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[whitespace] Jennifer Bragar
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Dear Property Owner: Jennifer Bragar is the author of a controversial letter asking property owners to contribute to a campaign against rent control.

Raising The Dead

Can Jennifer Bragar's fundraising plea give body and soul to the ghost of rent control?

By Sarah Phelan

UP UNTIL THIS SPRING, rent control was a topic that most Santa Cruz progressives dodged when talking about the housing crisis, at least in public. But then a progressive political consultant sent a letter to local property owners--a letter soliciting contributions to bankroll a campaign against the specter of rent control. Suddenly, rent control became the talk of the town.

Santa Cruz property owners received the letter in April from Jennifer Bragar, age 24, a self-styled political consultant and a member of the progressive Santa Cruz Action Network (SCAN). Writing on behalf of JB Associates--her one-woman consulting company, which advertises itself as having "a fresh approach to political advocacy"--Bragar painted a picture of a city swarming with thousands of rent-control supporters.

"Over the past few years, rent control has been a recurring topic in the City of Santa Cruz," wrote Bragar, referring to the efforts of activist Bob Lamonica to get rent control on the ballot. In 1999 (not 2001 as Bragar claimed in her letter), Lamonica organized a one-person campaign that barely failed to gather enough signatures to get a rent-control initiative on the ballot. "But thousands did sign his petitions," Bragar warned. "His failure did not silence the call for rent control."

Bragar then depicted a landlord's worst nightmare: a citizenry barely able to afford rent headed by a City Council sympathetic to rent regulation: "As housing ... and energy prices soar, and all socio-economic levels from teachers, police and nurses to low-income citizens feel the pressure of making rent, the present City Council has come to support rent control."

It was a claim calculated to inspire dread--a reaction that Bragar was quick to offer to assuage: "JB Associates would like to work with local property owners to monitor the situation locally and coordinate a long-term strategy to ensure that rent control is not passed in the city of Santa Cruz."

While admitting that organizing and funding such a project would be difficult, Bragar said JB Associates could make it work if local landlords simply reached for their checkbooks. "It's hard to say until we hear from you; but we're planning on a monthly minimum of $5 per landlord."

Longtime SCAN member and union activist Nora Hochman says her initial reaction to Bragar's letter was to laugh out loud.

"My official response as chair of SCAN's Housing Committee is I hope JB Associates is wildly successful in canvassing contributions from landlords. The sooner Jenny can drain their resources, the happier I'll be," Hochman says. "But it puzzles me why she's doing this. Really, what we should be talking about is how will this housing crisis ease in a timely enough and meaningful way that we don't keep losing working-class [people], people of color and people of modest income."

Hochman finds it very disturbing that a woman of Bragar's age--and a renter--would make money by, in Hochman words, "sucking the life force out of her own future."

"Not one to mince words, Hochman adds that "since consulting is how Jenny makes her living, it shouldn't surprise anyone that she's hustling. I work as a consultant, too, but I keep within my political framework. What JB Associates is doing is to create fear in people with money and land. I say, fine, let her take landlord money, but to organize against what? A ghost?"

Measure for Measure

RENT CONTROL first drifted into California in the 1970s, gathering support along the coast like an incoming fog bank, rolling into cities in the wake of soaring property values and scorching increases in rent. Rent-control measures passed in Berkeley, Santa Monica and San Francisco but failed in Santa Cruz on three separate occasions, first in 1978 and then in 1979 and 1982.

Former Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin cites several reasons for those failures, starting with the fact that while 53 percent of Santa Cruz's 55,000 citizens don't own property, 47 percent do.

"Santa Cruz has a relatively low ratio of renters to homeowners compared to the cities where rent control passed," Rotkin says. "And Santa Cruz also has far more small-time landlords--about 3,000." Assuming landlords have spouses and relatives, this figure, Rotkin calculates, translates into about 6,000-9,000 potential votes against rent control. "Since measures win with 15,000-20,000 votes," Rotkin says, "we always have an uphill battle on rent control."

That uphill has grown steeper with each campaign. In 1978, rent control lost by 74 votes--in 1979, by 900. By 1982, the margin had swollen to 3,000, even though more renters voted each time. Rotkin explains that with each successive campaign, landlords outspent renters by 10 to one, dispensing $120,000 in 1982 just to make sure rent control didn't pass.

"There were also difficulties in organizing tenants," Rotkin adds. "Some said they supported the idea but hoped to become landlords one day."

Hopes of home ownership are pretty much dead for the average Santa Cruz citizen in 2001, with the median price of a Santa Cruz home topping the half-million mark this April. But though rents have continued to rise since 1982, rent control has ceased to be the progressives' rallying battle cry.

Burned out after three failed efforts, many progressives believe that rent-control campaigns only succeed in panicking landlords into raising rents. Local author and affordable-housing consultant Geoffrey Dunn recalls how in 1982 his landlord more than doubled the rent.

"Our entire household ended up homeless," says Dunn, who believes that a negative attitude toward growth has contributed to our city's current lack of affordable housing.

"It's Santa Cruz's dirty little secret. To slow down growth, we set up a structure that prefers trophy houses to affordable units," Dunn says.

Add to that a burgeoning student population, an influx (at least until the NASDQ tanked) of high-tech workers, rising energy costs and an unregulated rental market. The result, according to Bob Lamonica, who in 1999 organized the first attempt in 19 years to put rent control on the Santa Cruz City ballot, "is the refeudalization of Western Civilization."

Says the 50-year-old Lamonica, who also organizes the annual Santa Cruz Industrial Hemp Expo, "We're going down a two-tier route, saying, 'Let's charge $3 a gallon for gas, $300 for electricity and $2,000 for a two-bedroom apartment'--just because we can. People think you're a commie if you mention rent control, but it's just another form of government regulation--the regulation of residential rent increases while a tenant resides in a unit. It's not draconian."

At the onset of what ended up being a one-man campaign, Lamonica says he gave the progressive Santa Cruz Action Network a chance to get behind his motion.

"All I got was excuses and evasion," he claims. "One elected individual, whom I'd prefer not to name, said he didn't want to 'aberate' [which means unnaturally affect] the process. Another said he couldn't come out on the issue unless it was almost a done deal. Mike Rotkin was the only one publicly for it going out the gate."

According to Lamonica, SCAN told him that rent control was not the way to go, that the organization was going to back the Housing Land Trust instead, a nonprofit that would buy up properties and then lease them to tenants into perpetuity.

"How many people will that help?" Lamonica snorts. "One hundred, maybe? Rent control could help 29,000."

Lamonica, who likens rent control to the civil rights movement, claims that SCAN's lack of support suggests a lack of leadership--at least when it comes to rocking the boat.

"Once you couldn't vote in the United States unless you owned property, but now you can. The logical next step is to protect those without property from exploitation. It's your right as a voting citizen not to have your rent jacked up just because the market can bear it," says Lamonica.

Although Lamonica's 1999 campaign fell short, he doesn't consider his efforts a failure "For the first time in almost 20 years the question of rent control got raised. It brought the dialogue back to the table."

Tony Madrigal An Uphill Battle: Tony Madrigal helped organize a rent-rage rally in Beach Flats.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Come and Gone

IN HER LETTER to property owners, Bragar claimed, "There are at least four of the seven current Council Members who have spoken in favor of rent control in Santa Cruz."

When Metro Santa Cruz called City Hall to find out who those four might be, not a singe councilmember was prepared to openly declare unconditional support for rent control.

Mayor Tim Fitzmaurice, a lifelong renter, refused to give his views on the record. "It's important that the community at large come together to decide how we address the housing crisis," Fitzmaurice said.

Councilmembers Keith Sugar and Ed Porter, also rumored to be pro-rent control, did not return calls.

Mark Primack, who in 1978 went door to door campaigning for rent control, declared himself adamantly opposed to the idea. "Rent control is an idea whose time came and went 15 years ago, which is about the time it takes the progressives to jump on the bandwagon," Primack said.

Emily Reilly, whose campaign was managed by Bragar and partly financed by real estate money, said she'd love to sign off on something, "but I haven't yet seen a rent-control plan that works."

Meanwhile, Vice Mayor Christopher Krohn said he was for it, "depending on what type of rent control we're talking about."

Scott Kennedy said he has no problem with rent control per se, but added that after consulting with City Attorney John Barisone he believed that "state law had defanged new rent-control possibilities by introducing vacancy decontrol."

Barisone confirmed that since 1995 California Civil Code provides that any time a rent-controlled unit is vacated, the landlord has the prerogative to raise the rent up to market rate.

"In the city of Santa Cruz, where so many units are occupied by university students, it's foreseeable that many units will turn over on an annual or biannual basis," Barisone says. "If the objective of the council is to keep a large stock of rental units at low-income rental rate, this provision would frustrate that objective."

Lamonica disagrees. "Certain progressives use the vacancy-decontrol argument to justify any public inaction, but I happen to agree with vacancy decontrol."

Rent Rage

ATTACHED TO Bragar's letter was a SCAN-produced flier publicizing a rent-rage rally held in the Beach Flats this spring. On the flier's reverse was a photocopy of a SCAN newsletter. It detailed the plight of Riverside tenants whose landlord, Victor Rodriguez, had doubled rents while violating building code. Printed alongside this account of Dickensian-sounding conditions was a Metro Santa Cruz news article that quoted SCAN member Tony Madrigal saying, "The idea of rent control excites [Beach] Flats residents."

Also attached was an anti-rent control article, written from an "owner's perspective" by Gordon Pusser, a political activist, land developer and real estate investor, whom Bragar calls her mentor. Bragar first met Pusser while researching a project on accessory-dwelling units and the city's student-housing crunch. (Councilmember Primack recently designed a mixed-use project in the west Santa Cruz industrial zone for Pusser).

Citing 20 years' experience of rent control as owner of a three-unit facility in Berkeley, Pusser argued in his article that rent control didn't help students at all. "Students held onto their rent-controlled units long after they graduated, either living them or subletting them at a profit. Thus, there were few openings for new students," he wrote.

Pusser also stated that rent control does not help poor people: "Since landlords can't change the amount of rent they receive, when there is a vacancy, they rent to tenants with the highest income." Continuing in the same vein, Pusser claimed that rent regulation polarizes the community, writing, "Landlords are depicted as tyrants to be brought down."

And with rent-control boards in place, Pusser argued, landlords are harassed beyond the law, making it impossible for them to evict tenants, even those convicted of criminal activities.

He finished by urging income property owners in jointly funding JB Associates' proposal: "It could be the best insurance you ever bought."

Future Wave

DESPITE HER TENDER YEARS, Bragar has a strong track record as a political organizer. A graduate of UCSC, she currently directs a controversial effort to build the MetroBase in Harvey West, has helped keep Whole Foods Markets out of Santa Cruz and is organizing the "No Home for Depot" fight.

In 2000, she organized the successful election campaigns of City Councilmember Emily Reilly and County Supervisor Ellen Pirie; and in 1998, she helped organize Santa Cruz County's Democratic Party's Headquarters during the campaign to elect Gray Davis (a high school friend of Pusser's).

What made Bragar take up the cause of Santa Cruz landlords? "I believe landlords lack voice in this discussion and are being demonized," Bragar says. "They're making an investment and want a return for what they do."

Hochman, meanwhile, claims that Bragar's letter has catalyzed activists and organizers into action.

"When we finished laughing about it," Hochman recalls, "I said, 'Maybe we should call a meeting about rent control.' Still, it's too bad. Jenny fought a damn good fight against Whole Foods. But after this, there's no coming back unless she claims she was taking drugs. Bragar and Pusser are the laughing stock of the progressive community."

Bragar disagrees. "From the people I've talked with, there's a 50-50 split among progressives on rent control. Nora and I have different opinions, and I appreciate that. But she has implied I don't care about 'the people,' whoever they are. And that's not true."

Bragar, who graduated from UCSC in 1998, says that as a student of economics, she was taught that rent control doesn't work efficiently to solve issues of rent and affordability.

"I believe the cost of rent control in the short and long term make it a bad way to go, "she says, "but it's never been my goal to hurt anyone. I truly believe some landlords would remove current rental units from the market if rent control passed."

Does she think her letter may end up energizing the movement it sought to stamp out?

"I believe rent control could succeed, depending on how it's organized," Bragar replies. "So many people lack information and are looking for an immediate fix. They're upset at having such a difficult time, so they think it might be the answer. My idea is to open the debate to wider groups of people."

Fellow SCAN Member Tony Madrigal, who organized the Beach Flats rent-rage rally in April, thinks Bragar's approach is wrong.

"I've heard her argument about defending the landlords, but really she's trying to scare the landlords into action," Madrigal says, "and that's creating a wedge in the progressive community. The bottom line around rent control is that it's a struggle between the haves and the have-nots."

Where to Now?

FOR LAMONICA, the question remains whether Santa Cruz progressives can see the human context of housing. "Rent control is about the local application of progressive values. People say rent control will stop properties from being built or put on the market, but are property owners really gonna leave Santa Cruz? All rent control says is 'You can't gorge.' "

In the next few months, Lamonica believes, "rent control is gonna be where rubber meets road. It's timely, local and important. If progressives don't come out for rent control, what are they gonna be progressive about? Seattle?"

As chair of SCAN's Housing Committee, does Hochman believe the rent-control movement is nonexistent?

"It may be that getting rent stabilization is less impactful and meaningful than before," Hochman replies. "SCAN's position is to address all the possibilities around housing. Rent control is just a piece of that. And there are a lot of questions around it, such as what form would it take? Is it achievable? Will it be meaningful?"

Both Hochman and Bragar hope to see a housing summit take place soon that will bring together city councilmembers, landlords, developers, renters, representatives of renters and the city's Redevelopment Agency and Planning Department.

Says Bragar, "I'm hoping through all this that we'll start to have conversations, and other discussion building from there will take place. Let's just find a way to tackle these questions."

Meanwhile, Madrigal believes that teachers, police, Latinos and students all feel the same way about rent. "They can't afford any more increases," he says. "That makes me feel very optimistic that we can build broad-based community support for rent control. The City Council has an opportunity here to show some strong leadership to deal with the number-one issue in Santa Cruz: housing."

This article is part one in a series on housing. Part two: The Cost of Affordable Housing.

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From the May 16-23, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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