Combating a proposed ballot initiative aimed at eminent domain reform in California, renters’ rights advocates from Santa Monica and other areas are working to call attention to a provision of the initiative that would eliminate future rent control laws. Eminent domain is the power of the government to take private property for public use with payment of compensation to the owner.

The Sacramento-based Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an organization that works to promote taxpayers’ rights, has put forth a ballot initiative known as the “California Property Owners and Farmland Protection Act,” which proposes to amend a section of the state constitution dealing with eminent domain laws.

The state constitution, which grants government the power of eminent domain, also states that private property may not be taken or damaged by eminent domain except for public use and only when compensation has been paid to the property owner.

Through its ballot initiative, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association proposes to amend the constitution section to ensure that private property cannot be taken or damaged for private use.

The Jarvis initiative would expand the definition of “taken” to include “transferring the ownership, occupancy or use of property from a private owner to any person other than a public agency, or limiting the price a private owner may charge another person to purchase, occupy or use his or her real property.”

Jon Coupal, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association president, told The Argonaut that the initiative also proposes to prohibit the government from taking private property for the purpose of using it for the same reason the previous property owner had.

“It imposes a restriction for the instances the government can use the power of eminent domain,” Coupal said of the proposal.

But various renters’ rights advocates have come out against the Jarvis initiative, saying that it goes far beyond eminent domain reform and challenges state rent control laws. Denny Zane, chair of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, said the Jarvis Association has been “very explicit” about its effort to end rent control under the eminent domain initiative.

“They are very clear about what their objective is — they want to end rent control in California,” Zane said.

Zane said that the Jarvis Association and property owner groups that support the initiative, such as the California Apartment Owners Association, have been explicit about their plans by distributing flyers and notices to property owners about how they can help end rent control.

Zane joined Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown and other renters’ rights advocates from Santa Monica and Los Angeles at a rally Tuesday, October 30th, outside the Los Angeles Convention Center, where California Apartment Owners Association representatives and other property owner groups met to discuss the campaign for the Jarvis initiative.

The Jarvis Association is currently in the process of gathering voter signatures to qualify the initiative for the June 2008 ballot. The signatures are due to the Secretary of State by Monday, November 26th, and 694,000 signatures are required to qualify the proposal for the ballot, according to the Jarvis Association.

The rally group of an estimated 100 people, which included Carson mayor Jim Dear, seniors and mobile homeowners, met to draw attention specifically to the provision that would abolish rent control.

“We wanted to alert the voting population about the false and misleading objectives of the proponents,” Zane said of the rally. “They’re trying to pretty this thing up with eminent domain reform but it’s really a charade for other purposes and we want to make it clear what those purposes are.”

Santa Monica Rent Control Board member Marilyn Korade-Wilson added, “One of the messages (of the rally) is to be sure people understand that the measure that is being put out would effectively end rent control eventually.” The Santa Monica Rent Control Board has not yet taken a position on the Jarvis initiative, she said.

The renters’ rights advocates note that the initiative calls for ending rent control laws when it expands the definition of “taken” to include “limiting the price a private owner may charge another person to occupy the real property.” In addition to challenging rent control, the initiative could also have an effect on other forms of renters’ rights, Zane said.

Coupal acknowledged that the Jarvis proposal, if passed, would “phase out” rent control laws in the state through a permanent vacancy decontrol. Tenants and mobile park residents currently living in rent-controlled units prior to the passing of the initiative would continue to receive that benefit.

But if those tenants were to move, die or be evicted from the units, no further residents could receive rent-controlled protections, according to the initiative. The property owner would then be able to charge market rate for the unit without rent control regulations.

This has caused concern for renters’ rights supporters, who say that without rent control, many renters, particularly seniors and people on fixed incomes, could end up being forced out of their homes.

“Removing housing stability would hurt all of Santa Monica, not just renters,” said McKeown, who added that he attended the October 30th rally as a renter.

“Rent control has provided the ability for a renter to put down their roots and contribute to our community in Santa Monica,” he said.

“Without rent control, our seniors on fixed income would be gone. Without rent control, our working families couldn’t afford both rent and shoes for the kids.”

Renters groups have also expressed concern that people currently in rent-controlled units could also be impacted, as the property owner might try to influence the tenant to vacate the property.

But Coupal rejected claims that people currently living in rent-controlled properties would be forced from their homes under the initiative.

“No one is going to be forced out of their apartments because of our initiative,” Coupal asserted.

The initiative is seeking to phase out rent control laws because they achieve nothing for housing affordability, Coupal said.

“If affordable housing is the goal, then rent control has been an abject failure,” Coupal said.

Zane called Coupal’s argument “complete nonsense.”

Rent control has been in effect in Santa Monica since voters passed the law in April 1979. There are approximately 28,000 rent-controlled units in the City of Santa Monica, Rent Control Board spokeswoman Tracy Condon said.

Coupal said the Jarvis Association is in the process of finishing the signature-gathering effort and is confident that it is “on track” to qualify for the June ballot.

But Santa Monica and Los Angeles renters’ rights advocates say that they are pushing an alternative initiative for eminent domain reform that is supported by the League of California Cities. The advocates are encouraging voters to sign off on the alternative initiative, as they say it calls for eminent domain reform but does not eliminate rent control like the Jarvis plan.

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