Dialogue #1: No-cause, Relocation Fees, Ellis & Habitability (Recap)

Dialogue #1 Municipal GalleryDialogue #1 kicked off with an introduction by Susan Healy Keene, Director of the Community Development Department, and then moved straight to a series of four issue presentations from city consultant, HR&A Advisors. Each was followed by followed by an open mic for public comments. Unlike last summer’s roundtable discussions, this series of dialogues is highly structured. There is a walk-through of each issue; then a bit about what the issue means to Beverly Hills tenants and landlords; and finally HR&A provides policy options to which the public is invited to respond.

About 45 stakeholders attended and were maybe evenly split between tenants and landlords. But keep in mind that if tenant households outnumber landlords by more than seven-to-one, then parity in attendance means that tenants are not taking enough of an interest.

Also attending were three councilmembers: Lili Bosse, Bob Wunderlich and Lester Friedman. Councilmember Bosse has been a stalwart at the dialogues going back to last summer. Here she was seated in the front row (diligent pupil!). Councilmember Wunderlich took a cheap seat among the back rows. And Lester Friedman floated around like a wallflower. There was no sign of Mayor Gold (in a hurry to wrap up this whole issue) or Councilmember John Mirisch. (Vice-Mayor Mirisch has been a proponent of the dialogues yet he hasn’t attended any of the seven last year or this one.)

Renters Alliance of course was in the house to communicate preliminary tenant positions on each issue on the agenda. Our positions are based on the policy options provided by HR&A Advisors for the issues they have analyzed.

Renters Alliance invites your comment on our preliminary positions. Visit our positions webpage where we have organized the issues according to dialogue #1 issues and dialogue #2 issues. You may contact Renters Alliance with your views.

Your feedback is important to the city. They want your take on specific policy options as developed by HR&A Advisors. (Bulleted policy options are included in the presentations and the issue memos posted on our HR&A materials webpage. The deadline for comments to the city is September 16th.

Here is the video of dialogue #1 for anyone who could not join us. It is 3.5 hours long so grab a giant popcorn and a big drink and enjoy it comfortably from your sofa. If that’s too much for one sitting, then view the individual issue presentations from the consultant’s August 7th visit to City Council. Again you can find them on our HR&A materials webpage.

Renters Alliance Take on Dialogue #1

We couldn’t help but feel we’ve seen this movie before. We watched Community Development Department Director Susan Healy Keene introduce this session – an overview of the rent stabilization policy program and the policy process ahead. She then re-introduced Sukhsimranjit Singh, the facilitator from Pepperdine University, who moderated last summer’s dialogues. He returns for an encore engagement.

What did distinguish this second round of dialogues was the introduction of city consultant HR&A Advisors and its issue memos and presentations to structure the dialogue. Last summer the dialogues drew extensively on anecdotes from both sides of the aisle. Now we have at least some context for understanding the relevant issues – and some policy options to which we’re asked to react.

(With some irony I’ll note that at the last series of dialogues, the landlords who attended bemoaned the absence of data. Now this time around the HR&A memos and presentations can draw on data collected by the new rental unit registry. Of course that’s not satisfactory either. So landlords have worked through the courts to invalidate the registry. It is the bête noire of the extremists among them.)

Finally, this dialogue #1 introduced Helen Morales, our new director of the Rent Stabilization Program. She presented the habitability issue. Helen is the face of the program now so it’s fitting that she took charge of the habitability policy options — one of which is a mandatory inspection program like the one with which she’s familiar from her former employer, City of Los Angeles.

In some other respects, however, this first dialogue in the second round was a disappointment. Some thoughts.

This dialogue in general was simply not as productive as we would have liked. Gone is the ‘roundtable’ around which representatives from tenants and landlords had identified key issues and staked out our respective positions. Back then we found some areas of agreement (many needed more work) and talking itself was progress. At dialogue *1 tenants and landlords tended to talk past each other with anecdotes (a replay of so many Council and commission meetings).

Contrary to the billing there was little actual dialogue. The communication was largely uni-directional. HR&A presented the issues. Later the public had an opportunity to speak up. There was no meaningful exchange. (Maybe that’s just as well: it’s City Council’s dialogue that counts anyway.)[1]

It felt a bit like ‘public participation theater.’ Not to be uncharitable here — the city is devoting considerable resources to the process — but the rigid dialogue format felt overly-structured. And it’s not clear how our verbal comments make it into the record for Council review if forms are provided for that purpose. So it’s more like a Q&A. Finally, then there’s some sense of deja vu as we have already sat through a similar exercise exactly a year ago.

The role of the facilitator seems misplaced. We love Dr. Singh and he did perform an important ‘traffic cop’ role when we used a roundtable format. But in this far more structured presentation-and-response format, it is not yet clear what his role would be… except to caution civility must prevail (and it always does).

We still don’t have the data that we need for a productive discussion about the key issues. This is the most important takeaway! The help from HR&A has more clearly defined each issue and identified policy options, but what if we would drill down on these issues? There simply is no local data available to inform the discussion of no-just-cause termination, relocation fees, Ellis Act, or habitability standards.[2]

In conclusion, some of us were skeptical about the reprise of the dialogues. Been there, done that. The landlords appeared to feel the same way. Yet we could not not participate. We are in a box.

Dialogue #1 did not allay our concerns about the process. As one attendee said, “I’m hoping we we don’t have these meeting over and over again, and hear the same problems….” We agree.

And last, it is a formidable challenge to inform the public let alone generate meaningful comments. It’s a challenge to simply get people to show up. Perhaps the falloff in attention to the rent stabilization policy process generally suggests the public’s verdict has already come in.

  1. Last year we suggested to the city a ‘collaborative democracy’ format that interleaved issue education with hands-on facilitation in a back-and forth iterative process as practiced by the National Institute for Civil Discourse. Lots of localities have used the organization’s template to reach tough policy decisions. Beverly Hills home-rolled our own process instead.  ↩
  2. As we point out in our preliminary tenant policy positions, the available data is not nearly as comprehensive as we need it to be. The HR&A study did not tap the city’s existing data on no-just-cause tenancy terminations; we continue to talk about that issue in a data vacuum. Landlords claim there is no problem for tenants and waive in the air their own study of substantiated code complaints; but the city has provided numbers for tenant calls and inquiries that suggest a significant problem indeed exists. And most obviously, the landlord grouse about escalating expenses gobbling the bottom line, yet they decline to provide any data on operations that could substantiate such claims. As a result we are still dialoging using anecdotes!  ↩

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.