New Santa Monica City Council members Caroline Torosis and Jesse Zwick were among several prominent faces seated in small folding chairs inside a Grant Elementary classroom Sunday afternoon.

Santa Monica for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) elected two new members to its steering committee at its annual SMRR Convention. Every two years, the organization elects or re-elects members to its Steering Committee. Ellis Raskin — who was appointed last year — and Kay Ambriz were newly elected to the committee, while the nine members who had been elected to serve on the previous Steering Committee were reelected.

Having existed since the late 1970s when rent control first passed, Santa Monica for Renters’ Rights has advocated for rent control and has worked towards increasing and improving access to affordable housing ever since. They have run a “Tenant Hotline” since 1992, where renters can call and leave messages with questions and concerns for SMRR volunteers to assist with. The group has also been a leader in the push for a more progressive Santa Monica on a number of other fronts, including worker pay and protections, and environmental sustainability. 

The steering committee essentially serves as the head of the organization, being elected by members and making decisions. During the election held at this Sunday meeting, each nominee was given two minutes to give a speech to appeal to voters seated in the audience.

The room was full of former and current serving members of Santa Monica’s City Council, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District School Board, and Santa Monica College Board alongside rank-and-file members. Among them was former Santa Monica Mayor Tony Vazquez, who was able to move up to the state level and currently serves on the Board of Equalization.

Ellis Raskin came up short in Santa Monica’s City Council election last November, but he is still serving as the vice chair of the Santa Monica Planning Commission and works as an environmental attorney. In his speech, Raskin said it was important to continue to fight to make Santa Monica a place where renters can live. 

“If it was not for rent control, we wouldn’t be here, like many people wouldn’t be here if it were not for rent control,” Raskin told the audience. 

He also mentioned that he visited the Delfina Hotel and advocated for more to be done to protect hotel workers.

“I know folks who are commuting from three hours away, folks who are spending as much as 60 percent of their income on rent or even more,” he said. “It’s unsustainable, so we need leaders who will stand up and fight for just action for renters.”

Kay Ambriz was recently elected to the Social Services Commission, but much of her previous background makes her more than qualified to assist in decision-making for SMRR. She previously interned at the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES) and the Eviction Defense Collaborative in San Francisco and has a law degree from UC Hastings Law School in San Francisco. 

“I would like to use my education and diverse background to advocate for the issues that are important to all of us,” Ambriz told SMRR members.

While only nine members were serving on the committee during the previous year, the bylaws of the organization allow for 11 steering committee members, exactly the number of nominees for steering committee positions.

A formal vote was not needed, as one member made a motion to simply elect all the nominees by acclamation, which was unanimously approved by the members in attendance.

Co-founders of SMRR Denny Zane and Michael Soloff remain co-chairs of the steering committee, and the remainder of the returning committee members are as follows:

  • Maria Cortes
  • Patricia Hoffman
  • Jennifer Kennedy
  • Cristina Navarro
  • Linda Sullivan
  • Sonya Sultan
  • Michael Tarbet

Following the elections, updates to several policy issues relevant to the progressive organization — including the strike that Raskin mentioned — were provided by members of several organization

Barrington Plaza case to move forward in 2024

Coalition for Economic Survival founder Larry Gross was one of several people who came to speak on a case outside of Santa Monica but still close to the heart of SMRR’s mission and unfolding closer than expected.

The battle for Barrington Plaza — an apartment complex in Brentwood at 11740 Wilshire Boulevard— wages on in court, but progress will not really start until next year, according to Gross. Landlord Douglas Emmett is looking to evict residents from all 712 units of the complex — which is the third largest in Los Angeles — to install fire sprinklers after a series of fires at the building.

It would be the largest eviction in the city since the 1959 Chavez Ravine eviction, and Gross argues it would set a dangerous precedent for landlords across the county to follow. With the help of CES, tenants filed a lawsuit fighting the eviction. They argue the law which Douglas Emmett is using to exempt itself from rent control ordinances to evict these tenants — the Ellis Act — is being misused because it requires a landlord to exit the rental business entirely.

The suit argues that Douglas Emmett is simply renovating the building to reopen the units at market rate, which would be in violation of the spirit of the Ellis Act. It was conceived as a way to allow smaller, non-corporate landlords to exit the rental market while minimizing damages, and Gross believes this would be a blatant and consequential misuse of the Act.

“If Douglas Emmett gets away with this it threatens not just Barrington Plaza, not just the city of Los Angeles, not just Santa Monica, but the entire state of California,” Gross said. “It will put a hole in the Ellis Act that you could drive a [truck] through.”

Gross said that the case has been moved to court in Santa Monica and will be happening sometime in 2024, saying “We think around February.” Additionally, he shared that residents are still in their units while an Unlawful Detainer suit — essentially an eviction court case — moves through court. Gross said he expects it to be heard in January.

He also noted the support that SMRR showed at demonstrations at Douglas Emmett’s headquarters and the courthouse in Downtown Los Angeles where the case was originally heard and said that several tenant leaders came to speak on the matter in part to express their appreciation.

“This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Gross said, “So we have to keep fighting.”

SMRR endorses potential repeal of Costa-Hawkins on 2024 ballot

Next on the agenda was an update on the Justice for Renters Act, a measure that would effectively repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act. It will be going on the ballot in November 2024 after it qualified with over 617,000 signatures,

Susie Shannon with the team behind the ballot measure who also serves as the Policy Director for Housing is a Human Right came to speak to SMRR members about the act and the effect it would have on the Costa-Hawkins Act.

The Costa-Hawkins Act was passed in 1995 and prevents rent control from being enacted by local governments on single-family homes, condos, and all projects built after 1995. 

If the Justice for Renters Act passes in November 2024, Costa-Hawkins will be repealed, and “Local governments will be allowed to expand, enact or maintain rent control in their local communities,” according to Shannon. Shannon cited a Zillow study that concluded every 5 percent rent is increased, approximately 2,000 more people are forced into homelessness.

“We know that we have more people who are rent-burdened here in California than anywhere in the entire country,” Shannon said. “We have 75,000 homeless just in Los Angeles County alone.”

Shannon implored those in attendance to show support for the bill and spread the word about its existence, noting the shocking reaction Governor Gavin Newsom’s office had to over 730,000 letters being delivered by the organizers of the Justice for Renters Act asking him not to oppose the act as a sign that such support was needed.

“When two news outlets called the governor’s office for a statement, they referred the news outlets to Nathan Sheets,” Shannon said. Sheets is a consultant for the California Apartments Association, one of the main organizations fighting against the act.

She also noted the governor does respond to public pressure, bringing up the expansion of farmworker rights that Newsom signed into law in September 2022 despite expectations that he would veto the bill.

Following Shannon’s presentation, SMRR moved to endorse the ballot measure, which unanimously passed to the sounds of cheers from the audience.

Unite Here 11 continues striking for hotel worker pay

The final update of the meeting was from Unite Here Local 11 and its hotel workers’ strike. Unite Here Local 11 represents over 32,000 hospitality workers in Southern California and Arizona, and has been striking against hotels in the Southern California area since July 4 in an attempt to secure better wages for hotel workers.

Organizer Danielle Wilson recounted some of the events that have been in the four months since the strike began, including a demonstration where Zwick was arrested, according to Wilson. She said that it was made clear that wages were too low given the rents in the area, but this has apparently been ignored four months later.

Wilson brought on several striking union members to tell their stories and explain why they were on strike. One speaker named Daniela Hernandez said that she commutes more than two hours to Santa Monica to work because she cannot afford to live here, and any attempts at negotiation have been met with hostile reactions from the hotels.

“Anytime we go to [the company], they say that the union is lying to my co-workers,” Hernandez said. “There is a lot of union busting inside my workplace.” She added, “We are in a war zone right now.”

Hernandez implored the members of SMRR to come support at picket lines, saying that hotel workers need the support of the community to help sway the hotels to talk.

“We have support, but we need the support of the community as well,” she said. “We are not going away until they sign the contract because that’s our First Amendment right.”

Wilson then explained that Monday, Nov. 13, there will be a demonstration in front of the Delfina Hotel, and implored the members at the meeting to show up and help picket at the front lines. She noted that some members of the city council do not want to take action against these hotels or help the union workers, making the support at protests all the more important.

“This is a fight for the soul of the city,” Wilson said, “and the fight for the soul of the city happens on the picket line.”

Photo by the author.

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