Civic Unrest in Santa Monica

Los Angeles
June, 2003

Precisely when in the '80s Santa Monica caught fire is impossible to pin down. Hot it is, though, and it has yet to cool off. People who can afford to live anywhere pay the premium -- elevated rents and the most gasp-inducing home prices west of Beverly Hills -- to get in. Those who can't pay scheme to sneak their children into the public schools, which recently sent a student orchestra to Carnegie Hall and tapped Mel Gibson to raise cash for arts classes. MGM, MTV, Universal Music, and a dozen other Industry names reside there. On Friday and Sunday evenings, private jets roll one after another onto the runway at the city airport.

Come Monday morning, commuters stream down the Santa Monica Freeway, queuing at the Cloverfield Boulevard exit as they seek entry into the success story by the bay.

The reasons seem clear: Beaches and cool, clean air, of course. Buzzed-about restaurants, hotels, and galleries, and the phenomenally popular 3rd Street Promenade. Add in safe walking neighborhoods, the potential for celebrity sightings at PTA meetings or the Coffee Bean on Montana Avenue, the cool of KCRW, and the appeal (for many) of a famously liberal political culture.

Why, then, do so many Santa Monicans feel that things are not so good? If the sky isn't exactly falling, it is dank and overcast, like those days when June gloom settles over the Promenade. The perennial problem of the homeless, plus growing concerns about traffic, a softening business climate, the divide between the rich and the ordinary -- all are seen as blots on the city's luminosity.

Living with success, it turns out, can be more complicated than striving to achieve it. For one thing, affluence is becoming a touchy subject. The priciest neighborhoods, north of Montana, now beat Pacific Palisades and Brentwood for the highest median home price on the Westside, at more than $1.2 million. To some this is a troubling sign that Santa Monica is shedding its middle-class roots and forgetting it is a diverse community ruled by renters of modest wealth. In the zip code that covers the area off Pico and Olympic Boulevards, the median home price is lower than in nearby West L.A. In the 2000 census, Santa Monica's median household income of $50,714 trailed behind that of the decidedly less fashionable Culver City. Renters make up more than 70 percent of the population, half of which lives alone. In Los Angeles County, only West Hollywood has a higher share of singles. Santa Monica also is the county's leading haven for single women. They occupy nearly 28 percent of dwellings, drawn by the amenities of a big city and the friendliness and security of a small town.

As prosperity has become more conspicuous, renters in beachfront Ocean Park -- birthplace of the city's liberal soul -- warily eye the north-of-Montana crowd. Richer residents are on edge about being blamed for driving up housing prices and altering the city's character. Everybody frets that Santa Monica is losing its mojo, that maybe its best days are past.


Breakfast at the Blueberry Cafe downtown comes with a side of the Doors and the Stones. Denny Zane orders a mocha and asks after the proprietor, who was a student when Zane taught math at local private schools.

When the conversation turns to the Santa Monica phenomenon, Zane -- now a political consultant -- offers the perspective of a proud but not fully satisfied former mayor. Zane was one of the original community activists who in the late 1970s surprised the old guard of bankers, merchants, and the local newspaper, the Evening Outlook, and took control of a city that didn't yet know what it could or should become. Santa Monica's identity was stuck somewhere between the somber Goldwater Republican town whose major employer was Douglas Aircraft and the growing center of bay-view high-rises relished by developers. Joining that mix were young, educated professionals and creative types who just wanted to live by the beach.

As Santa Monica became more desirable, soaring rents threatened to price out the beach lovers. Zane and friends, with charismatic backers like Tom and Jane (the then married Hayden and Fonda), organized in funky Ocean Park and among seniors. In 1978, they formed Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (or SMRR, pronounced "smur"). A year later, they put one of the nation's strictest rent control laws on the ballot. It sailed to victory; with it, young, liberal firebrand Ruth Yannatta Goldway was elected to the city council.

The group swept in four more council members, including Zane, in 1981. The 5-2 majority installed Goldway as mayor, slapped a moratorium on commercial development, and declared a new order. Santa Monica was to be not just pro renter but slow growth, antinuclear, and friendly to the homeless. It was Berkeley South, or to landlords, the People's Republic.

Shaken, the old guard roused to turn out Goldway in 1983 but could not undo the revolution. For most of the time since, SMRRs have held the council majority and the mayor's office. They have come to act like a political party, with biannual open conventions, a taste for internecine squabbles and intrigues, and proven electoral expertise. Renters can tip any election in Santa Monica, and SMRR speaks for renters.

Rent control is the reason. Residents of more than 17,500 apartments pay far below the market rate, thanks to the 1979 law and the steadfast defense of it by SMRR. The median monthly rent for a controlled two-bedroom is $889, compared with $1,606 on the open market -- the difference between staying in Santa Monica and moving to the Valley. "Thousands of people have had their homes protected," says Zane, who is cochair of SMRR. Rent control has also been a constant source of conflict. Landlords got the state legislature to pass an exception that led to the eviction of several thousand tenants, and they won the right to reset rents when a unit becomes vacant, which in four years has sharply raised the rent on 9,400 apartments -- 35 percent of the total.

Once ensconced, SMRRs governed Santa Monica as if it were a test lab for progressive ideas. They built affordable housing, converted the municipal fleet to alternative fuels, and pioneered curbside recycling. The city opposed conservative causes, from the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork to the invasion of Iraq. Development plans were downsized, and "smart growth" was encouraged -- Zane can cite the amount of square footage that he voted for.

The SMRRs's smartest creation was the 3rd Street Promenade. Faced with a dying outdoor mall in the heart of downtown, they threw the city's weight behind an innovative open-air marketplace. Cars were banned, sidewalk restaurants invited, and movie theaters persuaded to move in by a prohibition on new screens elsewhere in the city. Over the years, weekend crowds were lured away from Westwood and Old Town Pasadena. Tourists came from all over. The Promenade transformed Santa Monica from a beach town into an economic powerhouse.

Today the Promenade is also widely derided, including by disenchanted SMRRs, as an example of Santa Monica's lost promise. Panhandlers intrude on expensive meals. Chain stores able to spend dearly for the visibility of a megastore have displaced the small local shops. In February, the Midnight Special bookstore, unable to withstand a rent hike, departed after more than a decade as an unofficial clubhouse for the intellectual left. The landlord had carried the lease for years, but there's not enough demand for The Nation and Verso's back list to match the power of the Gap. Hennessey & Ingalls, the admired architecture and design bookstore, is leaving for Wilshire Boulevard this summer. Emergency incentives are being readied to halt an exodus of restaurants. Zane says stoically, "Every success has its disappointments."

The group still commands a 5-2 edge on the council, but internal politics have become more complex. Two of its council members belong to the Green Party and often vote further to the left than the others. Mayor Richard Bloom is not a renter; the family lawyer with an ocean-view office owns a home in airport-adjacent Sunset Park. Zane is also a home owner now, evidence that SMRR has evolved into a broader organization.

The strength of the group's hold on city politics came into question in November. When it tried to capture a sixth seat, its candidate lost. On the same ballot, a measure it backed that would guarantee hotel workers near the beach a higher minimum wage than other employees in the city -- up to $12.25 an hour -- was narrowly beaten.

Defeat of Measure JJ -- known as the "living wage law" -- stunned SMRR and labor organizers, who felt sure that if any voters would embrace the concept, it would be Santa Monicans. Instead, a million-dollar campaign financed by hotel owners and business leaders exposed rising sentiment that SMRR's experimentation has gone too far.

Bloom, for one, hopes that is not the case. "We have been very good stewards of the public trust," he says. "Our days of overconfidence might be over, but that's a good lesson for us. As progressives we should never be resting on our laurels."

The living wage law's defeat set off waves of self-scrutiny within the ranks. Early this year the local Democratic club posed the question, How progressive is Santa Monica?, and mostly heard laments. Robert Myers, author of the 1979 rent control law, griped that the current SMRRs are technocrats bent on pushing Santa Monica to be more upscale -- that they're not true progressives. Myers, who was fired as city attorney a decade ago because he refused to get tough on the homeless, also heaped scorn on ordinances passed last year that restrict sleeping in doorways and bar charities from holding mass food distributions that attract street people, modest attempts to ease concern about the homeless. "I don't understand how you can do that," he says, "making it a crime to feed poor people."


They understand at Fromin's Deli, which is more of a buttered bagels and Folgers place than the Blueberry Cafe. Even at 7:30 in the morning Bob Holbrook sees a tableful of friends he needs to greet before taking a booth by the window of the Wilshire Boulevard eatery. At 62, he knows a lot of people in town. He grew up in Ocean Park, graduated from Santa Monica High, and had the good luck to buy north of Montana before Santa Monica took off. "I am the poorest person who lives on my street, I'm sure. The only one without servants," he says with just a hint of a laugh.

Holbrook, a 13-year councilman, pushed for the anti-homeless ordinances because, he says, "people are fed up. They want us to do something." A small-time landlord, he has never been endorsed by SMRR. Last November he won reelection, even though he was targeted for defeat by the SMRRs and by the police and fire unions. Some renters crossed over to vote for him. Holbrook says his victory and the defeat of Measure JJ reveal a shift in Santa Monica's values. These events do not necessarily represent a move to conservativism (there is not a single Republican on the council) but are harbingers of open dissatisfaction with the way Santa Monica is going.

"A significant number of residents are really angry," says Holbrook, director of the USC campus pharmacy. Home owners, in particular, voted heavily for Proposition A, the only issue in a special mail election this spring. The measure would have required owner consent before the city could confer historic landmark status on a home or a neighborhood. To hear the rhetoric, the fight was over property rights and community preservation. In truth, few homes have been declared landmarks, and the campaign dripped with subtext. It was a surrogate referendum on SMRR's style and use of power and, more broadly, the Santa Monica experiment. Although the SMRRs knocked off the measure, it took a serious battle and opened wounds. Prop. A lost, 53 percent to 47 percent. North of Montana, however, it won 4-1, with a high turnout.

Previous home-owner rebellions have erupted, then quickly faded under the crushing truth that most voters are renters. Many SMRRs are not convinced that the latest skirmishing is anything to worry about. "What it represents is a new strategy for an old group," says Bloom. "They haven't elected anyone new yet." Still, huge amounts of fresh money -- like the infusion that defeated the living wage law -- could at least shift the conversation. People who spend more than a million dollars for a house are likely to cough up cash for a political campaign if they see their Santa Monica dreams slipping away. Emboldened by a growing membership, the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce intends to break with tradition and put its influence behind favored council candidates, starting with the next election. SMRR is not likely to be the beneficiary. At the latest chamber luncheon, president Kathy Dodson bluntly declared that Santa Monica needs a revamped city council that will take action to reduce the homeless on the streets and tackle problems like traffic congestion and the loss of jobs. (MGM is heading for Century City, and the dot-com collapse has left floors of offices vacant.)

How deep the disgruntlement really runs will be tested this month. Proposition S on the June 3 ballot would tax commercial and residential property an additional $225 a year (seniors can be excluded) to prevent painful layoffs and deep classroom cuts in the city's highly regarded schools. SMRR and the chamber of commerce support the tax, but there is concern that the schools could fall victim to larger agendas and disenchantment. Only about one in six Santa Monica households has school-age children, and in November voters failed to approve a similar parcel tax for the first time in memory. The issue received 61 percent approval, but it takes a two-thirds majority to impose a tax. This is a high bar to clear if loyalties are divided among favored city programs like the arts or parks -- which also face budget cuts -- or if hard feelings exist over the city council's position on the homeless or the living wage.

By one count, however, the people have already spoken about what they see as the biggest threat to Santa Monica's future. More than 1,000 parents and students besieged the city council chamber on a recent Tuesday night to demand help for the schools. On a sunny Saturday morning in April, the same number paraded on the Promenade and cheered calls for passage of Prop. S. In this city known for its political causes -- and surprises -- these were the largest demonstrations of the SMRR era.

©Kevin Roderick 2003