A bill to protect tenant security deposits failed on the California senate floor last week. The bill sought to give California tenants a protection already enjoyed by Alabama tenants. What should have been a noncontroversial bill in a legislative body that claims to represent the people fell victim to special interests and political cowardice. The rejection of SB 603 calls into question the value of the two-thirds Democratic majority in the California legislature when it comes to issues facing tenants.
Senate Bill 603, authored by Mark Leno (D – San Francisco), would have changed California law to require automatic doubling of damages in cases in which tenants show that their landlord illegally withheld their security deposit. Other provisions originally in the bill requiring landlords to hold deposits in separate accounts and pay interest to tenants were dropped through amendments.
The penalty called for by the bill would have provided an important disincentive to stop illegal security deposit withholding. That’s why some states, including Alabama, already impose mandatory doubling of damages. If Alabama can do it, one would think this would be a fairly easy ask of California Democrats. Think again.
The stakes here were high, and landlords knew it. California landlords hold over $5 billion in security deposits. They decide annually whether to return over $1 billion to tenants. Improper withholding is rampant. The landlord lobby targeted Leno’s bill with all of its might. We knew from the start we would face a difficult fight, but nonetheless sponsored the bill believing that regardless of the outcome, the issue was so important that it warranted a legislative response. We hoped that the new 2/3 Democratic majority would help propel this bill to victory.
Dozens of tenants came to Sacramento last month to urge their representatives to vote for the bill. This was the first tenant lobby day in recent history. Tenants Together members traveled from San Diego, Antioch, Stockton, Fresno and other California cities to be heard. Hundreds of others sent letters and made calls.
On lobby day, nearly every legislative aide shared with us the fact that they themselves had been victims of unjustified security deposit withholdings. Security deposit theft is an issue that truly resonates with renters across the political and economic spectrum. Even Senator Noreen Evans (D – Santa Rosa), Chair of the Judiciary Committee, noted at the committee hearing that she had been a victim of unfair withholding while renting in Sacramento as a senator.
Days before the vote on the senate floor, the California Association of Realtors, which typically opposes tenant rights bills, removed its opposition to the bill, presumably not wanting to be seen as defending landlords who violate the law.
On the Senate floor, Senator Leno presented the case for the bill. Rising to speak against the bill was not a Republican, but a fellow democrat, Senator Rod Wright, whose district includes Compton and is home to many low-income renters. After proudly proclaiming that he had been a landlord for years, Senator Wright went on a lengthy diatribe against the bill and urged his colleagues to vote “no.” With Democrats like Wright, landlord lobbyists don’t even need to bother with Republicans.
13 Democrats voted in favor of the bill: Senators Jim Beall (D- San Jose), Marty Block (D-San Diego), Ellen Corbett (D – San Leandro), Mark DeSaulnier (D- Concord), Noreen Evans (D – Santa Rosa), Cathleen Galgiani (D – Stockton), Loni Hancock (D – Oakland), Ben Hueso (D-Chula Vista), Hannah-Beth Jackson (D – Santa Barbara), Mark Leno (D – San Francisco), Bill Monning (D – Carmel), Fran Pavley (D – Agoura Hills), and Darrell Steinberg (D – Sacramento). These Democrats deserve credit for doing the right thing. They knew tenants in their district needed help, so they stood up to special interests and voted their conscience.
Republican senators predictably refused to support the bill. One Republican staffer assured us on lobby day that his “boss would have no problem for the damages provision,” a position that somehow changed when it came time for his boss to vote on the bill.
15 Democratic senators refused to support the bill: Senators Ron Calderon (D- Montebello), Lou Correa (D – Santa Ana), Kevin De León (D – Los Angeles), Ed Hernandez (D – Los Angeles), Jerry Hill (D – San Mateo), Ricardo Lara (D- Long Beach), Ted Lieu (D – Torrance), Carol Liu (D – Pasadena), Alex Padilla (D – Pacoima), Curren Price (D – Culver City), Richard Roth (D – Riverside), Norma Torres (D – Pomona), Lois Wolk (D – Davis), Roderick Wright (D – Inglewood) and Leland Yee (D – San Francisco).
For many of these Senators, their votes do not reflect policy preferences, but instead purely political considerations. Consider, for example, Senator Leland Yee’s vote against SB 603. It is hard to imagine this vote as anything but pandering to real estate industry campaign donors as he runs for California Secretary of State.
But there appears to be an additional factor driving some of these votes. 17 of 39 senators, that’s 44% of the Senate, are themselves landlords. This results in a bias when it comes to landlord-tenant affairs, one that is easily exploited by landlord lobbyists.
The senators who betrayed tenants last week are relying on not being called out. They know things often fade quickly from public view, particularly votes cast in Sacramento. Tenants at the grassroots level need to get their pens, computers, phones, bullhorns, signs, bodies and sense of outrage ready. Senators who opposed this bill need to get an earful as they return to their districts.
There is no getting around this basic fact: a majority of Democratic senators voted to protect landlords who illegally withhold tenant security deposits. At this point, California Democrats cannot even be trusted to give tenants basic protections enjoyed by tenants in Alabama. Tenants may have helped elect the 2/3 Democratic majority, but so far they sure aren’t getting much in return.
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