monica into his crime novels as the corrupt “Bay City.” I’m talking about political corruption, alleged, possible, and real.

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One set of possible cases of malfeasance have been significant enough to garner coverage in the L.A. Times, not to mention investigations by the District Attorney, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (the FPPC), and the School Board. The allegations involve the Santa Monica power couple of City Council Member Tony Vazquez and his wife, School Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez. While it’s been well known that Tony Vazquez has made his living as a political consultant and lobbyist, it was always assumed that he was careful enough to keep his day job out of Santa Monica. Well, it turned out that companies that he lobbied for to get school contracts applied for work in Santa Monica, and he at least neglected to tell his wife, the School Board member, so that she would recuse herself from voting on those matters, which she didn’t do.

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From there the investigation snowballed to include another school board member, and allegations of unreported income and gifts. It’s all being investigated now, so, again—stay tuned.

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Then there have been violations of the Oaks Initiative, a law the voters passed about 15 years ago that prevents public officials from benefiting from people or companies who received contracts or other benefits from the City while the official is in office. It’s like a retrospective, rearview mirror bribery law, and the law is complicated because it’s hard to keep track of who received benefits and the time frame for the restrictions. In the past few years the law has ensnared a couple of Council Members, Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day, who received campaign contributions from disqualified contributors.

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But the most drastic impact of the Oaks Initiative was not on a politician, but on Santa Monica’s former City Manager, Rod Gould. After retiring from the City Gould accepted a job with a company that the City had hired while he was in City Hall, and Gould really paid a price for that. He was sued by the Santa Monica Transparency Project, a watchdog group that pays particular attention to the Oaks Initiative. Gould, saying he didn’t have the resources to fight the suit, settled the litigation by quitting his job and paying the Transparency Project $20,000 to cover their costs.

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The most manifestly illegal and corrupt political shenanigans, however, came from the Huntley Hotel, which sits on Second Street across from the Fairmont Miramar. The Huntley opposes the Miramar’s plans to rebuild and in 2012 the Huntley poured money into an extensive campaign to stop the Miramar project. Parts of the plan involved making illegal campaign contributions to City Council candidates and organizing and funding a fake grassroots residents group. It turns out that the FPPC was investigating, albeit slowly, and last year the FPPC hit the Huntley with penalties of more than $300,000: the second largest fine in the history of the FPPC. The Huntley’s scheme also involved the prominent law firm of Latham & Watkins as well as a former Santa Monica Malibu School Board member, Nimish Patel, who had his then law firm conceal illegal political contributions made by the Huntley. The FPPC fined Patel’s law firm $10,000, the maximum fine available to the agency.

I hate to say it, but from the Huntley’s perspective, the money, including the fine, was well spent. It’s six years later, and the Miramar has yet to get a rebuilding plan approved. The Huntley’s financing, organizing and energizing of the campaign against the Miramar revitalized the anti-development movement in Santa Monica, which, after the 2008 defeat of the RIFT initiative, had been relatively quiescent. The 2010 General Plan update had been approved by all the council members, including those from the anti-development side, and even the backers of RIFT generally accepted it. The plan update was the basis for the Paper Mate plan that Residocracy defeated in 2012, after the Huntley had fanned the flames over the Miramar plan.

Meanwhile, although it may seem like nothing ever changes in Santa Monica politics, two major changes to how Santa Monica chooses its elected officials are in the works. I’m referring to district elections and term limits.

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As for district elections, School Board member Oscar de la Torre has sued the City under the California Voting Rights Act saying that the City’s at large elections violate the voting rights of minorities, who, because of historical segregation, live predominantly in the Pico Neighborhood. (By the way, like me De la Torre has been a losing candidate for City Council.)

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Then this year activists from the Santa Monica Transparency Project—yes, the same group that sued Rod Gould over the Oaks Initiative—began a signature gathering campaign to put a term limits initiative on the ballot.

When it comes to these efforts to change the City Charter, I’m torn. Usually I’m in favor of district voting, so long as there isn’t gerrymandering, not only because it can diversify who is elected, but also because it’s easier for candidates to run in smaller districts. I usually oppose term limits, since in general I believe that anyone should have the right to run for office, and voters are better served by having more choices, not fewer. Also, as we saw was the impact of term limits on the California legislature, term limits can result in too much turnover, giving us legislators who lack experience and knowledge about how to govern.

So those are my usual positions. But as I said, I’m torn, because in Santa Monica the fact is that incumbents can stay on the council for as long as they want. This is not a one side or the other side issue: council members of all political persuasions have remained on the council term after term. So I’m thinking about term limits in a more positive way than usual, although I haven’t made up my mind.

But what about district elections? As I said, I usually favor districts, but I’m not sure we need them in Santa Monica. Why? Because those same council members who get elected over and over are so paranoid about not being reelected, that they try to please anyone who votes, and that includes, for all of them, residents of the Pico Neighborhood. In that sense, the neighborhood is well represented. And, if you include the school board and the college board along with the council, we have a good record of electing minorities. As a result, I don’t see the logic for the lawsuit, although if districting comes, it would make it less expensive and easier for new candidates to run, which would be a good thing in and of itself.

Now that there is, at least for a time, less of a political focus on development, what are the issues, more or less real, that face our community?

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How about crime? Rising crime is the issue that Residocracy and its leader, Armen Melkonians (also like me a two-time loser when running for City Council), are trying to use now to gain political power given that development didn’t work. Reported crime, particularly property crime, is up in Santa Monica over the past few years, and there have been some particularly violent crimes, including a murder and a home invasion, in normally low-crime, upscale neighborhoods that have people in those neighborhoods rattled.

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However, by historical standards, even with the uptick crime rates are down in Santa Monica. But the historical levels were quite high: I’m speaking as one whose homes have been burglarized twice. Yet I for one don’t sense that people are fearful as they move about the city, not as fearful as the cities I lived in before coming to Santa Monica, namely Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. But maybe I’m missing something, and I don’t live in the Pico Neighborhood, where there has been gang violence going back decades. Significantly, however, gang violence has considerably decreased over the past four or five years, although in the past year or so there have been several shootings, including one murder, that have the hallmarks of gang violence although the victims are not necessarily gang members.

Let me make an aside here, which possibly ties local politics into national politics. Why is it that a political group that wants to gain power finds that it needs to focus on grievance? Residocracy is explicit that it’s looking for an issue that will motivate voters to vote based on fear. Yet by all measure, Santa Monica is a wonderful place to live — something the leaders of Residocracy will admit, given that they say they are trying to preserve Santa Monica the way it is. Let’s face it, the politics of fear and anger pervade our society, at all levels and, let me make this clear, all sides of every argument use the politics of fear, instead of promoting themselves on the basis of, dare I say it, hope and faith in the future.

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In any case, as for crime, the City has hired a new police chief, who was known to have reduced crime her previous job, in Folsom, and so stay tuned on that as well.

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Another issue is transit. In a certain sense, with the opening of the Expo line and its great success, this should be the new golden age of public transportation in Santa Monica. Those tens of thousands of Expo riders must mean that more people than ever are using transit in the city. However, those riders don’t count when the Big Blue Bus is tabulating its ridership, and that ridership is down.

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This is a regional issue, as the same thing is happening with Metro bus service, but I can’t help being annoyed still whenever I see Santa Monica’ artsy bus shelters (if you can call them that), one of which you can see in this picture. Whenever I see them, which is all the time, I’m reminded that one of our council members, when voting for this design, said it was more important for the bus shelter design to be creative and—quote—whimsical than utilitarian. If you want people to ride the bus, you have to treat them like customers.

Another big issue is the future of Santa Monica Airport.

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The City and FAA entered into an agreement a year ago to close the airport in 2029. This timetable disappointed many opponents of the airport, including many like myself who want to turn the land into a big park, especially because if previous agreements with the FAA had been written less ambiguously, the City could have closed the airport in 2015. But as a settlement of confused litigation the deal made sense.

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And because the agreement allowed the City to shorten the runway, jet traffic has been drastically reduced—down about 80% from a year ago.

And another 12 acres have been opened up to park expansion. Because the City has taken over leasing at the airport, the City is making a lot of money from rents that will pay for some park construction and ultimately operating costs for the big park.

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But let’s face it, the big issue confronting Santa Monica as well as the rest of the region is homelessness, and that’s not getting better.

The title of this talk includes the question whether, as the immortal Tip O’Neil once said, all politics are still local. There’s no question that with homelessness you finally get the answer, which is — yes and no. Yes, because the attitudes of most voters are still made up most of all with how they see their own daily reality. But no, because those realities, whether they are homeless people living on the streets of Santa Monica, or abandoned factories in the Midwest, are products of decisions beyond the purview of any particular local government.

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Homelessness, which not only is a moral disgrace but also costs the City of Santa Monica millions in direct and indirect costs each year, is the product of a statewide housing crisis, state and national policies on treatment of, and funding for, the mentally ill, a catastrophic national policy on drugs, and other forces beyond the purview or pay grade of Santa Monica’s elected officials and staff.

Yet, the lack of ultimate power to effect change does not diminish our responsibility as citizens to continue to seek change. We need to solve the homeless crisis, or risk failing as a society.

Thanks for reading.

Local politics: disconnected

I spend too much time on Facebook, but I have learned a few things there. One is that there’s a disconnect between local politics and the other kind.

On Facebook there’s a daily conversation among a few hundred avid followers of and participants in Santa Monica politics. In the ocean of Santa Monica voters, we Facebook posters (and lurkers) are only a few fish, but the volume of the stream of consciousness can approach the flow of a river and the decibels of a waterfall.

The discussions can become, or even start out, heated. But what’s funny is that when it comes to national politics—namely, the presidential election—nearly all the Santa Monicans violently “commenting” at each other about the City Council, or Measure LV, or any other local thing, find themselves in agreement that electing Donald Trump would presage the apocalypse.

I might read a post from a Residocracy member that drives me crazy, but if I click on another link I might find out that this same person just posted a video about why Hillary Clinton should be president. This doesn’t mean that all Residocracy members or other supporters of Measure LV are liberals like me, as some of them don’t support affordable housing and from some of their posts one can detect various reactionary or libertarian views. Nor, by the way, are all opponents of LV liberals—it’s not surprising that there are  property or business owners, who oppose LV, who are conservative.

What one often notices from the pro-LV posts is an attempt to fit LV into a liberal, progressive ideology. Many LV supporters are convinced that stopping the building of market rate apartments will keep housing prices down. Their logic seems to be that because developers can charge high rents for the new units the rents on the new units will increase the average cost of housing in Santa Monica. That logic is convoluted, but okay, it’s a logic.

Then there is the greed of developers. There are times I’m on Facebook and I wonder if I’ve traveled back in time, to a Depression-era Leninist study group. Most pro-LV arguments ultimately devolve into calls to arms against those archetypal capitalists, real estate developers. It’s all about how obscene their profits are, or how high their rents are, ignoring the fact that they can charge high rents and make so much money because of the housing shortage restrictive zoning has created. (And anyone who opposes LV must be on the developer take.)

Hey, we live in a capitalist society. That’s how we assemble the capital it takes to build nearly all the housing in this country. Everyone in Santa Monica lives on a lot that was subdivided by a developer to make money, and most live in buildings built by them for the same purpose. (In Santa Monica many (but not all) of those who complain bitterly about the greed of housing developers also have opposed tax measures the City has put on the ballot to create public funding for housing, such as H and HH in 2014 and GS and GSH on this year’s ballot. Meaning that they are against both capitalist and socialist models of getting needed housing built. But then we also have residents who insist that they favor more housing, but who also insist that studio and one-bedroom apartments are too small and condominiums are too big. The privilege of the housed?)

I don’t doubt the liberalism of these anti-development Santa Monicans. The reason I don’t is that one can sense the anguish they feel when they are confronted with evidence that progressive opinion favors infill development in existing cities, like Santa Monica, to create livable, attractive cities that retain and attract investment that would otherwise go to sprawl. I.e., favors what LV opposes. There’s big cognitive dissonance when people who consider themselves progressive, especially Baby Boomers who were on the barricades in the ’60s, hear over and over that they are on the wrong side of history when they demonize urban development. On Facebook, you can practically hear the gnashing of teeth.

The progressive arguments favoring cities against sprawl began as a reaction against the negative consequences of suburban development. The Sierra Club, for instance, first adopted policies favoring infill development 30 years ago. Around the same time movements like New Urbanism and Smart Growth began to preach an anti-sprawl gospel that celebrated traditional urban neighborhoods. Like the proverbial ocean liner, the course of urban policies took a long time to correct, but the speed in the direction of good city building and away from sprawl is accelerating.

Our president, Barack Obama, has always favored urban investment as opposed to suburban development. Back in February 2009, shortly after taking office, he told an audience in Florida that, “[t]he days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over.” Many of the President’s policies during his eight years in office have supported better urbanism, and last month his administration published a “Housing Development Toolkit” that combined explanations of many progressive urban policies in one document.

From a Santa Monica perspective, the toolkit reads like a manifesto against Measure LV and the “build it somewhere else” culture of restrictive zoning that spawned LV, with quotes that eerily describe the situation on the Westside in general and in Santa Monica in particular:

Local policies acting as barriers to housing supply include land use restrictions that make developable land much more costly than it is inherently, zoning restrictions, off-street parking requirements, arbitrary or antiquated preservation regulations, residential conversion restrictions, and unnecessarily slow permitting processes. The accumulation of these barriers has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand.

While the housing market recovery has meant growing home values . . . barriers to development concentrate these gains among existing homeowners, pushing the costs of ownership out of reach for too many first-time buyers.

Space constrained cities can achieve similar gains [in housing], however, by building up with infill, reducing the eyesores of empty lots and vacant or rundown buildings that go undeveloped in highly constrained regulatory environments.

Unsurprisingly, many cities with the highest local barriers [to building housing] have seen increases in homelessness in recent years, while nationwide homelessness has been sharply in decline.

The fact that liberals and progressives who support LV and similar anti-development policies are at odds with current liberal and progressive policies doesn’t mean that one should not be skeptical about those policies. One should always be skeptical; today’s pro-urban policies exist only because of skepticism about policies that were once considered progressive and had government support, such as urban renewal, modernist public housing blocks, and conventional suburban development.

Those policies created new problems, and those problems required new thinking. But to be progressive one has to believe in progress. You can’t be progressive if you favor nostalgia and fear change. But progress is conservative in that it must be based on trial and error, i.e., learning from one’s mistakes. Today’s progressive urban policies weren’t created from thin air. They arose from analyzing the mistakes of generations past, such as modernist planning (urban renewal, freeways, etc.) or conventional suburban development.

We can’t predict the future, but we can avoid making the same mistakes that previous generations made. One of those mistakes was building sprawl instead of investing in our cities.

Thanks for reading.

When the sky isn’t falling

I’ve been mulling over an article I read in the Daily Press a couple of weeks ago. The article was about how the owner of Cars with Class, the classic car dealership in a storefront in the 1100 block of Wilshire, feared that he would have to close his business because the property had sold for $16 million, and he expected his rent would be raised to beyond what he could afford.

There are quite a few businesses I frequent near Cars with Class and I have often walked by and admired the merchandise—beautiful cars. If Grant Woods, the owner, does lose his lease, I’ll be sorry—not only for him, but also because Santa Monica will lose an interesting storefront.

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The showroom at Cars with Class

To be honest, though, it’s not worrying about Cars with Class that has kept me thinking about the article. Instead, there is a quote from Mr. Woods at the end of the piece that I found curious. Speaking to the reporter, Mr. Woods connects the possibility of losing his lease to the recent closure of another store in the area, J & T European Gourmet Food. J & T was famous for its Polish sausages and other meats and imported foods, and I often was a customer. I heartily agree with something Mr. Woods said, namely that “there are going to be a lot of people who miss it.”

But then Mr. Woods said something that was, as I said, curious. He said, “That’s the changing demographics we face.”

Changing demographics. Hmmm. What I found curious was, does anyone believe that the demographics of the customers at Cars with Class were the same as those of the customers of J & T? I’ve been in J & T a lot, and I don’t recall too many customers who looked like they were going to cross the street to buy a vintage Corvette or Jaguar.

This isn’t to say that the demographics of Santa Monica aren’t changing. They are. (In fact, the more people try to keep Santa Monica physically the same, the more its demographics change, but that’s a topic for another blog.)

But Mr. Woods’ explanation for why J & T moved and why he might have to move—“changing demographics”—exemplified a typical reaction these days to change no matter how routine. Maybe this has always been the case, but today it seems that everyone wants to explain every “micro” change, such as a business losing its lease, by placing it in the context of big, “macro” changes, like “demographics.” Call it creeping generalization leading to panic.

It’s like Chicken Little has become our national bird.

Businesses go out of business every day. The stretch of Wilshire from Lincoln to say, 17th Street, has dozens of bustling businesses of all kinds. The other businesses in J & T’s old building are still there. Put it another way: shouldn’t we expect that some properties are going to turn over each year?

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The building where J & T used to be; in the store third from the left.

There are other examples, too, in Santa Monica these days. Take the use of the Ellis Act to evict rent-controlled tenants. Every year some property owners use the Ellis Act to get out of the apartment-renting business. To some people concerned about gentrification, this has created a crisis. But is that the case?

First, let’s be clear—whether it’s a tenant losing an apartment today or a homeowner being foreclosed upon in 2008, it’s terrible to be displaced. It’s also unfortunate in a place like Santa Monica to lose old housing stock, which is typically in the form of fairly dense apartments, and for it to be replaced by either fewer units or even single-family homes. None of this is good, and we need policies that don’t make evictions easy and that provide evicted tenants with generous assistance with relocation, etc. We also need to build more apartments that displaced tenants can move to.

But in our society, where nearly all housing is privately owned, it’s not realistic that turnover can be stopped entirely. According to the most recent Housing Element of the City’s general plan Santa Monica in 2010 had 39,127 multi-family residential units, most of which were built before 1980. They are an unbelievably valuable housing resource, home to most of Santa Monica’s population, representing generations of investment by thousands of property owners, all of whom have their own financial goals and make their own decisions to achieve them. The tenants of 27,542 apartments are protected by rent control, yes, but most Santa Monica apartments were built with “sticks and stucco.” Is it realistic to believe that none will be replaced over time or in any given year?

Are we in an Ellis crisis? Again, that’s what some people say, but Ellis activity is down, way down. Here’s a graph from the Rent Control Board’s most recent (2015) annual report, showing Ellis activity from 1986 to 2015:

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The graph shows that other than the recession years of the mid-’90s, and one year (2010) that reflected the Great Recession, we are at an all-time low in Ellis activity. Fewer than 50 units in each of the past four years, out of nearly 28,000 rent-controlled units, have been removed under Ellis (and almost as many units previously Ellised were returned to rent-controlled status). All this at a time of booming investment in the building of apartments: the only conclusion to draw is that the City’s policies have successfully tamed Ellising (and steered real estate investment to commercial zones), but that, yes, no policy can be 100 percent effective.

This “sky is falling” syndrome has even infected Rick Cole, Santa Monica’s cool and calm City Manager. Recently, after some bad traffic days mostly associated with Pier Concerts and the street grid needing to “learn” to accommodate more pedestrians because of the success of the Expo line (i.e., good things), Mr. Cole wrote a blog about downtown Santa Monica traffic that was like a full-blown panic attack: “Our streets are jammed.” “We finally hit the tipping point.”

Come on. The tipping point to what? At least since the ’50s on big beach days Santa Monica has been jammed.

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Beach parking in July 1955; courtesy Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

Ours is the most accessible beach for more people than the population of Pennsylvania. That beach defines who we are, who we have always been, and who we will be forever. I appreciate that City Manager Cole may have wanted to use his blog to list all the creative things the City is doing to deal with transportation, but our beautiful sky is where it’s always been.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica and the Great L.A. Late 20th Century Transfiguration

For my last post I reread parts of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz to give me some perspective on what’s going on today in Santa Monica with anti-development politics. As perceptive as Davis was, however, it was also interesting to see, in hindsight, what he missed. For all of Davis’ insights, City of Quartz missed the biggest story of the time, which was the massive immigration that was changing the region.

Immigration hardly comes up in City of Quartz, but the year the book was published, 1990, was the highpoint of a demographic wave that started in the early ’70s, accelerated in the ’80s, and then subsided in the ’90s. In 1970 about 11% of L.A. County’s then seven million residents were foreign born; by 2000 the figure was 36% and the county’s population had increased to 9.5 million. Today, still about 36% of county residents are foreign born, but also about 21% of county residents have at least one foreign-born parent. This means that well over half of county residents are directly tied to what should be called the Great L.A. Late 20th Century Transfiguration. (These numbers come from the research of Dowell Myers and John Pitkin at USC.)

Often when you read accounts from the middle of the immigration era—even from activists who tried to remedy the multiple crises that massive demographic change caused, involving housing, jobs, schools, gangs, etc.—you get the sense that people were too close to the phenomenon to be able to perceive it. As if, for example, it should be surprising that things will get a bit chaotic if you drop millions of mostly impoverished and poorly educated immigrants (who don’t speak English for God’s sake!) into a place that wasn’t expecting them.

It didn’t have to be this way. A century ago it was the nightmare of the Lower Eastside and similar places that led to demands to reform and redesign cities, as well as massive investments in social services, infrastructure and education. But many here in southern California for different reasons wanted to act as if nothing unusual was happening. On one hand you had activists who acted as if it was a profound failing of government, capitalism, etc., that we suddenly had millions more poor people to house, employ and educate, and on the other you had conservatives who wanted to ignore the whole thing and who certainly didn’t want to spend any money to deal with the situation.

The region survived the immigration wave, and may even prosper because of the work force it left behind, but the wave left us with two crucial social issues. One is a housing crisis for not only the working class, but also the true middle class. The other is low wages for working people—a crisis made more acute by the housing crisis. The native-born children of the immigrants of the ’70s and ’80s, along with other Millennials, are now adults and working, making their way forward, but even those making good money can’t find places to live. For a while the regional solution was to send them out into the sprawl, to the Inland Empire, etc., but that model blew up in the Great Recession. Now, like everyone else, they want to live near their jobs and not go into unsustainable debt to do so.

So how does this relate to Santa Monica, which, of course, is still overwhelmingly Anglo and native-born? Flash back to 1979 when young activists in SMRR joined with elderly renters, many with radical backgrounds from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, to save them from eviction when in Housing Crisis I rents skyrocketed and there was huge pressure to tear down apartments to build condos and offices. This coalition brought progressive government to Santa Monica. The sad fact is that today, however, many of those same SMRR activists, now grown old themselves, instead of harking back to their youthful radicalism and idealism to join with today’s young activists to build housing for the next generation, have joined with their age and economic cohort of (some, by no means all) boomer homeowners to keep young people from moving into Santa Monica.

It’s particularly ironic because the anti-housers today use rhetoric like that which homeowners back then used against renters when renters awoke from their slumber and got involved in local politics. Yes, why should we allow the building of apartments for young “transients” without “roots” in the community? You wonder if people today who use “preserving community character” to block the building of apartments know anything about how that phrase has been so identified in the past with racial and ethnic exclusion. (Thankfully, I don’t believe they do.)

Thanks for reading.

 

Back to what I do better

Now where was I? Oh yeah, back in July I wrote my last post on this blog, a manifesto on why I was running for Santa Monica City Council, and then something happened called a campaign. I spent four months expressing myself as a politician not as a pundit.

My political self terminated, abruptly, November 4, when I lost, and since then I’ve been taking it easy. (One could say I’ve been licking my wounds and I wouldn’t argue the point.) Anyway, there’s life after politics. I hope I’m better at punditry.

As always Santa Monica provides a lot to write about, and I’ll start with the election. The most important vote was the landslide victory of LC and defeat of D, which removes the most significant local impediments to closing the airport and building a big park there.

But enough happy talk. I can’t help but write about the election for City Council even if, as a candidate who lost, I’m unlikely to be objective about it. But my observer self is fascinated by the election, especially since the results were so different from those of two years ago—at least when viewed through the lens of the development politics that have pushed all other issues to the side.

How different? In 2012 there were four winning candidates (Ted Winterer, Terry O’Day, Gleam Davis and Tony Vazquez). If you take them and add the runner-up (Shari Davis), only one of the top five candidates (Winterer) ran with the support of the anti-development side of Santa Monica politics. In 2014 there were three winning candidates (Kevin McKeown, Susan Himmelrich and Pam O’Connor). If you take them and add the runner-up (Phil Brock) only one of the four top candidates (O’Connor) ran without the support of the anti-development side. (I came in fifth.)

In 2012 only one of four winners ran with anti-development support; in 2014 two of three winners did. That’s a big change, and the anti-development folks are claiming victory. I don’t argue the fact that they won, but has there been a seismic shift in the electorate—as they claim?

There are two explanations going around for the success of the anti-development candidates, one from each side. I don’t buy either.

The opponents of the anti-development side argue that the electorate in 2014 was more conservative and anti-development than usual because turnout was much lower. True, 47,945 Santa Monicans voted in 2012 and only 28,333 in 2014, but I don’t see how a larger turnout would have changed the results, except perhaps at the margins.

The anti-development side argues that in the aftermath of the controversy over the Hines project and the formation of Residocracy the electorate has become more focused on (and angry about) development, and better organized to vote for anti-development candidates. There is no question that development seems to be the only issue that anyone talks about these days, in part because the Hines project was the first large development that the City Council had approved in a long time, but I’m skeptical that this indicates anything meaningful about a long-term trend. There has been plenty of anti-development agitation going back 30 years and the success of anti-development candidates has always ebbed and flowed.

So what do I believe happened between 2012 and 2014?

I’m of the “the more things change, the more they remain the same” school, and I suspect that the results in 2012 and 2014 reflected two constants of Santa Monica politics, namely the power of incumbency and the power of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR).

The victory in 2014 of then-Mayor O’Connor illustrated the power of incumbency, as she won notwithstanding vicious and well-financed attacks against her. (The other incumbent, McKeown, won easily.) Incumbency was also significant in 2012 when incumbents O’Day and Davis, and former council member Vazquez, all won easily.

As for the power of SMRR, nothing illustrated it more than the victory of newcomer Himmelrich in 2014. Himmelrich defied conventional wisdom and showed that a first-time candidate could win—with the SMRR endorsement. But beyond Himmelrich’s victory, there was also the fact that Jennifer Kennedy, who ran little of a campaign other than by way of her SMRR endorsement, and who had no other significant organizational endorsements, finished a strong sixth.

The SMRR brand is by far the strongest in Santa Monica, but it’s especially important for anyone running as an anti-development candidate. Since SMRR ran its first candidates 35 years ago no candidate running as an anti-development candidate has won election to the Santa Monica City Council without SMRR’s endorsement. (Funny how anti-development organizations and activists rail against SMRR’s control over local politics when they wouldn’t have any power but for that control—but that’s another story.)

The most reasonable explanation for the 2014 results is the most obvious one. “Follow the SMRR endorsements.” In all previous elections going back more than 30 years SMRR has endorsed candidates from both its anti-development and progressive, housing-and-services factions. In 2014, the anti-development victory, winning two out of three seats, happened because for the first time SMRR endorsed only anti-development candidates.

It wasn’t easy for SMRR to get there. Readers will recall that the original SMRR slate left an open slot, which the SMRR Steering Committee filled in a special meeting less than six weeks before the election with its endorsement of Himmelrich.

Why did SMRR go 100% anti-development in 2014? I’ll get into that question in my next post.

Thanks for reading. It’s good to be back. Happy New Year.

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.

Running Around

One reason I love living in Santa Monica is that it’s convenient. Traffic is often congested, but if you’ve got errands to do, you can put together a list and get a lot done efficiently. Santa Monica is also the home of fantastic stores and businesses, that are fun to shop at in any case. Yesterday I had a long list of errands, and I also wanted to drop my dad’s apartment and spend some time with him. I decided to keep a log and take photos along the route.

I left my house, on Beverly Avenue in Ocean Park, at 11:08. My first stop was going to be my dad’s – he lives in one of the “new” apartments built in downtown Santa Monica after the City liberalized zoning in the mid-’90s to encourage residential development downtown by allowing double the square footage of development for housing in what as a commercial zone. My parents moved here (from Philadelphia) in 2003. My mother died in 2007 and now my dad, at 92, lives there alone – he manages with help from his housekeeper Blanca Gonzales, who comes in every morning and makes him breakfast.

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Entrance to my dad’s apartment building on Sixth Street

Downtown Santa Monica is a great place to grow (or be) old in. My dad never had or needed a car here, since there’s a supermarket (Von’s) he can walk to, all kinds of services, the library, movie theaters, etc. Most of his doctors are near St. John’s, just a short bus ride up Santa Monica Boulevard. When I hear homeowners in Santa Monica, many of them boomers like me, or even older, protest against development of apartments and condos in Santa Monica, I wonder where they expect to live once they can’t drive; do they want to go straight from their house to the nursing home?

As much as I look forward to the Expo line arriving in Santa Monica, it’s made it harder for me to reach my dad’s place, which is on Sixth Street just north of Colorado Avenue. I used to drive (or bike) up Fourth Street and turn right on Colorado, but Colorado is now permanently one-way westbound on the block between Fourth and Fifth. To reach Dad’s Now I need either to take Fourth up to Broadway and then Broadway to Sixth, or take Lincoln to Colorado, which is what I did yesterday.

It took me eight minutes – which was slower than the four or five minutes it used to take, but when I arrived there at 11:16 I immediately found a parking place — in front of Ninjin, a little Japanese neighborhood “trattoria” on Colorado where Dad and I are regulars.

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My car parked in front of Ninjin, around the corner from my dad’s apartment.

I spent about 45 minutes at my dad’s. Every other Saturday Blanca is there with her friend Letty for four hours to do a thorough cleaning of his apartment and this was one of those Saturdays. He was just finishing breakfast and I had a cup of coffee and half a bagel with some slices of the gravlax he still makes. Here he is with Blanca and Letty:

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My dad, Blanca and Letty.

I got back in my car at 12:02 – my next destination was the Bank of America at Fourth and Arizona. I needed to use the ATM to deposit a check and get some cash. The Saturday traffic in downtown Santa Monica was starting to build up, especially on Colorado, but I headed up Fifth, took Santa Monica Boulevard to Fourth and I arrived there at 12:06. Four minutes of travel time.

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The Bank of America in downtown Santa Monica. This property is due to be redeveloped as part of the City’s big plans for the parcels it’s assembled on Arizona Avenue between Fourth and Fifth.

It took me six minutes to do my banking, and I was back in the car at 12:12. My next stop was Fisher Hardware at Colorado and Lincoln, where I needed to buy a new garden hose. I took Arizona to Seventh, Seventh to Colorado, and arrived at Fisher at 12:18. Six minutes of driving.

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My car in the Fisher parking lot.

I love hardware stores. I enjoyed myself wandering around looking for garden hoses, which turned out to be  displayed right near the entrance. I found the hose I wanted and also a long-neck outdoor floodlight that I needed. I spent nine minutes there and left at 12:27.

My next stop was the CVS on Lincoln just south of Santa Monica Boulevard, where I needed to pick up a prescription. From Fisher I took a left on Lincoln, drove up a few blocks, getting to CVS at 12:32 – five minutes.

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I had to wait in the prescription line, but I was only in CVS for eight minutes. I left at 12:40 and headed towards the 1100 block of Wilshire for the most fun part of my errands.

Between 10th and 15th, more or less from Santa Monica Seafood to Tehran Market, there are a great bunch of food shops on Wilshire, and I love to shop there. I found a parking spot near 12th Street and plunked a dollar in the meter for an hour of parking.

My first stop, however, wasn’t for food — it was at Elias Tailor Shop on 11th Street just south of Wilshire.

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You don’t find tailor shops like Elias in Anytown, U.S.A. Whenever we have a need for some sophisticated alterations, we go there. This time I had a jacket I’d purchased on a recent vacation, and I needed the sleeves shortened while keeping the cuffs. No problem for Elias. I dropped it off last week and yesterday I was there to pick it up.

After putting my jacket in the car, I was heading to two of my favorite stores in Santa Monica – two outposts of Eastern European cuisine, the Ukraina Delicatessen on the northeast corner of 12th and Wilshire, which, notwithstanding the name, specializes in everything Russian (particularly smoked fish!), and J & T European Gourmet Food and Deli, which has everything Polish, most famously sausages and smoked meats made on the premises.

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The Ukraina – note a couple of other great food places nearby, Beachy Cream and Callahan’s

I was shopping for Father’s Day brunch, and I was in the market for smoked fish. At Ukraina they have all kinds – salmon (in various forms), sturgeon, trout, a couple of fishes that apparently only have Russian names, mackerel, and wonderful herring (again in many forms). I bought various kinds, as well as some salami for my dad and some interesting ham for me. The Russian woman behind the counter plied me with samples and that may be the exception to the rule that there is no free lunch.

Then I crossed the street to J & T. I’d been there the week before and at home we were still working through the sausage I’d bought then, but I was looking to restock up on their smoked bacon. I bought half-pounds of two different types.

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In all I spent 45 minutes in Elias and the two deli’s. My next stop was across town – Trader Joe’s on Pico. I left at 1:30, headed down 11th to Olympic, took 20th to Pico, and got to TJ’s at 1:42 – twelve minutes driving.

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Trader Joe’s from — where else? — the parking lot.

I spent 15 minutes inside everyone’s favorite, “we-make-the-choices-for-you” grocery store – I only needed a few items. A few years ago, before the new store opened in West L.A., the store manager told me that this little store on Pico Boulevard was the second highest grossing Trader Joe’s west of the Mississippi. It’s always seemed to me that you could stand in the store and visualize mounds of food continuously entering from the back and flowing out past the cash registers.

My next stop – my last – was our cleaners in the mini-mall at Pico and Lincoln. I left TJ’s at 1:57 and arrived at the cleaners at 2:05 – eight minutes.

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I was five minutes dropping off and picking up laundry, back in my car at 2:10, and home at 2:13.

Whew. If you were keeping track, I was gone for three hours, five minutes, of which 50 minutes were spent driving. I made nine stops: my dad’s, the bank, Fisher Hardware, CVS, Elias, Ukraina, J&T, Trader Joe’s, and the cleaners.

You could look at my experience several ways. Probably someone is saying, “if traffic were better you wouldn’t have been in the car for 50 minutes.” Another person might say, “if you lived in the suburbs, you could have done most of this with one stop at the mall.”

But the way I look at it, only in a city could I have done all these things in this time frame – including visiting my elderly father (I live in a single-family house, and in most places in America, apartments like my dad’s don’t exist near single-family houses) and including finding shops like Fisher, Elias and the two delis. The traffic is part of the package, and you’re not going to find 20 types of Polish sausage at a mall.

Sure, 50 minutes is a lot of driving for what could only have been a few miles (next time I’ll track the odometer), but what I look at is how short the time was between the stops. (My cyclist friends are thinking that I should have been on my bike, but I don’t have a cargo cart!) My sister lives in the country and although there is no traffic congestion to speak of, it takes her 20 minutes just to get to a supermarket.

It would be great to reduce traffic congestion in Santa Monica, but in the meantime I’m going to enjoy the good things we have here.

Thanks for reading.