If Not Rent Control, Then What? California Renters Can't Afford to Wait

Friday, January 12, 2018
Erika D. Smith
Sacramento Bee

Moments before an Assembly committee killed a bill that would’ve made it easier to expand rent control in California, Assemblyman David Chiu made a serious prediction.

“Regardless of the outcome,” the San Francisco Democrat warned on Thursday, “this will not be the end of the conversation. It’s just the beginning.”

And with that, Assembly Bill 1506, of which Chiu was a co-sponsor, died on a 3-2 vote.

Chaos immediately erupted in the chamber, with activists in yellow shirts unfurling banners, locking arms and chanting that “housing is a human right.” One person vowed that they would stay “until they drag us away.”

The activists eventually left peacefully, but still. The California Apartment Association, California Association of Realtors, California Building Industry Association and all of the other groups that oppose any expansion of rent control should be afraid. Very afraid.

Because while they may have won the battle at the Capitol, there’s a good chance they just lost the war – and, no matter what they say, it really didn’t have to be this way.

Time and time again on Thursday, the three rent control opponents charged with testifying before the Assembly housing committee had the chance to effectively address the rage emanating from the packed room. But they didn’t.

So people standing in the hallway and in the overflow rooms got so angry at times that they started screaming and pounding on the walls. Behind me, tenants swapped stories in hushed voices about how their rents had climbed by $600, $700, even $1,000, with their landlords giving them only two months notice. For a few minutes, I was pretty sure an argument between a landlord and a renter was about to turn into a fistfight.

Grandmothers are getting price-gouged and put out in the street with nowhere else to go but a tent under a bridge. Entire families have had to move to different counties, with kids switching schools and parents commuting hours just to get to work. One woman told me how she keeps the receipts for her groceries so she can return them, if necessary, to pay her escalating rent.

And yet, when Chiu asked the rent control opponents about alternative solutions to help renters stabilize their lives right now, they had no suggestions. And when Assemblyman Mark Stone of Santa Cruz noted that AB 1506 was introduced months ago and opponents had made no real effort to negotiate a compromise, they had nothing much to say.

Instead, they offered the public and legislators fear.

If AB 1506 had passed, opponents said, the construction of new housing would’ve slowed to a standstill and tenants newly comfortable with low rents would stop moving, further limiting the supply of apartments while demand skyrocketed along with prices.

It’s a viable argument, one that probably would pan out in some fashion.

The only problem is, for abused renters, of which there are many in California, that scenario doesn’t sound a whole lot different than what’s happening right now without rent control. It’s hard to see how things could get worse.

Assemblyman Richard Bloom, the Santa Monica Democrat who introduced AB 1506, had much the same argument.

His bill was initially part of last year’s legislative package to address the housing crisis. While bills to help developers fast-track construction projects passed, as did a fee on real estate transactions to fund affordable housing, AB 1506 was sidelined early on and has sat dormant since then.

If passed, it would’ve repealed a 1995 state law known as the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, authored by Fresno Democrat Jim Costa (then a state senator, now in Congress) and Bellflower Republican Phil Hawkins, then in the Assembly. The act prohibits cities and counties from beefing up their existing rent control ordinances, or applying them to single family homes or any housing built after 1995.

Proponents, mostly tenants’ rights groups, see rent control as an issue of local control. With Costa-Hawkins gone, cities and counties would be free to pursue their own ordinances, as some did before the law, or do nothing. Developers and landlords, meanwhile, see it as an existential threat to their increasingly lucrative business model. The California Apartment Association, for example, has spent more than $1 million to kill rent control plans in several cities.

But now that the association has almost single-handedly killed AB 1506, too – and, along with it, a lot of hope for a compromise – it’s full-steam ahead with a ballot measure that would do the same thing. Signature gatherers are out now, backed by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the deep and litigious pockets of Michael Weinstein, head of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Whereas some voters may have once been loathe to endorse a flawed, scorched-earth tool like rent control to ease California’s housing crisis, the failure of Bloom’s bill – and the lack of a viable alternative from developers and landlords – might convince them to reconsider. I’m betting the issue will make it on the ballot.

For many people, the situation is that dire. More than 30 percent of the nation’s homeless people call California home and rents are rising faster in our cities, including Sacramento, than pretty much anywhere else.

The status quo cannot continue, and renters who are barely able to keep a roof over their heads can’t afford to wait five or 10 years for new housing construction, as promised by the package of bills passed last year.

Rent control is far from a perfect solution and ballot initiatives are crude policy-making tools, at best. Hopefully, developers and landlords will huddle with tenants’ activists in the coming months to hammer out a legislative compromise that will be effective and palatable to both sides.

Either way, as Chiu predicted, this is just the beginning.

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