Santa Monica moving to tighten rent control rules

City Council decision would put decision to voters

Mayor Sue Himmelrich (City of Santa Monica, Getty)
Mayor Sue Himmelrich (City of Santa Monica, Getty)

UPDATED, July 27, 2022, 9:22 a.m.: In a climate of soaring rents, rampant inflation and escalating recession fears, one of Southern California’s most expensive cities is moving closer to implementing new rent control measures.

During a 10-hour marathon session on Tuesday, the Santa Monica City Council discussed new initiatives that include lowering the city’s maximum annual rent increase cap from 6 percent to 3 percent and granting a rent control board the power to freeze hikes altogether under a declared emergency. But, the Council did not come to an agreement and will resume talks on Aug. 6.

The measures, which would take the form of city charter amendments, would still have to be approved by voters in a November referendum.

“Just so everyone knows, we are all extremely concerned about this cap and about reducing this for all of you guys,” Santa Monica Councilmember Christine Parr said at a meeting earlier this month, directing her comments toward an audience that had come largely to support the measure. “I want you to know that this is of utmost concern.”

Santa Monica has long ranked among Southern California’s — and even the country’s — most expensive cities. But in recent months, as inflation and a tight housing market have pushed rents higher everywhere, housing costs have soared even higher for Santa Monicans: One report, published last week by the rental site Zumper, calculated the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city at $2,920. That was the highest figure for any city in L.A. County, narrowly beating out West Hollywood.

Advocates for area landlords — a group that largely feels it has been unfairly targeted by tenant-centered regulations throughout the pandemic — decried the proposals as yet more local government initiatives that would only add to the high burdens already facing property owners.

“It’s a huge deal,” said Dan Yukelson, president of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, the landlord advocacy group. “Landlords are already suffering. We’ve got two and a half years of eviction moratoriums, rent freezes on top of that. … We’re getting killed out there and now they want to limit increases even more?”

Santa Monica’s maximum rent cap is part of the city charter and tied to the regional Consumer Price Index: After inflation pushed that index up dramatically earlier this summer, the city’s rent control board was bound to approve the 6 percent figure, which takes effect September 1, although several city officials publicly regretted the change.

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“It’s really hard for me to even vote at all because I feel like this is not just and not what we were elected to do,” one rent control board member said in a June meeting, the Santa Monica Daily Press reported. Another added, “My heart was broken when I heard what the figure was.”

In response to that increase the rent control board moved to support the ballot measure that would grant it the emergency rent freeze powers; it also moved to add a $140 monthly ceiling on the 6 percent cap — a move that has sparked criticism because it would effectively limit the increase only for higher-paying tenants.

“Rewarding the rich more than the poor goes against all that is fair and democratic,” one resident said during a council meeting this month.

Yukelson — while citing the numerous increased costs facing landlords, including for trash hauling and water, and examples of wealthy tenants taking advantage of cap rules — also argued that instead of broadly limiting rent hikes, Santa Monica should direct its efforts to boosting affordable housing stock and better targeting rental aid.

“They should focus on supply,” he said, “and they should try to help renters that are truly in financial need.”

After input from earlier meetings, the Santa Monica City Attorney was expected to present revised language on the measures to Santa Monica’s council on Tuesday. If voters ultimately end up approving the items they would become part of the city’s charter, making the 3 percent maximum cap permanent barring another charter amendment. While other cities can more easily enact similar ordinances, Santa Monica’s charter amendment requirement was intended to make its rent control more durable, the city’s mayor noted recently, although it also makes it harder to change.

This year’s rising rents and inflation figures have renewed policymakers’ broad concerns about evictions and vulnerable tenants. Earlier this month in the L.A. County city of Bell Gardens, Gov. Gavin Newsom also promoted the state’s sweeping renter assistance program, which he said would provide more than $5 billion to qualifying tenants.

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