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Hoist the jib, matey, the marina's raising the rent

By Rushworth M. Kidder / March 29, 1982



San Diego

Rent control has found a new constituency in this southern California seaside city.

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Long used by American and European governments to keep apartment rents within reach of lower income families, rent control has recently found favor at the other end of the salary scale: among boat owners.

They are incensed at the rising rents of boat slips at the local marinas where they dock their yachts, and they want the San Diego Unified Port District to impose controls on marina operators.

Calls for increased government regulation of the marketplace are rare in this conservative community. But when the Harbor Island West Marina recently jacked its rents from $4.20 to $6.60 per linear foot per month -- a 60.5 percent increase -- the boaters fired a broadside at the port district. Because the marinas are actually tenants of the port district, the boat owners argue that the district should exercise more control.

The boat owners are ''trying to apply the civil right acts to it,'' says Louis Gerlinger, publisher of the San Diego Log, a local boating newspaper. Explaining his analogy, he says the boat owners argue that the district cannot ignore the economic actions of its tenants -- any more than a state in the 1950s could ignore discrimination in privately operated bus stations built on public land.

Patrick Smith, manager of the Harbor Island West Marina, sees it another way. His marina, built 12 years ago and now one of the oldest of the city's 11 private marinas, changed owners last September. Now, he says, it needs to be ''totally rebuilt.'' That takes cash. But, he explains, ''You just can't compete in a cash flow established 12 years ago.''

But so powerful is the boating community's voice that the district prepared a 17-page study of the matter this winter. After noting that slip rent increases have tracked fairly closely with local increases in consumer prices and housing prices, it concludes somewhat wryly that rent controls are not the answer.

''Governments,'' says the report, ''have found it necessary to impose price controls on such life necessities as food, clothing, and shelter.''

But, the report continues, ''boating has never been considered a life necessity; and therefore there is no social justification for slip rent control.''

Port District official Donald E. Hillman Jr., author of the report, says that the problem arises from a shortage of slips. Until about five years ago, he says , ''we've been able to put on the bay more slips than there was demand.'' But during the 1970s San Diego was one of the nation's fastest-growing cities. The influx of people and an increase in discretionary income, says Mr. Hillman, brought more people into boating.

And with slip rents lower than at many other California marinas, nearly one-third of the 2,870 slips at private marinas here are rented to boat owners from outside San Diego County. The problem now is one of supply: In San Diego, as in the rest of southern California, there is virtually a 100 percent occupancy rate and substantial waiting lists at most marinas.

That may change. The port district's report notes that the bay has room for another 2,450 slips. Building them, however, is another matter -- especially if marina operators cannot charge enough to cover the high costs of construction. The report concludes that slip rent controls would increase the shortage, ''and in many cases may cause a long-term decline in the maintenance and refurbishment of marinas.''

And that, in turn, has social ramifications for the very people for whom a housing rent control policy is usually designed. Without thriving marinas, argues the report, business at the many seaside hotels and restaurants might fall off. The result: a loss of jobs for people who, the report says, ''are socially and economically disadvantaged when compared with the typical boat owner.''