Bay Area Rent Control Propositions Restricted by Existing California Law

Friday, September 23, 2016
Melissa Caen
CBS (San Francisco)

Five Bay Area cities will be voting on whether to implement rent control in November, but a California law has long-restricted rent control statewide.

Five cities, five ballot propositions all with the goal of stopping big rent increases and protecting tenants.

The proposition in Burlingame says they’ve suffered from unreasonable rent increases, in San Mateo it says exorbitant rent increases, in Mountain View, excessive rental increases, in Richmond it says housing has reached a crisis level, and in Alameda, it says high rents are an immediate threat to the public.

Frances Moore, known also as ‘Auntie Frances’ said, “I’m being gentrified out of my house…I’ve been there six years, I’m disabled, and I’m a senior citizen. I’m 61 years old. It seems so hopeless, but I know there’s power in the people. Cause there is power in the people.”

Voters may pass all these laws, but there is a higher power – state law.

And it’s state law that limits what cities and voters can do, in three big ways:

First, only buildings that were built before February 1, 1995 can be rent controlled. Places built more recently – after 1995 – cannot be rent controlled.

Second, only apartments can be rent controlled. Single family homes or condos cannot.

Third, in a rent controlled apartment if there is a vacancy, the landlord can raise the rent to a market price. A new tenant has to pay the higher market price, but then rent control limits future increases.

These restrictions on rent control are in place because of a state law called the Costa-Hawkins Act.

Willie Brown was the speaker of the assembly in 1995 when the act was passed. Brown voted against the law, but he remembers Jim Costa, the author of the bill.

Brown says Costa represented the city of Fresno, where there was no tenant movement.

Brown said the act passed in the 1990s because there were many other California legislators also looking out for landlords in their area.

“There were too many other places in California that were as politically comfortable looking out for landlords as Mr. Costa’s Fresno area was,” Brown said.

Current State Senator Mark Leno says state legislators – even Democrats – from non-urban areas still have no love for rent control.

Leno said, “Many of my colleagues in the Legislature don’t have rent control in their districts so it’s hard for them to feel our pain.”

Leno described the Costa-Hawkins Act “like a Holy Grail in Sacramento.”

So state law isn’t likely to change any time soon.

But supporters of rent control say they will take what they get.

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