Op-Ed: Big Money Trying to Repeal Rent Control with Measure B

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Recently released campaign finance documents make it clearer than ever that Measure B is built on deception and powered by huge landlord donations.  Measure B is a Culver City-specific item on the November ballot. If passed, it would repeal all local rent control (read Section B of the measure), including the permanent protections the City Council is poised to pass on Monday after more than a year of research, debate, and refinement.  Measure B would also bar any new local tenant protections unless they are first put on the ballot in a subsequent election (read Section A of the measure), guaranteeing a gap of at least two years.

The campaign for Measure B has consistently tried to conceal its aim and effect of stymying renter protections. The official “pro” argument, submitted by Ron Bassilian on behalf of his PAC “Protect Culver City” (PCC), never acknowledges that Measure B would wipe existing local rent control off the books. Instead, it hides entirely behind the smokescreen of voter choice. The same was true for PCC’s flyers during its effort to get Measure B on the ballot.

Elsewhere, though, PCC consistently opposes rent control and rails against it as “horrible.” Instead, PCC’s favored approach to the housing crisis is more aggressive policing of houseless people, whom it insists on calling “criminal vagrants.” Unsurprisingly, PCC has forged an alliance with Culver City’s police union, which recently has started funding PCC. Meanwhile, PCC leader Bassilian cheers on Twitter for violent suppression of protests by federal troops and for Kenosha killer Kyle Rittenhouse.

When PCC was petitioning to get Measure B on the ballot, there were multiple reports that its paid signature gatherers were misleading people by claiming that the petition favored rent control. I personally witnessed this at a friend’s apartment. Later, when the same paid gatherer appeared at my neighbor’s home, I had a long conversation with him. He was upset to learn more about Bassilian, PCC, and what they stood for, but he also explained that he was houseless and urgently needed the money, at $14 per hour plus $1 per signature; he was hoping to quit soon if some day labor construction work panned out. It is cruel irony indeed to see a group devoted to vilifying the unhoused preying upon their vulnerability this way.

Meanwhile, PCC was raising and spending tens of thousands of dollars to get its ballot petition over the top, even while claiming it was driven by local residents. PCC’s publicly available campaign finance filings show that from January 1 through June 30, 2020, it paid a whopping $42,000 to the firm Initiative and Referendum Campaign Management Services to drum up enough signatures to qualify Measure B. This works out to about $15 per signature.

Where did this kind of money come from? Since its July 2019 inception, PCC took in $16,000 from a single donor (real estate investor Stephen Davis) and $9,900 from another (PCC’s own Treasurer, property manager Richard Glaser). Neither lists a Culver City address. So much for the beleaguered “mom and pop” resident landlord we always hear about! Overall, 87% of contributions to PCC have come from donors giving at least $500, and at least 78% from real estate interests, identified based on campaign filings or public statements.

One bizarre and troubling aspect of the PCC filings concerns an in-kind contribution by Davis, in addition to the cash donations noted above.  On March 20, as LA County entered pandemic shut-down while PCC scrambled to garner its remaining signatures, Davis provided an “apartment to house signature gatherers” valued at almost $5,000. It’s unknown whether this housing was for otherwise houseless signature gatherers, people brought in from out of town, or something else, nor what kind of COVID-19 safety precautions were in place.

Finally, when the improprieties of PCC signature gathering were being debated on social media, Bassilian and other supporters repeatedly claimed that it was entirely a resident-driven grassroots effort. Indeed, when Vice Mayor Alex Fisch noted on Twitter that PCC was a “group with outside funding,” Bassilian had the temerity to shoot back, “This is a lie.” The documents Bassilian signed prove he was bluffing.

Of course landlords have financial interests at stake in Culver City housing policy. And they’re perfectly within their rights to team up with far-right figures like Bassilian to try overcoming popular support for renter protections with a flood of money, in the hope of tricking voters into repeal. But for some reason, they really don’t want us to know that’s what Measure B is all about.

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