The local vote: preliminary post-mortem

Shell-shocked after the presidential vote, I’ve been slow putting my thoughts together on the local election. In fact, when analyzing local elections it’s a good idea to wait a few weeks until the final results are certified. The results rarely change (except occasionally in a close City Council race, as Ted Winterer will ruefully acknowledge), but until all the absentee and provisional ballots are counted, one can’t speak about important matters like total turnout, or how different neighborhoods voted.

But in the meantime I can make a few points.

The defeat of Measure LV. Again, the final numbers aren’t in, but it looks like LV, the “Land Use Voter Empowerment Initiative,” performed the same as its predecessor anti-development initiative, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT) did in 2008. RIFT got 44% of the votes cast on it, and right now LV is also at 44%. RIFT got about 36% of all votes cast—we won’t know that number for LV until we have the final returns.

While there are Santa Monicans who want no more development, and many residents who will vote yes on anything that promises to do something about traffic (and in a certain sense who can blame them?), there is a solid majority that does not want to plan by ballot box and/or will not arbitrarily restrict future development based on arguments about traffic or community character.

The vote was consistent not only with RIFT, but also with past votes to allow the development of affordable housing (in 1999) and to adopt the 1994 Civic Center plan. The last time a measure aimed against development passed in Santa Monica was the 1990 vote on Michael McCarty’s beach hotel. In the meantime, despite opposition from some elements of the anti-development side, Santa Monica voters have passed many bond issues and taxes, including this year’s Measures GS and V.

They want to manage change intelligently, but most Santa Monicans are not afraid of it.

The LV side has already blamed their loss on the big money spent against LV. But the 2014 vote on the competing airport measures showed that massive expenditures do not persuade Santa Monica voters. The aviation industry spent almost a million dollars, outspending the anti-airport, pro-park campaign by about six-to-one, but still lost overwhelmingly.

Santa Monica voters are sophisticated. Once they have enough information to make up their minds (which takes a campaign because most residents don’t pay attention to local politics), they make up those minds. The anti-development side can’t have it both ways – they can’t claim repeatedly and vehemently that only they represent the residents, and then consistently lose elections. Not, in any case, without implying that residents are ignorant dupes.

Perhaps Residocracy and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City will take these results to heart and start describing themselves as speaking for “many” residents, which is powerful enough. I doubt it. Speaking for others is a hard habit to break. One might also hope that they would stop describing people who disagree with them as corrupt, but what was startling in this campaign was how viciously the LV’ers attacked opponents who had long been slow(er)-growth standard-bearers. All of a sudden stalwart controllers of growth like Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer were the tools of developers, on the take. I tip my hat to them for taking the abuse; I hope that they are aware that they were only getting in the back what opponents of the no-change mindset get thrown in their faces everyday.

As for the City Council election, it was no surprise that the four incumbents won easily. The shocker was that Terry O’Day came in first. I assumed that since he was the only incumbent running without the endorsement of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), he would be the trailing winner. In my recollection, neither Bob Holbrook nor Herb Katz, the council’s longtime non-SMRR members, ever finished first. O’Day also voted for the Hines project. He came in first nonetheless.

This year SMRR didn’t endorse O’Day and two years ago SMRR didn’t endorse Pam O’Connor. Both were elected. But for elevating the development issue above all other issues affecting Santa Monica, SMRR would now be in a situation where all seven members of the council owed their election to SMRR, or believed they did. Instead, now SMRR is back to where it was when Holbrook and Katz were the two independents.

I’ll have more when all the votes are counted.

Thanks for reading.

 

SMRR to members: go away

At the Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) convention on Sunday a friend asked me if it was more fun attending the convention now as a regular member than as a candidate, referring to the fact that at the 2012 and 2014 conventions I was running for city council and going crazy trying to get endorsed. I said, no, it was a lot of fun being a candidate. The only thing I didn’t like about running for office was losing.

Which means that as a recovering candidate I have sympathy and good wishes for anyone who runs for office, especially for local office where there’s not a whole lot of power or glory that comes with winning. (Donald Trump being the exception that proves the rule—since with him, it’s all about power and glory, and therefore no sympathy from me!) So good luck to all the candidates—you’ll all need it.

As for the convention, I wrote last year about how SMRR was afflicted with “founders’ syndrome,” and nothing that happened Sunday indicated that the organization was getting over it. In fact, there were some obvious symptoms, beginning with the SMRR leadership’s mad desire not to allow the membership to decide whether to support or oppose Residocracy’s LUVE initiative.

What happened was that SMRR co-founder and Co-Chair Dennis Zane, running the meeting, allowed Residocracy’s Armen Melkonians the opportunity to begin the meeting with a motion for SMRR to endorse LUVE. Melkonians made an impassioned speech in favor of LUVE, and it looked like we might vote on his motion, but then Zane pulled the always-golden “substitute motion” parliamentary maneuver. Under Robert’s Rules, anyone can make a substitute motion and preempt whatever is going on. In this case the substitute motion was a “compromise” that Zane and other SMRR leaders wanted, namely a motion not to support LUVE combined with a promise to write a less extreme voter approval measure for a future election, said promise meant to be an olive branch to the neighborhood associations and other anti-development factions of Santa Monica politics.

Melkonians looked stunned when he realized that notwithstanding Zane’s giving him a featured speaking slot to extoll LUVE, Zane wouldn’t allow a vote on it. For what it’s worth, I agreed with Melkonians, and voted against the substitute motion. There should have been a straightforward vote (or votes) of the membership to decide whether SMRR should support, oppose, or take no position on, the most significant local measure that will be on the ballot this year.

The other obvious symptom of founders’ syndrome was a panic attack that SMRR Co-Chair Patricia Hoffman had when it appeared that her favorite candidate running for City Council, Planning Commissioner Jennifer Kennedy, would lose a third ballot for an endorsement to incumbent Terry O’Day. Hoffman, in support of a motion to dispense with the third ballot, exploded when telling the membership that she wanted to leave the slot open so that the Steering Committee could endorse Kennedy.

As it happened, Hoffman’s fears were unnecessary, as Kennedy survived the third ballot when members who had supported Melkonians (who hadn’t qualified for the third ballot) switched to her, but the whole episode had already turned ugly when the crowd booed the ham-fisted attempt to take away their vote. Now the Steering Committee is free to endorse Kennedy, as it did in 2014 after Kennedy came in fifth in the membership voting.

Speaking of 2014, the biggest difference in Sunday’s convention from the one in 2014 was that in 2014 more than twice as many members attended. At the 2014 convention, 451 members voted in the first round for City Council, while this year the number was 198. I haven’t figured out why attendance cratered. Candidates begging their supporters to attend is what drives attendance at the convention, but for reasons unknown the candidates this year took a laid-back attitude.

While most political organizations want more members, I suspect that SMRR leadership feels good about the decline in membership. Why? Because what motivates their fear of the members making decisions is that ever since SMRR, in the ’80s, became a membership organization various groups have mobilized their members to join SMRR and vote en masse for their candidates and their candidates only. This “bullet voting” has often prevented SMRR from making endorsements at the convention (none were made in 2014). With fewer members (and well-respected incumbents), this wasn’t a problem this year: three council candidates, and full slates of candidates for school and college boards, received endorsements on first ballots.

SMRR leadership has an idealized view that members should be “pure” SMRR and not associated with other groups, but that’s unrealistic and not consistent with American democracy going back to the Federalist Papers or de Toqueville. Americans like to organize themselves. In his introductory remarks convening the convention Zane recalled that before it was a membership organization, SMRR was a “coalition.” Memo to Zane: it still is, and that’s a good thing because people organize around current issues, and that organizing is what can keep an organization like SMRR relevant.

Problems occur when leadership plays favorites. Reflecting their own age-appropriate views as well as their fear of losing elections, SMRR leaders typically favor the anti-development factions in SMRR, even when these anti’s overtly scorn SMRR’s legacy of achievement and good and progressive government. At the convention, the only candidate who spoke negatively about government in Santa Monica, which has been dominated by SMRR for decades, was Melkonians. Yet rather than allow a clean vote on LUVE, which would have repudiated LUVE and Residocracy, the leadership came up with its compromise measure to appease the extreme anti-development group. It serves the SMRR leaders right that their attempt to appease seems, based on what’s been reported in the press (“SMRR “Non-Support” on Slow-Growth Ballot Measure Prompts Anger Among Backers“), to have increased Residocracy’s anger at SMRR.

Memo to Patricia Hoffman: the Residocracy folks aren’t going to vote for Jennifer Kennedy no matter what SMRR does, not when they can bullet vote for Melkonians.

Meanwhile, progressive elements in Santa Monica politics and in the SMRR coalition, including union workers and young advocates for housing and the environment, get short shrift bordering on disrespect from SMRR leadership. Progressive groups around the country are doing everything they can to attract young and diverse new members, for the next generation of leadership, but when these folks show up at SMRR, SMRR leaders seem annoyed more than anything else.

“Get off my lawn!”

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.

Sic transit transit center

Well, the other shoe dropped on the Paper Mate site. Hines sold the property and now the old factory’s 200,000 square feet will become offices, with another level of parking being excavated under the existing parking lots.

Turns out that the paranoia of City Council Members Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis was warranted. During the signature gathering on the Residocracy petition they warned, in an op-ed for the Daily Press, that the alternative to the plan the City Council passed was not a better version of the plan, but a repurposing of the existing building as offices, which would mean thousands of car trips, no traffic mitigations, and none of the $32 million in community benefits that were included in the Hines plan.

I’m waiting to see how long it will take for someone to accuse the developers of being greedy because they aren’t building, across from the Bergamot Expo station, plazas, streets, sidewalks, etc., accessible to the public.

Not to mention the nearly 500 units of housing we’re not getting—housing that a lot of people who work in Santa Monica could use, housing that would keep them off the streets, so to speak, during commuting hours. But housing was not a plus for many people who opposed the project, and that explains why they’re happy with the new plan.

If the paranoia of O’Day and Davis turned out to be prescient, Council Member, now Mayor, Kevin McKeown turned out to be not so good in the prediction department. In an op-ed he wrote for the Daily Press, headlined “Calling for more housing from Hines,” he said that fears that Hines would “walk away” from the deal were unfounded; that “[s]uch a walk away hasn’t happened in decades in Santa Monica.” Give McKeown his due; he’s not backing down now that Hines did walk away. Last week he told Santa Monica Next that, “[t]his project [the new one], even as adaptive reuse, will disappoint many of us, but the original Hines proposal failed in even more massive (and likely more permanent) ways to make appropriate use of a challenging site.”

I hope Mayor McKeown is right about the new plan being less permanent, but I doubt it. The “Pen Factory,” as the development is being marketed, will be around for a long time. Not only because it will take a while to amortize the considerable investment in the remodel (notably for underground parking), but also because once the offices are up and running and paying some of the highest rents in the region, the likelihood that an owner would shut the place down for the several years it would take to build a new project is slim. Expect that the Pen Factory will be there for 20 or 30 years at a minimum.

But McKeown was right that the Hines plan should have had more housing and less offices. I’ve been saying that since before the City Council approved the LUCE, which enabled the Hines plan, in 2010. The plan was flawed, and it may sound like blaming the victim, but I blame Hines as much as I blame anyone else for the plan crashing and burning. The Residocracy folks can’t help themselves, they’re going to oppose development no matter what, but Hines had a choice. Hines was warned as far back as 2010, by its friends, that if it added more commercial space and commuter traffic to the corner of 26th and Olympic, it was going to be in trouble.

Hines could have pulled its own chestnuts out of the fire. During the Planning Commission debate over the plan, Commissioner Richard McKinnon, with then-commissioner Sue Himmelrich’s support, proposed a reasonable alternative with less office and more housing. At City Council, Ted Winterer proposed much the same thing, and Tony Vazquez agreed with him. If Hines, at the commission or even at the council, had jumped up and grabbed this offer, the plan could have been approved at the City Council on a 6-1, rather than 4-3, vote.

That could have had a huge impact, because I doubt that Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) would have joined Residocracy to oppose a plan that had had that much support among the SMRR-endorsed council members. Residocracy without SMRR might have been able to gather the signatures, but they wouldn’t have had much credibility looking ahead to November.

But then . . . maybe Hines didn’t care. The local Hines people put their heads, hearts and souls into the project, for six years, but headquarters back in Dallas probably figured they could find a willing buyer at a good price if the whole thing became just too complicated. Investors can’t wait forever. And Hines did follow the LUCE development standards, and they reduced their original project by 20 percent, so they legitimately thought they were playing fair. After the referendum, they had the right to feel that they’d never get a fair chance.

So, just how bad is the new project for Santa Monica? Pretty bad. But I’ll discuss how bad in a future post.

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.

 

When history repeats as farce it’s not always funny

“If the slow-growth movement … has been explicitly a protest against the urbanization of suburbia, it is implicitly—in the long tradition of Los Angeles homeowner politics—a reassertion of social privilege.” —Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990).

In an attempt to remind myself of the historical context behind the anti-development politics I’ve been writing about, I went back and reread the famous 60-page chapter, called “Homegrown Revolution,” that Mike Davis wrote in City of Quartz 25 years ago about the homeowner movements of the ’70s and ’80s. Davis, if you haven’t read the book, takes no prisoners. He’s equally rough on Anglo homeowners, enriched by the rapid increase in property values of the late ’70s, who banded together to enact Prop. 13 and keep apartments (and not incidentally minorities) out of their neighborhoods, and the Growth Machine developers and their kept politicians whom the would-be “sunbelt Bolsheviks” so feared.

At a certain point Davis refers to Karl Marx’s essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” to make the point that for all their fervor, and with the notable exception of the Prop. 13 campaign, the slow-growthers were usually disorganized, like the peasants whose potential for revolution Marx dismissed. Reading this reference 25 years later I found a retrospective irony. Notwithstanding what Marx said about the peasants the most famous line in Eighteenth Brumaire is the one where he, in comparing the Emperor Napoleon and this nephew Napoleon III (Louis Bonaparte), says that history repeats itself, “the first as tragedy, then as farce.” When you compare the issues that provoked anti-development activists in the ’70s with those that fuel anti-development fires today, farce is what comes to mind.

So many people newly involved in anti-development politics in Santa Monica, and I’m thinking of many in Residocracy and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, act as if they’ve discovered things that no one else knew about. Did you know that traffic is congested and that developers want to make money? What a shock!

I hate to play the old baby boomer card, but we’ve been through this before. There’s a reason that freeways don’t cut up the Santa Monica Mountains, and that was because in the ’60s Marvin Braude and others formed the Hillside Federation to stop them. There are reasons that downtown Santa Monica doesn’t look like downtown Glendale, that there are only two apartment towers on the beach in Ocean Park, and that thousands of apartments have been saved from destruction, and that’s because when Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) took power in 1981, Santa Monica became, as described by William Fulton, another great chronicler of L.A. (in The Reluctant Metropolis), the first city to confront the Southern California Growth Machine.

SMRR arose because of a real crisis, not something ginned up. The reason analysts label today’s regional housing crisis as the worst in decades is because the crisis of the late ’70s was even more dramatic. L.A. housing prices, which early in the decade were slightly lower than the national average, increased 30 to 40 percent a year, and rents exploded, too. Oh, and by the way, people complained about traffic back then, too. Locally developers had big plans to turn industrial areas into office parks, as had happened on Ocean Park Boulevard with the Douglas Aircraft site, creating many more jobs per acre, which would mean more commuters. And let’s not forget other serious problems, like homelessness and gang violence, and decaying infrastructure.

Not everything worked out—there was the matter of the approval in the ’80s of twice the office square footage predicted in Santa Monica’s 1984 land use plan—but the worst damage was averted and there were many positive achievements. I’m tempted to say that there were giants in those days, but in any case movements against genuine ills create big ideas and powerful language. The tragedy comes when those ideas and words are applied to more trivial circumstances. Then they become farcical.

That’s not to say we don’t have problems today, they’re just not the ones complainers in Santa Monica complain about. They’re still acting as if Santa Monica is a “Leave It to Beaver” suburb, when in fact it’s part of the central core of a megalopolis. Longtime residents (the only ones who are supposed to have standing to complain) have a lot to be thankful for—high property values and low, Prop. 13 taxes if they are homeowners, rent-controlled rents if they are renters, convenient access to whatever services they need, shorter commutes than average. What drives them crazy is traffic, but traffic is bad all over, it’s been bad for a long time, and it’s not necessarily getting worse. The reality today is not about how to preserve a suburb, even an industrial suburb like Santa Monica once was, but about how to make a city work.

Here’s a fact to chew on from the Housing Element of Santa Monica’s General Plan: in 2013 82.8% of all housing in the city was more than 30 years old—built before 1983. The development that the anti-development crowd should actually be complaining about took place in the era they have the most nostalgia for. But if nearly 30,000 units (of 50,000 total today) hadn’t been built in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, most Santa Monicans wouldn’t have a place to live.

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.

Following some money

The headline in the Lookout for the article about the final financial reports for the 2014 City Council election was “Himmelrich Spent $160,000 of Her Own Money to Win Santa Monica Council Seat,” but even though $160,000 was a record for self-financing a City Council campaign here, I was less interested in how much money Susan Himmelrich spent to win election and more interested in how she spent some of it.

What the article did not report was that Himmelrich paid nearly $30,000 to Dennis Zane and to PZ Associates, an entity that Zane formed. Here’s the breakdown: Himmelrich paid Zane $15,000 for political consulting, plus $4,475 for office expenses, including one flat $3,000 payment. She paid PZ $9,255 partly for consulting services and partly in a category called “campaign paraphernalia/misc.” (PZ is known for running door-to-door campaigns.)

These payments are not out of line for these kinds of services. Why am I focusing on them? For one reason: the payments were breaches of Zane’s fiduciary duty to Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR). As a member of the SMRR Steering Committee, Zane was guilty of self-dealing, by taking money from a candidate seeking the SMRR endorsement. Self-dealing cannot be made good by disclosure or recusal (not that Zane in fact recused himself).

The SMRR endorsement is crucial to getting elected, especially for anti-development candidates, as no candidate for City Council running on an anti-development platform has ever been elected without the SMRR endorsement. As a follow up to my post in January where I wrote about how Himmelrich finally got the endorsement from the Steering Committee (in a deal where Himmelrich got the committee votes she needed in return for her supporters voting to endorse Andrew Walzer for College Board), I can report that I received a message from Walzer the next day defending the “trade off in voting for [him] and Sue.” Apparently, according to Walzer, it was “complicated,” which naturally made me feel better about it. But in case you had doubts, it did happen.

I’m not the only one still taking a look back at the election, although not everyone has the same motivations. The Santa Monica Democratic Club (SMDC) had a panel discussion last week about it. I didn’t go, but according to the Lookout, the gist of the meeting was that the election of the anti-development Himmelrich had, in the words of SMRR Co-Chair Patricia Hoffman, “‘flipped the balance of power on the City Council.’”

Apparently, though, the struggle continues. Hoffman went on to say 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.’”

“Even better.” Given that all seven city council members were elected at least initially with the SMRR endorsement, I guess Hoffman is saying that the old SMRR, the one that based its progressive politics on issues beyond blocking development, is history. And I expect that if the Steering Committee, given its demographics, continues to make the endorsements, the old SMRR will be history.

That’s right, let’s throw out all those bums we supported before who care about housing for all, including the middle-class, and good union jobs and city and social services and childcare and public transportation, etc. You know the ones who understand that Santa Monica is not an island. They’re not sufficiently deferential to our new friends in the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City and Residocracy.

* * *

Given the record-breaking $160,000 Himmelrich spent on her campaign, one might wonder why her husband, Housing Commissioner Michael Soloff, had to make campaign contributions, each of $10,000, to SMRR and the SMDC. Why didn’t Himmelrich make the contributions herself? The reason is based on campaign finance law: SMRR and SMDC were running independent campaigns on Himmelrich’s behalf, and because there is a contribution limit for City Council races, the campaigns could not coordinate with Himmelrich. Otherwise, contributions an individual or company might make to SMRR and the SMDC could be counted against the contributor’s limit. Giving money to an independent campaign is a form of coordination, and so Himmelrich couldn’t write the checks. Both she and Soloff are attorneys, and so one expects that they did legal research (but separately, not coordinated!) to satisfy themselves that it’s not coordination if the money comes from a spouse. But let’s face it—even if it’s legal, it’s a dodge. I wonder if the Santa Monica Transparency Project will investigate?

There’s another aspect to this. The old SMRR prided itself on a policy of rarely accepting individual contributions that were more than the limit for council races, which is now $325. The new SMRR not only accepted Soloff’s $10,000, but also $10,000 from the Huntley Hotel, the primary bankroller of anti-development campaigns in the city. Back in July, before the SMRR convention where she’d be seeking the SMRR endorsement, Himmelrich herself gave $1,000. There is no law limiting the amount of contributions to SMRR, and the limit was voluntary, but the limit was once a point of pride. So much for that.

* * *

One footnote: the Lookout piece I quote from above about campaign expenditures got the numbers for my campaign wrong. The article said that I contributed $20,000 and my total campaign expenditure was $75,000, but those numbers are incomplete. The reason the reporter was mistaken is that my campaign accountant had us wrap up our finances in 2015, and the final numbers are in a statement for the period Jan. 1-5 that we filed a few weeks ago. The complete numbers are that I contributed $36,920.90 to my campaign and the total expenditure was $96,128.90. I understand the Lookout will be running a correction, but I wanted the record to be correct.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

SMRR: Founder’s syndrome and even bigger problems

In Tuesday’s post I tried to chronicle how it came to be that for the first time Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) endorsed an all anti-development slate. I say “chronicle” because I focused on the chronology and drew my conclusions from the facts and circumstances. But frankly, I was looking at the trees, not the forest.

The important question is not whether Susan Himmelrich got the third endorsement because of a deal with the supporters of Andrew Walzer or because of nine hours Himmelrich spent charming Bruria Finkel. More important is the overall context. How could the leaders of SMRR make their decisions with no sense of accountability to the diverse membership of SMRR?

There’s a concept, or a malady, called “founder’s syndrome,” a/k/a “founderitis,” that is well known in the world of nonprofit organizations. There are many definitions for this, but the basic idea is that the founders of an organization, who are, after all, usually responsible or an organization’s success, tend to consider the organization their own, or an extension of themselves, and as a result come to believe that they can do whatever they want, even when the organization has outgrown their living rooms.

Thirty-five years after SMRR’s founding, a core group of founders and other leaders from early on still run the organization. Frankly, they don’t feel like they owe anyone anything, whether it’s members who want to read the bylaws for themselves, members who disagree with the leadership, or even longtime SMRR leaders like Maria Loya, who had been on the Steering Committee for nine years but was nonetheless dumped unceremoniously when the committee voted to endorse Walzer six weeks before the election.

I can’t sum up “founder’s syndrome” better than the quote SMRR Co-Chair Patricia Hoffman gave to the Daily Press after the Steering Committee endorsed Walzer against her fellow committee member: “Of course it’s a little bit awkward but when we weighed what our opportunities were, they tilted in favor of [Walzer].”

File that in the “this hurts me more than it hurts you” department. Forget about Loya—you have to sympathize with the Steering Committee and how awkward they felt!

But founderitis in SMRR maxed out in the collective obliviousness to the impropriety of allowing Steering Committee members Denny Zane and Roger Thornton to make money from a candidate. The most valuable asset SMRR has is its endorsements. That asset needs to be protected. There can’t be the slightest suggestion that endorsements can be bought. Now there’s a lot more than a suggestion.

Any organization operating under generally recognized standards of good governance will have a clear, written set of rules about conflict of interests that would prohibit board members from such blatant violations of their fiduciary duties. The same thing goes for other conflicting financial interests, some of which involve gray areas, and not all of which are defined in the law. Steering Committee member Linda Sullivan works for the College yet voted on the endorsements for College board; is that okay? Not everything is clear-cut, and it’s a challenge to draw lines, but there’s no evidence that in 35 years the SMRR leadership has done anything to articulate clearly and in writing what’s okay and what’s not.

Why? Because they’re running the organization like it belongs to them. I’m sure that if members of the SMRR leadership are reading this, most of them still don’t understand how any of this could be a problem. For them it’s still 1979 and they’re out on the barricades. All for one and one for all. Stick it to the man.

Which is sad.

SMRR is a great organization. It struck me during the campaign that I was the candidate, perhaps with the exception of Pam O’Connor, who, after all, was the mayor, who most defended the current state of government in Santa Monica and, at least by implication, the accomplishments of the past 35 years, which were mostly due to SMRR. (Turned out not to be such a great strategy, but what the hell.)

SMRR has major structural problems that go beyond founder’s syndrome. By trying to be a commendably open, grassroots, membership organization, it’s left itself open to manipulation by outside groups and—perhaps worse than that—paralysis. Hundreds of new members signed up (and were signed up) to vote at last summer’s convention. This should have been great for SMRR, a real shot in the arm, a source of volunteers and future leaders. But the result was the opposite. Because of factionalism and bullet voting, no candidate for City Council received even a simple majority of votes, let alone the 55% required for an endorsement. Then there was the fiasco when Hoffman declared that there wouldn’t be a third ballot for the City Council endorsement, kicking the decision to the Steering Committee. Many members left the convention bitter and disaffected, and more became so after the Steering Committee made its endorsements.

I don’t know how to solve all those problems, but I know where to start.

Start with the basics of good governance: organizational transparency and clarity. Publish the bylaws. Publish minutes of Steering Committee meetings—including meetings of the Executive Committee. Create written standards for conflicts of interests, and written procedures for dealing with those conflicts. If, as it appears will be the case, the Steering Committee is regularly going to be making endorsement decisions, establish and publish clear procedures for that, too, including deadlines and timetables that candidates can rely on.

I’m sure the founders of SMRR hope the organization will be around 35 years from now. They will have to live rather long to know if that happens, but they can take actions now to make SMRR’s continued success more likely.

Next installment: Negative campaigning doesn’t work in Santa Monica. (That’s the good news.)

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.