Housers, united by LUVE

So far I’ve avoided writing about Residocracy’s “Land Use Voter Empowerment Initiative” (LUVE), but now that the Santa Monica City Council will be discussing its merits in a few weeks (at the council’s July 12 meeting) I’ll stop avoiding the unavoidable.

What’s most interesting to me as a political observer is how Residocracy has, with LUVE, fractured the anti-development coalition that has been so successful over the years in setting the Santa Monica political agenda. This is most clearly evidenced by the fact that Council Members Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer, two of the most articulate voices skeptical of development in Santa Monica (and two of the city’s most popular politicians), are both strongly opposed to LUVE.

Both McKeown and Winterer were strong supporters of the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic” (RIFT), the measure that the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City put on the ballot in 2008. But LUVE is quite different from RIFT.

RIFT only limited commercial development, which put RIFT squarely in the mainstream of anti-development politics in Santa Monica going back to 1981 when Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) first took power in Santa Monica and the City became, to borrow from historian William Fulton (The Reluctant Metropolis), the first city to challenge the Los Angeles growth machine. In fact, there were many of us who opposed RIFT only because of its bringing ballot box government into the planning process, not because of its goal of reducing commercial (particularly office) development.

While it is true that during the ’80s SMRR-dominated city councils enacted laws making it harder to build housing (and that during that time little housing was built), paradoxically the purpose of the laws was to save housing. The idea was to preserve existing apartments by making it more difficult and less profitable to tear them down to build condominiums. When the City was sued on the basis that these impediments to building housing violated state law, and lost, the City’s response was brilliant: it maintained, even strengthened, the obstacles to building in residential districts, but satisfied state law by making it easier to build housing in commercial districts (particularly downtown).

I well remember in the mid-’90s, when the City Council was considering the new downtown zoning, listening, at a meeting of the Ocean Park Community Organization, to SMRR leader Dennis Zane try to persuade the late anti-development leader Laurel Roennau why it was good to build housing downtown. (The strategy of protecting neighborhoods by focusing development in commercial zones later became the organizing principle for the LUCE updates to Santa Monica’s general plan.)

Indeed, housing, particularly affordable housing, has always been central to SMRR’s agenda, and has always been popular with Santa Monica voters. When SMRR first challenged the growth machine in the ’80s, one of its goals was to require office developers to pay for affordable housing. In 1990 voters passed Measure R, which requires that 30% of the housing in the city be affordable to low and moderate income households. In 1999 Santa Monica became one of the few cities where a majority of voters approved the building of affordable housing.

The big battles over development since the ’80s have been about commercial development, not housing. There was the Civic Center Plan, which went to the ballot in 1994, and where most of the controversy concerned the expansion of RAND’s offices and RAND’s entitlement to build 250,000 square feet of spec offices. Then there was Target in 2001, a 100% commercial project. Now we have fights over hotels that are essentially commercial developments even though they include housing in the form of condos. Until Residocracy came along, there was little controversy (and that primarily about design issues) over the housing built in Santa Monica since the new zoning in the ’90s, nearly all of which was built downtown.

The recent Paper Mate battle is another case in point: the problem with the project was its adding hundreds of thousands of square feet of offices. At the council meeting where the project was approved, Ted Winterer made a motion to approve it if the developer turned another (the fourth) of the project’s five buildings into housing; Tony Vazquez seconded the motion. If the developer had jumped up and said Yes!, the outcome could have been different. The project might have passed on a 6-1 vote; if so, SMRR would have been less likely to have supported Residocracy’s referendum to overturn the approval. (The vote might even have been 7-0; although McKeown had not said that he would have accepted the total size of the project, he, along with other many other opponents of the project, such as Zane, had said emphatically that what he wanted at the site was housing, not more offices.)

The proponents of LUVE know that they have a problem politically with the housing issue. In their statements and writings in support, they deny that LUVE would prevent housing from being built, and claim that LUVE would protect existing housing. The measure itself is drafted to present the illusion that it supports housing development: it exempts from the 32-foot height limit 100% affordable housing projects (but only up to 50 units, and with the demise of redevelopment it’s almost impossible to build 100% affordable projects anyway), and 77 properties identified as suitable sites for housing in the City’s general plan (but only up to a floor-to-area ratio (FAR) of 2.5, which would likely mean that a landowner or developer would instead opt for a by-right commercial development flying under the 32-foot limit).

Given this history, it shouldn’t be surprising to see this break between Residocracy, whose leaders have made clear their belief that Santa Monica does not need more housing, and others who are skeptical about growth, but who nonetheless know that we need to house the next generation. They read the papers, and nearly everyday there’s an article about California’s housing crisis.

Although I often quote the Freud phrase, “the narcissism of small differences,” to explain how people largely in agreement can nonetheless have bitter disputes over the iota’s of their disagreements, it’s dismayed me that in Santa Monica people who largely share the same communal values nonetheless continually find themselves in noisy and acrimonious disputes when it comes to development. (And I’ll include myself.)

But as I said, it shouldn’t be surprising that “housers” in Santa Monica have largely united against LUVE. It’s like the Hillary/Bernie fight. At times bitter, but as Paul Begala said, “nothing unites the people of Earth like a threat from Mars.”

Thanks for reading.

SMRR: the more things don’t change, the more they remain the same

As a member of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) I attended last Sunday’s annual membership meeting during which 11 members of SMRR’s Steering Committee were elected. Since the meeting I have been puzzling over the question whether anything important happened.

On the nothing important happened side of the argument, the composition of the Steering Committee barely changed. If you look at the Steering Committee now and the committee that was elected two years ago, eight of the members are the same: Patricia Hoffman, Denny Zane, Sonya Sultan, Bruria Finkel, Linda Sullivan, Michael Tarbet, Roger Thornton, and Genise Schnitman.

The primary changes since then have been minor. Newcomer to Santa Monica politics Michael Soloff, husband of City Councilmember Sue Himmelrich, was originally added to fill a space vacated by Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein after he was elected to the School Board in 2014. At the meeting on Sunday, Soloff was elected to a full term. Jennifer Kennedy, longtime SMRR staffer, was also elected, in effect replacing SMRR co-founder Judy Abdo, who was voted off. The other change Sunday was that Jackie Martin, a member of UNITE Here Local 11, was elected to the Steering Committee, replacing Pico Neighborhood activist Maria Loya as the committee’s one non-Anglo.

Not much change. However you look at it, the same core group of 60s and 70s lefties (Hoffman, Zane, Sultan, Finkel, Sullivan, Tarbet and Thornton) are still going to run SMRR. Time flies, though, and now for these aging radicals “60s” and “70s” mean something additional. SMRR is a gerontocracy and seems to have no mechanisms to bring in new or younger leadership, other than to reward sycophancy.

(In contrast, the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China, the most powerful decision-making body in China, has a mandatory retirement age of 68. Because it’s hard to be elected to the Standing Committee before one turns 50, this acts as a de facto term limit. The Chinese do this because they’ve had bad experiences when power is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals over long periods of time.)

Though the changes to the Steering Committee were minor, at the meeting it didn’t feel like nothing happened. Just the opposite. A lot of this had to do with the build-up: the venerable leadership of SMRR went crazy at the idea that Abdo, who had incautiously invoked the SMRR brand when she campaigned for Pam O’Connor and me in the 2014 election, might be reelected to the Steering Committee, or that Leslie Lambert, a former Rent Board member and affordable housing activist from way back, might be elected.

The leadership spent SMRR money to whip up turnout. (A paid canvasser even came to my door.) Co-Chairs Patricia Hoffman and Denny Zane used the SMRR newsletter to warn SMRR members that “groups that support luxury hotels, market rate housing and bigger development in Santa Monica [were] organizing, hoping to elect a pro-development SMRR Steering Committee. We need SMRR members to turn out and turn back this challenge.” At Sunday’s meeting, a flyer from Zane and other members of SMRR leadership told members to vote for a “Slow Growth & Renters’ Rights” slate that included all the candidates except Abdo and Lambert.

It was never explained how Abdo and Lambert could constitute a pro-development Steering Committee.

It was also odd that in their piece in the newsletter Hoffman and Zane blamed shadowy pro-development groups for causing the failure of the membership at SMRR’s 2014 convention to endorse any City Council candidates. This and previous failures of the members to endorse were the result of bullet-voting, which is a genuine problem for SMRR.

But at the 2014 convention, there was no group organized by developers telling people to bullet vote. Perhaps Hoffman and Zane were referring to UNITE Here, the hotel workers union, which does support the building of hotels, but the union’s 50 or so members at the convention voted for both Kevin McKeown and me. Since McKeown and I received more votes than the other candidates, and since we represent opposite sides of the development issue, it’s hard to say that the union’s votes prevented anyone from getting the endorsement.

In fact, as anyone knows who has been going to SMRR conventions in recent years, the groups that have tried most to manipulate the endorsement process through bullet voting are the anti-development groups, particularly the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC). At the 2012 convention, SMCLC bullet votes first got Ted Winterer the endorsement. Then SMCLC voters switched to Gleam Davis; Davis got the endorsement and then no one else did, since SMCLC didn’t want SMRR to endorse Terry O’Day, Tony Vazquez, Shari Davis or me.

As for the 2014 convention, afterwards I was told, by Patricia Hoffman and others (to explain to me why McKeown deserved the SMRR endorsement but I didn’t), that the reason Kevin McKeown didn’t get the 55% needed for the endorsement was because SMCLC members had had a strange strategy to bullet vote for Richard McKinnon.

But to get back to Sunday, the meeting also seemed like something momentous happened because it was just plain sad that Judy Abdo’s old comrades cut her loose from the organization she helped found so many years ago when she was a community activist working in Ocean Park. And the exclusion of Lambert seemed like a brutal rejection of the old progressive wing of SMRR that supported reasonable development to support social services.

So maybe the meeting was important.

Or was it?

While the votes were being counted Sunday, Mayor Kevin McKeown gave a speech recounting what had happened in the city over the past year. Aside from a gratuitous hit or two at old foes, it was a good speech. McKeown fairly summarized what had happened over the past year and what the issues were and are.

Along the way McKeown pointed out that the council had recently approved two housing projects, mixing market rate and deed-restricted affordable apartments. McKeown made the case very well that both kinds of housing were needed in Santa Monica. For one thing, if our children graduating from Samohi come back with college educations, and want to live here, they’re going to need housing and they’re not going to qualify for affordable housing.

McKeown also pointed out that the City finally had a new zoning law. The new law has standards for what developers can build without entering into development agreements, which are now out of favor. McKeown didn’t make the obvious point, but developers are going to fit their proposals into these standards, to avoid development agreements, and these projects, like the two apartment buildings McKeown spoke about, will be built.

This will, of course, infuriate the folks who believe they elected councilmembers like McKeown, Himmelrich and Ted Winterer (in part by getting them SMRR endorsements) for the purpose of stopping development. If the SMRR leadership believes these folks will be satisfied with the election of a “Slow Growth & Renters’ Rights” slate to the Steering Committee, they are mistaken. You already see this with the Residocracy LUVE initiative.

So, in the end, nothing happened.

Thanks for reading.

Housing the next generation: whose side are you on?

Let’s see, a few days ago I was complaining about how the leadership of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) is, by allying SMRR with anti-development groups like Residocracy and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, turning the organization into something closer to a typical homeowner protection association than a cutting edge progressive organization. In that connection there was something else that struck me when, as reported in the Lookout, SMRR Co-Chair Patricia Hoffman told the Santa Monica Democratic Club that “‘[w]e have a lot more work to do . . . . If we can work together and spend the next few years selecting candidates, that, I think, can make our City Council even better.’”

Note that Co-Chair Hoffman says selecting candidates. Not electing them, but selecting them. It reminded me of the (in)famous Boss Tweed line, “I don’t care who does the electing, as long as I get to do the nominating.” Well, the people who got to do the nominating in the 2014 election were Hoffman and a handful of her co-generationalists on the Steering Committee.

So what did Hoffman mean? Make the council “even better” by replacing progressives like Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis with candidates, like Susan Himmelrich, co-endorsed by anti-development groups? The Steering Committee’s endorsement of Himmelrich meant that for the first time SMRR endorsed a slate of candidates who were all running on anti-development platforms.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Hoffman and her colleagues have allied SMRR with anti-development organizations. They were all on the barricades in the ’60s, but we all get older. Should we expect them to care about housing or jobs for anyone who has the misfortune of being young in an era when government cares much more about the old? (From all of this calumny I exclude one Steering Committee member, former mayor Judy Abdo, who still believes in the future and stays forever young in part by living with a rotating cast of under-30 housemates. It probably doesn’t hurt that she spent a career in early childhood development.)

Let’s be clear: to be anti-development today in Santa Monica (assuming you’re not delusional) is to be anti-housing because hardly anything new but housing, and only a modicum of that, has been built in Santa Monica for 20 years, and nearly all the developments in the planning pipeline are residential (and not in existing neighborhoods). For two decades there’s been little commercial development, and a lot of what there has been is ground-floor retail in apartment projects. The idea that Santa Monica has seen a lot of recent development is, as Mayor Kevin McKeown himself has recently written, rhetoric. The facts, as McKeown has been reminding people, show a city that for more than two decades has controlled development quite effectively. (Which means, by the way, that if you believe traffic has got worse and you want to do something about it, you’d better look elsewhere than controlling development, because that doesn’t work.)

This isn’t about affordable housing. The Steering Committee members are for affordable housing, I know that. Hoffman herself is a long time board member of Community Corporation of Santa Monica, and they all supported H and HH. There are, however, people in Santa Monica who advocate for increased affordable housing requirements only to thwart the building of market-rate housing (which ultimately means less affordable housing, too). This is not a unique phenomenon: there are also people, many of the same people in fact, who support living wages for hotel workers only to thwart hotel development, and people who support historic preservation only to thwart the building of anything new.

SMRR is allying itself with people who are never in favor of building housing. It’s remarkable how eclectic they can be. Equally bad are single units for young tech workers and SMC students, spacious condominiums that hotels want to build for rich people, or family apartments that CCSM wants to build for poor people; biggish projects like 500 Broadway or small projects like 802 Ashland; or any other kind of housing you can think of. For the anti-housers, it’s not that the perfect is the enemy of the good, but that when it comes to building something for people to live in, whatever it is is never good enough.

The regional housing crisis, the worst in decades, one that includes skyrocketing rents in Santa Monica that put pressure on tenants in rent-controlled apartments, is only partially a crisis about affordability. Fundamentally it’s a crisis of supply at all price levels. The huge Millennial generation coming up doesn’t primarily need affordable housing—they need alternatives to moving to the Inland Empire.

Another commendable thing that Mayor McKeown has been doing for a while is to remind people that we need to provide housing for those who graduate each year from Samohi if we expect any of them to live here. But not many of those graduates will qualify for affordable housing, in part because they are graduating from a good school, with the vast majority of them going on to college, and because there are so many good jobs in Santa Monica that they can come back to. It is, by the way, good news that they won’t qualify for affordable housing, but it means that we’re going to have to rely on the market, i.e., developers, to build homes for them and their future families. And those homes won’t be single-family, detached houses, because there’s no land for that.

So—whose side will SMRR be on?

Thanks for reading.

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.