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Village Trailer Park, Santa Monica
By David Mamet
A group of senior citizens interspersed with a tiny handful of children and two handfuls of “soon to be” seniors are living in a mutually supporting, self-evolved community. Many moved into it when middle-aged, or “young-old.” Now most are infirm, and threatened with that community’s destruction. They live in a 1950’s Southern California trailer park.
The best of the trailers are archaic and dilapidated, they are small, and the surrounding acreage of each is a walkway. Many of the residents describe the park as “heaven.” I am quite old enough to agree with them. The trailers are parked under heritage trees, surrounded by gardens, there is usually an ocean breeze, they are safe, surrounded by friends of their own generations, close to medical facilities, shopping.
They are living inexpensively. They, for the most part, own their trailers. But they rent the land. The land is owned by the “Village Trailer Park LLC” a corporation formed in 2006 by the previous owner with new partners. The land was valued in 2003 at 4 million dollars.
The land is zoned as a trailer park or day care facility. The ground rent is set by rent control. And for the Conservative, we have the root of the Talmudic question.
The question is: what is property?
The City of Santa Monica has the right to zone, and to change zoning ordinances. The City has the right to institute rent control.
The park residents who lease the ground did so with the expectation that they would be able to A) live there forever, B) dispose of their place along with the home, thus, potentially profiting from their lessorship as the location increased in desirability. This, as Milton Friedman teaches us, artificially deflates the market worth of said property, and puts into effect the operation of a black or grey market.
On the one hand, the residents have been living in their homes, all for at least one and many for several decades, at a price lowered artificially by the area’s zoning. On the other hand, that was the law when they signed on, and why should they be debarred from taking advantage of a bargain? But, as Mr. Friedman taught again, the landlord of such a property is thereby encouraged to let it go to ruin, and hope the residents move out – or in this case, die off. So, the units vacated by the death of the occupants are not re-rented, and the untenanted, unkempt lots lie, shorn of the trailers.
The new owners, Village Trailer Park LLC are petitioning to have the area rezoned so as to permit building a mix of condominiums, apartments, shops and offices and have suggested that they would, at considerable taxpayer expense, relocate a portion of the residents into low-income housing, or accommodate them, after a period of three years, in some of the housing to be built on the property once it is rezoned.
Are the owners permitted to petition? Of course. Will the Santa Monica City Council smile on their efforts?
Rent control is a bad idea. It ensconces a group of rentiers who are, then, effectually vassals of the zoning commission and the City Council. The Libertarians would say that zoning itself is a bad idea. (Property values and land use seem to be doing well in Houston, which has little or no zoning ordinances.) Law is a bad idea, but better than its absence, and, as the Yiddish proverb has it “where there is law there is injustice.”
The Santa Monica City Council are as pure a bunch of solons as you could find in a summer day, I am sure. But, were they simply a hypothetical group, would they be more inclined to favor the “increased tax revenues” no doubt proposed by the developers or the claims of the beneficiaries of that rent control whose supposed champions they are? (Santa Monicans for Renters Rights being the powerhouse organization supporting and run by members of this hypothetical city’s City Council.)
The residents are stuck in a cleft stick. The law allows them to be given notice so that the mobile homes can be moved, and the people given some stipend to allow them to relocate, in the event of the park being sold. But the trailers are weeded and rusted to the ground, most of the old folks have nowhere else to move, and destroying their community would, rather literally, be destroying their lives.
The owners have a very valuable property. But they did buy it knowing the restrictions on its use (and, most probably figuring, whilst rubbing their hands, as might you or I), of how to utilize the law to better an onerous, though executed contract.
[The Santa Monica City Council, similarly, has been trying, for decades to close the lovely and legally protected Santa Monica Airport, residents surrounding it complaining of the noise. (The pilot’s question being “didn’t you notice the airport was there when you bought the house?)]
So here we have not two but three groups of interested parties: developers, the residents, and the City Council, who, wise and pure as they may be, are politicians, who, in my experience, only act other than for their re-election by accident. The developers could form a covenant with the residents, enshrining the residents’ rights to posessorship for X years (representing the lives of the residents), after which the land could be re-zoned in a manner acceptable to them and the council. This, the renters suggest, would be a sort of land-bank: ensuring a geometric pay-out at the land’s eventual conversion, any compact no doubt entailing all sorts of charming tax breaks from the city.
The Greeks said: a hot cup has two sides, one side has a handle: pick it up by the handle by which it can be borne. And the Greeks had a three-handled amphora, a hydria, and it suggests a third handle by which a difficulty may be borne. For, anyone who visits the park, of whatever political complexion, faith or lack of faith, will remember the commandment “Honor thy father and mother.” These, the retired actor, teacher, aircraft worker, firefighter, housewife, husband, wife, who lived through or fought in the war, and worked all their lives, who are living, as simply as it is possible to live, in what they describe as paradise, must be allowed to live out their lives there.
The Santa Monica City Council will grapple with this question in July.D. Mamet
© copyright 2012 by David Mamet
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