Rent Control Debate Looms Dueling Measures on the June Ballot set up a Fight Between Tenants and Landlords.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Mary Ann Milbourn
The Orange County Register

Rent control hasn't been a major issue recently in Orange County, but the debate is expected to heat up this June over two ballot measures that could affect landlords and tenants alike.

The primary focus of the two initiatives - Proposition 98 and Proposition 99 - is to close a loophole in the state's eminent domain law to prevent government from taking private property for other private uses. The concern stems from the 2005 Kelo case in Connecticut in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the government's right to take private property and turn it over to another private interest for economic development.

But California's Prop. 98, spearheaded by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, apartment owners, the mobile home park industry and the California Farm Bureau, goes further, including a provision that would phase out rent control in apartments and mobile homes as the units are vacated.

Rent-control proponents, led by a coalition of renters, seniors, mobile home associations and environmental groups, countered with Prop. 99, which they say would provide eminent domain protection without ending rent control.

The election is expected to pit tenants against landlords, with Prop. 99 proponents framing the campaign as not just about eminent domain or rent control, but also about the potential abolition of all tenant protections, ranging from the 60-day notice for eviction to the return of rental deposits.

Statewide, more than 12 cities have some form of apartment rent control, and about 100 jurisdictions have price controls on mobile homes.

Rent control has met with only limited success in Orange County. No local jurisdictions have rent control for apartments. Huntington Beach voters went so far as to remove the City Council's authority to approve rent control.

A handful of local cities have some version of rent control at mobile home parks. A San Juan Capistrano ordinance controls rent increases. Several other cities, like Irvine, have purchased mobile home parks to provide affordable housing.

But with average Orange County rents approaching $1,600 a month and incomes not keeping pace, there is increasing pressure to control rents here.

The Apartment Association of Orange County has jumped into the fray, working in support of the Prop. 98 phase-out of rent control.

Vicki Binford, Apartment Association president, says her members see it as a property-rights issue.

"Government has tried to keep affordable housing, but they want to do it at the owner's expense," she says.

Those who want to repeal rent control believe that if government's goal is to have more affordable housing, it should build it or provide subsidies like Section 8 vouchers for low-income households.

Groups that favor rent control say Prop. 98 has nothing to do with the issue of affordable housing but rather is a broad effort to eliminate longstanding tenant protections under the guise of eminent domain reform.

"Proposition 98 is an attack on renters, not just an attack on rent control," says Dean Preston, head of Tenants Together, a statewide tenants rights group. "It would jeopardize virtually all the tenant protection laws that 14 million tenants in California live under."

Jon Coupal, head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, says that charge is just plain wrong.

The measure was broadly written to prevent an end-around by government to undermine its goal of preserving private property rights, he says. He compared it to Proposition 13, also spearheaded by the late Howard Jarvis, which not only limited property taxes but also required voters approve any new taxes by two-thirds vote.

Jean Ross, director of the California Budget Project, a nonprofit that analyzes issues relating to government finance, says her organization does not take a position on ballot measures and has not analyzed either of the two June initiatives.

She says she is leery, however, based on her years of experience with propositions and their impact on government.

"These often have implications that go far beyond what might appear on the surface," she says. "They are increasingly complex, and it's unclear how far-reaching their implications might be."

The campaign already has turned nasty. The Prop. 98 anti-rent control forces filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission. They accuse three associations supporting Prop. 99 of indirectly using tax dollars to fund their effort. The Prop. 99 camp says all funds have been properly segregated and no public money has been used.

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