California Has Tight Limits on Rent Control. That Could Be Changing.

Thursday, January 11, 2018
Angela Hart
Sacramento Bee

Hundreds of housing activists and pro-rent control tenants are expected to flood the Capitol this morning for a hearing on a controversial bill shelved last year amid intense opposition from the state’s real estate industry.

Assembly Bill 1506 from Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica would repeal a state law known as Costa-Hawkins, clearing the way for California cities and counties to strengthen local rent control measures.

“Sacramento should get out of the way and let cities decide how they should protect tenants and regulate rents in local housing markets,” said Aimee Inglis, associate director of the San Francisco-based Tenants Together, a statewide housing advocacy nonprofit.

A broad coalition of tenants and their advocates are pushing California lawmakers to repeal the 1995 law, which sets tight limits on local rent control. Under Costa-Hawkins, cities and counties are forbidden from strengthening existing rent control ordinances. Cities and counties also cannot apply rent control to duplexes, single family homes and all housing built after 1995.

Rent control opponents, who also are mustering up speakers for today’s hearing, say restricting the amount landlords are allowed to raise rents actually leads to higher housing costs. The California Apartment Association, which is lobbying against the measure, says repealing the state law would give “the green light to extreme versions of rent control throughout California,” according to a Jan. 4 letter it sent to Bloom.

The industry also says repealing the law would bring new construction to a “standstill,” lead property owners to delay maintenance repairs and create incentives for landlords to take rental housing off the market.

But housing advocates say exorbitant rent increases across California are disproportionately displacing low-income people and communities of color.

“We are in a housing crisis of epic proportions,” said Christina Livingston, executive director for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a tenants’ rights group. “Families are being displaced from their homes in droves, rents are skyrocketing and homelessness is growing ... That’s the picture we want to paint for lawmakers.”

The committee hearing is only the beginning of what could drag into a pronounced yearlong battle over rent control. Proponents are promising a fight at the ballot box, with signature gatherers out now to qualify a measure this November that would repeal Costa-Hawkins.

Michael Weinstein, president of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is behind the measure, as is the tenants’ rights coalition. Weinstein was also behind two failed controversial ballot measures in 2016 that sought to require condoms in porn production and tie prescription drug spending to the lowest price paid by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We’re setting up the campaign structure now for the ballot initiative,” Livingston said. “Ideally we’d do this through the Legislature, but we don’t believe lawmakers really are feeling the public desire or pressure to move Costa-Hawkins repeal.”

The Assembly’s Housing and Community Development committee hearing begins at 9 a.m. in Room 4202 of the Capitol. Bloom’s bill must pass out of committee today to make it to the Assembly floor by the end of the month.

Even if the bill clears the Assembly, it could face another tough hurdle in the Senate.

Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, who takes over as Senate leader for state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León in March, expressed concern.

“I have not traditionally supported rent control,” Atkins said in an interview earlier this year. “That being said, there’s a big difference between a reasonable 3 to 4 percent increase versus the 30 to 40 percent increases we’re seeing.”

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