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Decade's Top Stories  

First of two parts

By Jorge Casuso

January 4, 2010 -- When The Lookout staff sat down at the end of the year and tried come up with a list of top stories for 2009, we reached one clear and immediate conclusion -- as the old adage says, there's nothing new under the sun.

All the leading contenders -- the homeless, development, gang crime -- had been showing up on our year-end lists since we started compiling them at the start of the decade. Others -- jets wars, mall redevelopment -- had been ongoing since at least the middle of the decade.

So instead, this year The Lookout has chosen to look as far back to 2000 and compile a list of the top stories of the decade. Here, in no particular order, are our choices.

Populi Richer

If Santa Monicans look more well heeled than they did a decade ago, you can blame -- or credit -- Costa Hawkins, a 1994 State rental law that kicked in full throttle in 1999. The law, which lifted restrictions on what a landlord can charge for a vacant unit, has brought more than half of Santa Monica's rent control units to market rate.

Instead of taking over the apartment of a friend who saved enough to buy a house, or paying a tenant or landlord a "key fee" for the privilege of living in a dump in Santa Monica, the new wave of renters did it the old fashioned way -- they earned it by coughing up the dough.

According to a ten-year report issued by the Rent Board last year, 15,340 of the city’s 27,296 registered rent-controlled units had been rented at market rates by December 31, 2008, ten years after the State Legislature approved vacancy decontrol for all controlled units vacated voluntarily or through eviction.

The report also found that rent-control tenants typically pay about half the rent paid by market rate tenants. The vast discrepancies can often be seen in the same apartment building. For instance, at 301 Ocean Avenue, a coveted location across from Palisades Park, rents range from $517 to $3,365, The Lookout found. (Those bargain rates ceased to exist after the tenants were booted to make room for luxury condos, furthering the upscale trend.)

As a result, rent control is no longer a pocket-book issue at the polls. How else do you explain Republican landlord Robert Kronovet winning a seat on the Rent Board in 2008, making him the first candidate in 30 years to win without the backing of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR).

New Boss Same as the Old Boss

While the populi may have changed, the same old faces still run the show. In fact, if you add up the years of service the current seven-member council has put in, it comes to more than a century. And if Mayor Ken Genser, who has been hospitalized for two months, returns to the dais, he will have sat in his seat for three decades.

In fact, the only new faces on the council were either members of political dynasties (Bobby Shriver, a member of the Kennedy clan who garnered near-record votes) or appointed (Gleam Davis, who was tapped to take over the seat vacated by Herb Katz after he died last year at the start of his fifth term).

While the faces stayed the same, the 2008 election seemed to erase long-standing divisions between SMRR and the city’s business community. For the first time in its 30-year history, the tenants group only endorsed two council candidates in a race with four open seats. Shriver and Kevin McKeown, who was the top vote getter in 2004, have become the dissenting voices on a council that has found little to disagree over.

Squeaky Wheel Stops Getting Greased

(see WHAT I SAY: Carrying On," January 4, 2010)

Collision Course

For years, residents near Santa Monica Airport had complained that noise and pollution made living near the six-decade-old airstrip unpleasant. After five years of often-contentious negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the City decided to do something.

In April 2008, the City Council unanimously voted to ban C and D aircraft with approach speeds faster than 121 knots. Within days, the FAA sued the City to protect "all federal rights, investments and obligations" and ensure no aircraft is denied access to the airport.

In ordering the City to suspend the ordinance approved by the council, the FAA argued that the measure -- --which bans C and D aircraft with approach speeds of between 139 and 191 mph -- is unnecessary and would harm jet operators.

City officials called the federal government’s challenge a “legal assault” on an ordinance responding to increasing concerns that soaring jet traffic -- from 4,829 jet operations in 1994 to 18,575 last year -- is putting neighboring homes, as well as pilots, in danger.

Left out of all the arguments is one of the reasons the battle has come this far -- residents want some peace and quiet and less soot coating their swimming pools.

Special Ed Gets Hearing

For years, Special Education parents had charged that top School District administrators were strong-arming them into agreements they couldn’t discuss and that the district was short-shrifting the needs of their children.

In 2008, two years of protest by the parents finally managed to bring about major changes to the beleaguered program. A report commissioned by the School Board found that although the District met and exceeded many of the criteria, its policy of entering into agreements with parents, though legal, was not commonly used and not necessarily good practice.

The confidentiality clauses, consultants said, made it difficult to evaluate a student’s progress and made placing students transferring to another district more difficult. The policy also breeds distrust, consultants found.

The controversy led to the resignation of deputy superintendent Tim Walker, who was in charge of special education. Weeks later, Superintendent Dianne Talarico resigned to take over a small district in Northern California.

Perhaps none of the reforms would have taken place if the City Council had not withheld funding to the cash-strapped school system until changes were made.

Mean Streets

Former City Council candidate Frank Juarez ended the decade the same way he began it -- grieving.

In October 1999, two nephews -- Anthony Robert Juarez and his brother, Michael Anthony Juarez, both of Cayucos -- died of multiple gunshot wounds after three male Hispanics carrying an assault rifle and several handguns entered a business in the 1900 block of Lincoln Boulevard and shot four people.

Almost exactly a decade later, in November 2009, another nephew, Richard Juarez, a graduate of Olympic High School, was fatally shot in Virginia Park, a crime prone corner of the Pico Neighborhood.

In between, other victims fell to gang violence. Johnathan Hernandez, Hector Bonilla and Jesse Becerra were killed in 2005, two of the young men brazenly shot multiple times during a local birthday party. The oldest, Bonilla, was 25.

The following year the longstanding gang problem in the Pico Neighborhood exploded into the public light with the slaying of a popular Samohi student outside a mini mall in February. The fatal shooting of Eddie Lopez, who was not affiliated with gangs, reinvigorated a yearlong effort to address the thorny issue of youth violence.

That the problem was far from over was brought home during the final days of the year, when 22-year-old Santa Monica resident Miguel Martin was gunned down in Virginia Avenue Park, where the City was sponsoring a youth program to help get kids off the street.

In May 2008, Preston Brumfield died of injuries suffered when he was assaulted near Virginia Park. One month later and less than three blocks away, Byron Lopez, a 28-year-old Latino man, was gunned down, marking the 39th killing in the violence-prone neighborhood since 1989.

Shifting Policies
During the past decade Santa Monica -- dubbed the "Home of the Homeless" -- made a major shift in how it handles a problem that has consistently topped the list of concerns aired by its residents. Instead of giving a helping hand by handing out a free meal or providing an overnight bed, the City embarked on a strategy to house those on the streets the longest and make others self-sufficient.

In what City officials described as a crossroads in the fight against homelessness, council members ended 2005 by backing an ambitious plan with new strategies to help lift people off the streets. They passed out bus tickets to individuals who wanted to reunite with family members and offered chronic alcoholics recovery help as they sat in jail.

The following year, the City moved ahead with a pilot “Community Courts” program that established a separate court for the homeless and mentally ill. It also announced an agreement to move indoors the largest groups that for more than a decade have used public land to hand out food to the homeless and opened a new 55-bed homeless shelter.

In 2008, the City Council adopted the “Action Plan to Address Homelessness in Santa Monica,” which created a strategy for tackling homelessness through various “project areas.”

Nearly 3,000 people received assistance from seven City-funded homeless agencies between July 2008 and June 2009, according to a City staff report.

Of those who received assistance, 25 percent were formerly homeless individuals living in permanent housing. Another 14 percent were placed in permanent housing after receiving help. Twenty percent acquired “emergency or transitional” housing. And 17 percent found and maintained jobs, “leading to self-sufficiency.”

The City provided nearly $3 million to these homeless agencies during the past year. The money came from the City’s General Fund and through federal and county programs. The agencies raised another $5.46 million.

 


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