Thursday, August 16, 2001
The husband-and-wife team of Kay Star and Mike Holmes blew onto the tenant-rights scene last month calling for a government-enforced moratorium on rent increases, and wearing "Help For Renters.org" T-shirts.
"''Help For Renters'' is NEEDED to ''Stabilize'' the Monterey Peninsula Economy! Businesses Are Losing Employees! Doctors and Nurses are Moving From The Area! We''re In A State of ''Economy Emergency!''" read a quote-marks-and- exclamation-points-laden email from Star, an independent writer and researcher.
Star''s hopes were high. Her Web site already included a schedule of weekly meetings where renters could share stories and find help. But she also envisioned a clearinghouse for Peninsula renters, including landlord evaluations by tenants and city councilmembers'' voting records. There was even talk of a Peninsula-wide march for lower rents. At the end of the day, renters, landlords and elected city officials would all join hands and sing "Kumbaya" in their market-rate rental apartments.
During the first week of August, Star delivered shiny three-ring binders, her Rent Stabilization Workbooks, to the media and to the City Councils of Monterey, Carmel, Del Rey Oaks, Marina, Monterey, Pacific Grove, Sand City and Seaside. She asked the councils to vote by Sept. 1 to enact an emergency moratorium on excessive rent increases and a moratorium on evictions without just cause.
Echoing the Apartment Association of Monterey County''s voluntary guidelines, Star suggested using the Cost of Living Index as a guideline for fair rent adjustments and limiting rent hikes to 10 percent.
Not even three weeks later, however, the weekly meetings stopped. The Help For Renters.org calendar of events all but disappeared, and Star called the Weekly to say the group was going to lay low for a while. Help For Renters.org, she felt, had been unfairly depicted as a confrontational, anti-business group.
Three days later, Star called back. Her group--minus the T-shirts and weekly meetings--is back with a new name: Monterey Peninsula Concerned Citizens, Businesses and Organizations.
"Ever since the [Monterey County] Herald article by Victoria Manley, all I''ve been doing is damage control," Star complained in a phone interview on Monday. Star objected to the Herald''s July 25 page-one headline, "New group helps tenants fight high rent," and the article''s assessment that "An advocacy group has been formed to help Monterey Peninsula tenants fight back against the high cost of renting."
One cannot be both a fighter and a helper, said Star, a self-described humanitarian and peacemaker. And Help For Renters.org was committed to helping, not fighting. The Herald article--which was entirely uncritical--hurt her reputation, she says.
"I would call different organizations, and it took quite a long time to help them realize that I was not a radical, dissident person, but that Help for Renters was an inclusive organization," Star says, adding that she couldn''t even wear her T-shirt in public without feeling like a social pariah.
Star hopes that under the new name, tenant activists will be able to set up tables in front of the Post Office and encourage passersby to stop.
Help For Renters, it seems, was just too inflammatory. "People don''t even want to look at us, and I don''t blame them," she says. "But if I stopped by and saw Monterey Peninsula Concerned Citizens, Businesses and Organizations, I would stop because I would think, ''these people have the community at heart --it''s an inclusive project."
Rent stabilization and rent control have been lonely fights on the Monterey Peninsula. Until late 2000, tenant organizations really didn''t exist. Then in November, the tenants of four apartment complexes in Monterey and Pacific Grove began sowing the seeds of tenant activism. Tenant Sam Lipsky became the unofficial voice of renter''s rights.
Earlier this year, the Coalition of Minority Organizations (COMO) Committee on the Housing Crisis formed around the idea of affordable housing. Bill Melendez, chair of the COMO committee, says that the Apartment Association''s voluntary rent guidelines may be, well, too voluntary. He supported the now defunct Help For Renters.org.
"It frightens some of the landlords because the reality is that renters see they are going to have to form some type of association in order to fight for their position, and this is an advocacy group," Melendez said.
At a Help For Renters.org meeting last week--after an inspirational poem titled "My Silence Is Heard," Star introduced a struggling Seaside tenant and mother of three to the late-coming TV camera and crew--Tom Melville, executive officer of Coalition of Homeless Service Providers, talked about the programs that the Coalition oversees. Later, by phone, he said he supported the group. "Basically these are good-hearted, well-intentioned people that want to take some action on the issue of skyrocketing rental costs," he said.
Nevertheless, Star decided to take a different tack. She admits that the newly named group''s goal--rent stabilization--remains intact. But she wants to put the focus squarely on the city councils.
"It''s positive reinforcement," Star says. "So everything is ''We support you city councils doing your job to protect the economy and the community.''
In the meantime, the domain name www.helpforrenters.org remains the official Web site of Monterey Peninsula Concerned Citizens, Businesses and Organizations, as does the phone number, 645-9909. Weekly meetings, however, are a thing of the past. Instead of attending weekly Help For Renter''s meeting, Star says she''s encouraging interested citizens to attend city council meetings.
"We are urging you to use that three minutes to say ''I support city councilmembers. I support you using your authority to stop excessive rent increases that are destabilizing our economy.'' All along, all of this time, city councilmembers could have prevented this by supporting renters."
the Weekly Tally90,000 Average number of cars that pass the 12th Street exit on Highway One in Marina on an average day.
--Source: CalTrans, 2000