Amid Housing Crunch, Bay Area Tenants Confront Landlords, Call for Rent Control

Saturday, July 29, 2017
Lisa P. White
East Bay Times

As Bay Area residents continue to face high housing costs, tenants and community activists are calling on corporate landlords to stop rent increases and for support in broadening rent control legislation.

Merika Reagan, an East Oakland resident who owns a pet care and dog walking business, is part of Housing Now! — a statewide coalition of more than 50 tenants rights groups, labor unions, community organizations, housing advocates and small landlords — who are fighting to make housing more affordable.

Reagan rents a two-bedroom, single-family home from Starwood Waypoint Homes, one of the largest publicly traded owners and operators of single-family rental homes in the United States. When she signed her first two-year lease on the home a little more than three years ago, her rent was about $1,795 per month. After a $50 per month increase in rent last year, the company gave her a notice this year that her rent would rise by $350 per month.

“I was so stressed. I’m already a slave to Waypoint,” Reagan said, noting the long hours she has to work to pay the rent for the house she shares with her partner.

Reagan joined the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, an advocacy group shortly after she received that rent notice. After the group staged a sit-in at the Sacramento office of Starwood Waypoint (then Colony Starwood Homes), the company instead increased Reagan’s rent only $50 per month.

ACCE is part of Housing Now!, and while Starwood Waypoint is among the largest of the corporate landlords the coalition is confronting (the rental company recently announced it would add 3,000 houses to its already large portfolio), it’s not the only target.

The coalition, which gathered several hundred tenants and advocates at multiple protests across the state on Thursday, is calling on the California Apartment Association to support the repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which bars local governments from extending rent control to properties built after 1995, single-family homes and condominiums.

The coalition also wants the apartment association, which represents landlords, developers and property management companies, to stop lobbying against tenant protections and challenging rent control ordinances in court. In the spring, CAA dropped lawsuits against Richmond and Mountain View, where voters passed rent control measures in November.

“Wages have stayed the same for a long time and we know that people are struggling to pay their rents,” said Edith Pastrano, an organizer with Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, during a protest in Pleasant Hill.

“Currently we know that there’s a shortage of affordable housing. We know that there’s a lot of development happening in terms of luxury homes, luxury condos, but these, again, do not get covered under rent control. So where is housing for people who really need it?”

In the Bay Area, cities including Berkeley, Oakland, East Palo Alto, Hayward, San Francisco, Alameda, Santa Rosa, Richmond, Mountain View and San Jose have rent control.

Most cities with rent control also have a “just cause” eviction ordinance which prevents landlords from evicting tenants without a reason, such as failure to pay rent or violating the lease.

Opponents contend that rent control reduces the supply of rental housing by discouraging development, does not keep rents down and provides a disincentive for landlords to maintain their properties.

Debra Carlton, senior vice president of public affairs at the California Apartment Association, believes there is common ground to find with tenants and landlords, but broadening rent control is not the answer.

“I get the frustration, but we would like to turn the light on NIMBY groups that don’t want needed affordable housing in their neighborhoods — that should be much more offensive than (Costa-Hawkins),” Carlton said. “Rent control does nothing to provide housing.”

It’s unlikely that Costa-Hawkins would see an end soon — a bill to repeal the act that drew opposition from real estate interests died in the Legislature in April. So tenants have taken matters into their own hands.

As part of the Housing Now! coalition’s actions on Thursday, tenants marched in San Francisco to deliver a letter to Starwood chairman Barry Sternlicht demanding a moratorium on rent increases and a meeting to negotiate rent prices.

Executives were not at the office, said ACCE member Omar Taylor outside the office building, but he and other members left the letter with an office manager. The former chairman of the company, billionaire and Trump associate Thomas Barrack, left the company last month following an exposé from Reveal that detailed slum-like conditions at the company’s property.

Earlier in Pleasant Hill, protesters marched down the street to deliver a letter outlining their demands to the apartment association’s office on Buskirk Avenue. But when they arrived they learned that the organization does not have a permanent office or staff in the building. They left the letter with a receptionist, but it was unclear if she would forward it to the apartment association’s Sacramento headquarters.

Pedro Jimenez was among about two dozen tenants and advocates who gathered for the protest Thursday in Pleasant Hill. Last year, Jimenez, his wife and two teenage children moved into a $1,895 per month two-bedroom apartment in Concord. The family’s rent is scheduled to increase by $300 in October.

“We’re going to continue to fight for tenant protections,” said Pastrano, the ACCE organizer. “Because what do they expect us to do, live under bridges?”

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