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Big Bucks Prevail

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Parent Issue
Month
June
Year
1988
Copyright
Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held By
Agenda Publications
OCR Text

In April, 1988, the rent control proposal (Proposal C) was defeated by Ann Arbor voters. Many had predicted, accurately, that the big money interests would prevail. The outcome of this campaign raises many questions. How much money did the landlords spend to defeat rent control? Why was the pro-rent control campaign unable to overeóme its financial disadvantage? What can be learned from this defeat? Landlords' Tactics: Big Money, Big Results InlateMarch, homeowners found atax statement awaiting them in their mailboxes - or at least it looked like a tax statement. Horneo wner Jane Barney said she was appalled to open a letter that started out "Dear Mrs. Barney," informing her that property taxes on her $64,000 home would increase $662.99 in the next year if rent control passed in Ann Arbor. At the bottom of the letter was a "check," signed Jane Barney, to the City of Ann Arbor for the amount stated. This mailing was one component of the high-budget, comprehensive strategy of the Ann Arbor anti-rent control campaign. This sophisticated advertising campaign was similar to those used all over the country to gut rent control campaigns. Along with many local landlords, investors in the anti-rent stabilization effort included Michigan builders, real estáte and apartment associations, the Columbus (Ohio) Apartment Association, Texas and Louisiana rental property owners, the National Association of Realtors of Washington, D.C., and Lansing real estáte firms. According to the National Apartment Association's kit on how to stop rent control, the first step is to try to pre-empt the issue at the state level. With two potential local battles, one in Ann Arbor and one in Detroit, the Apartment Association of Michigan went ahead with that plan, spending $75,000 to lobby the state senate to prohibit local rent control. Once it became obvious that the bill would not pass in the House, Citizens for Ann Arbor's Future (CA AF), otherwise known as "The Landlords," solicited $18 per unit from all rental property owners to defeat the rent control ordinance. C AAF reports it actually raised and spent $200,000 to rally (SEE "BIG BUCKS," PAGE 2) BIG BUCK$ (FROM PAGE 1) 16,000 anti-rent stabilization votes. That amounts to $12 a vote. The landlords paid Marketing Resources Group, a Lansing marketing ad agency, $115,000 to package their campaign. After extensive phone surveying to leam Arm Arborites' concerns about rent control, the ad agency redefined the issues of the campaign, targeting the often liberal Arm Arbor homeowners concerned about high taxes. The largest scare tactic was to claim that rent stabilization would discourage landlords from repair and upkeep, causing rental property tax assessments to fall and leaving homeowners to piek up the tax loss. The ad agency also encouraged landlords to feign concern for the people rent stabilization would help. Four ads appeared in The Arm Arbor News between March 30 and April 3, which acknowledged the housing crisis in Arm Arbor, yet talked specifically of how rent stabilization would make conditions worse. "It won't help the elderly, the poor, the homeless," the ads claimed. It was particularly hypocritical that the landlords were at the same time threatening that they would stop doing repairs or improvements, renting to lower income tenants or renting at all if rent stabilization passed. The landlords also refused to debate the issue in public. In the March 1988 Arm Arbor Observer, Jim Morris, spokesperson for the anti-rent control campaign, said the issues did not lend themselves to debate. "They're selling wonder bread, we're selling economie?," he stated. While cutting off debate, landlords barraged Arm Arbor residents with anti-rent control propaganda. The sheer volume of their propaganda created the illusion of discourse, and allowed the tactic of stifling debate to go unnoticed by most voters. One of the most significant contributions to the landlords' campaign came from The Arm Arbor News. While there were some late-breaking anieles about the sky-rocketing rent in Ann Arbor, the editorial slant of The News was overwhelmingly against rent control. The editorial board labeled the campaign "The Great Hoax" (March 30, 1988) and echoed each of the landlords' "arguments." The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press were even more vocal in delegitimizing the campaign. Overcoming Big Money Campaigns Given big money's ability to definí issues through media and public relations works, what can be done by a grassroots campaign seeking to pass progressive legislation? Specifically, how can tenant groups better prepare themselves for the next rent control or other housing initiative? Perhaps the most important thing is creativity. It is important to carve out a new way of politicking. We have seen some effective demonstrations of a new grassroots political style locally in the Dean Baker for Congress campaign and nationally in the Jesse Jackson for President campaign. These campaigns do not rely on money, mainstream media, polling or millions of direct mail contacts. The B aker and Jackson campaigns rely on direct people contact and empowerment. In 1986, Baker's 750-plus volunteers knocked on doors and registered voters. Jackson has engaged in the same kind of registration drive. Another kind of strategy, outside of electoral politics, has been used by the Latin American Solidarity Committee (LASC). LASC staged direct actions such as civil disobedience, marches, and rallies to draw attention to the flawed policies of Congressperson Cari Pursell. Could the rent control campaign have adopted any of these tactics in order to enhance its chances of success within the defined electoral process? A demonstration outside McKinley Properties the week before the election drew significant attention to the compelling need for tenant protection in Ann Arbor. A sit-in at the landlords ' campaign headquarters could have been used to exposé the extent of their unfair business practices and questionable campaign strategies. More direct action might have captured people 's imagination and brought them out to work on the campaign. Voter registration is another important tooi. One reason for Proposal C's defeat was that large numbers of homeowners came out to vote against it. Election resalís also show that the rent stabilization campaign increased and captured the student and tenant vote (both groups are traditional nonvoters). In order to succeed, a rent stabilization campaign must concéntrate on registering tenant and student voters. Ultimately, the rent stabilization campaign lacked the outreach effort necessary to defeat the landlords' campaign. A successful campaign organization would have worked to establish a stronger relationship with all tenants. More Ann Arbor tenants must know tenant activists and learn to trust them more than their landlords so they will not be won over by, or at least will be made more skeptical of, a campaign by anonymous landlord and media (SEE "THE VICTORIES," PAGE 11) THE VICTORIES (from page 2) propaganda. It also would have been necessary to form a coalition with other concerned community groups. Because rent stabilization was perceived as a threat to local economie interests, most local groups found themselves with a divided constituency. Thus throughout the campaign most other groups; including churches, groups working with the poor, and other politically progressive organizations shied away from the issue. The Victories Tenants must count up the victories of this campaign and move on toward solidifying the tenant constituency and the control t wields in this city. Though the rent stabilization ordinance lost at the polls, the campaign torced voters to examine and discuss the issue of affordable housing in a way they had not done for a decade. Campaign volunteers went door-to-door n nearly every apartment complex in the city and listened to tenants' problems and fears about being torced out of Ann Arbor by high rents. The issue, normally only discussed at the din ing room table, became part of city politics. Future Directions in Housing Issues Tenants must continue to play an active role in housing issues, such as housing code enforcement, low-income housing projects and the chronic problems of high rents and displacement. City Council is now dominated by Republicans who need to be held accountable to the needs of the community. The U-M should likewise be pressured to provide more housing for the people it brings to Ann Arbor. Rent Stabilization campaign workers continue to meet at the Guild House, first and third Thursdays of the month at 7:30 pm. Claudia Green & Moe Fitzsimons are U-M graduates and tenant activists.