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Residents Vocalize Concerns at Pico Neighborhood Town Hall Meeting

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By Ivette Lopez and Daniel Larios

June 13, 2014 -- Some 200 residents from across Santa Monica voiced their concerns regarding the replacement of controlled rental units with high-end condominiums at a town hall meeting Thursday.

The meeting was organized by the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA) after the Planning Commission delayed a vote on a proposed conversion of 15 rent-controlled apartments to 21 condominiums at 21st Street and Virginia Avenue in the Pico neighborhood.
“It’s more than losing a home; it’s losing a way of life,” said Oscar de la Torre, PNA co-chair and a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu School Board. 

There weren’t enough chairs at  Virginia Avenue Park’s  Thelma Terry Room to accommodate the crowd. Some sat on tables and others stood alongside the walls, as  two panels provided information on renter’s rights and increased development in the Pico neighborhood.

“It is not illegal to be greedy in this country, “said Elena Popp, attorney with the Eviction Defense Network. “It may be immoral but it’s not illegal. So be cautious and please protect this valuable asset you have called rent control.”

“Tenants have some rights but a lot of obligations,” she added, advising renters to read their leases, pay their rent on time and avoid breaching any portions of their lease.

The panel focused on California’s Ellis Act, which allows landlords to get out of the rental business by vacating their building for five years. However, landlords can pay a fine and convert the units to condominiums sooner.

The panel also addressed tactics landlords use to evict rent-controlled tenants in order to raise the rent. Under the Costa Hawkins Rental Act, which went into full effect in 1999, landlords can charge market rates for units voluntarily vacated or if the tenant is evicted for non payment of rent.

“They’re like hunters waiting for a way to get you,” said Denise McGranahan, an attorney with Legal Aid of Los Angeles. “You shouldn’t be inhibited to make complaints (about the condition of a unit), but do it in a way that protects you.”

While the first panel focused on policy and legal issues, the second panel was a call to action. Residents were more vocal, sharing their concerns that the Pico Neighborhood, which has long been Santa Monica’s poorest and most diverse area, would become unaffordable.

“We can’t stand idly by,” said panelist and Planning Commissioner Richard McKinnon. “People look at this neighborhood and see a gold mine.”

Armen Melkonians, another panelist and founder of the political group Residocracy, spoke against the City’s affordable housing policies. He said that new affordable units – which can lease for as much as $1,800 a month -- are often much more expensive than rent controlled apartments.

“We have these policies that tell us that we want affordable housing,” Melkonians said.  “Affordable housing production actually kills existing rent control units, which are much more affordable than any affordable housing production we can get.”

During the audience participation section, a few comments and questions elicited outbursts and a tense showdown between residents and City officials in attendance.

In one instance, Councilmember Kevin McKeown was booed when an audience member brought up Tuesday’s unanimous approval by the City Council of a 148-foot mixed-used project in the heart of Downtown. 

McKeown responded to the critique by stating that the project was on commercial land and would not affect existing tenants.

Although the fate of the proposed Pico project that spurred the meeting  has not been decided, nearby residents are concerned about how it would impact them.

“I do feel threatened because it’s so close to where I live,” Edwin Cortez told the Lookout after the meeting. “It’s too close to home and too close for comfort.”

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