Rent Control Fights Popping Up All Over California for Affordable Housing

Activists disappointed after an Assembly committee blocked a bill to
lift statewide restrictions on types rent control demonstrate in
California’s Capitol on Thursday. (Katy Murphy – Bay Area News Group)

Detroit  I may be meeting with organizers in Detroit about how to convert abandoned houses into affordable housing and land contracts into mortgages, but it was heartening to read on the plane about the activity in a number of communities, including the capital city of Sacramento, to bring some order to rental pricing in the form of rent controls.  Reading the piece in The New York Times seemed like old home week as well.  There was Davin Cardenas in Santa Rosa ready to go back to the well and turn an earlier narrow defeat into a hopeful victory this time around.  There were pictures of organizers pushing an initiative campaign in Sacramento from ACCE, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the former California ACORN, who were the field troops in the campaign there.  In fact, there was the Los Angeles AIDS Healthcare Coalition where I had interviewed an organizer with their innovative persuasion canvassing operation, Lab, on Wade’s World for KABF a couple of years ago.  There’s hope for tenants on the West Coast!

Not that it’s easy.

Santa Rosa had won rent protection and rate security from the city council there but faced an onslaught led by the real estate interests who put them through a ballot proposition and an expensive campaign which they narrowly lost in recent years, but that was before horrific fires in the area have brought the issue back to the forefront as rents have soared with families desperate for housing during the rebuilding.  Cardenas reports that people are knocking down the community organization’s doors imploring them to try again and bring it the ballot themselves.  The fight is never over until it’s won!

In Sacramento, organizers are clearly worried about making the 50,000 number for the signature goal to get the rent issue on the ballot there.  That’s not a good sign, though they are clearly in it to win it as well.  Too often a difficult signature campaign leaves too much energy and resources on the streets and not enough gas in the tank to wage a winning campaign.  Win or lose, the organization will build power in Sacramento in the process which would put tenants in a much stronger position for the future there.

This is a national crisis, not a California one, and in too many areas states have tried to preemptively take away the prospects for rent control so that real estate lobbyists can stack the deck in the state legislature to prevent organizations and our allies to outflank them at the city level where the rents are soaring and gentrification is out of this world.  Just as we have seen in the efforts to raise minimum wages in cities, apartment owners’ associations have also followed the ALEC, National Restaurant Association, and small business groups in blocking city home rule capacity in the area of rents in more than half of the states.

That’s not an excuse of course.  There are other policy avenues:  impact areas like in Scotland, more aggressive zoning, community benefit requirements, and tax incentives for capping costs on developments among other options.

This fight is expanding. You can even see evidence in the language.  In Scotland it’s an ACORN affiliated campaign called Living Rent which speaks to the issue of rent that has to be affordable – like wages have to be sufficient – for living.  Even the headline in the Times spoke of “affordable living,” rather than affordable housing.

People are catching up with this crisis, and that’s a good sign for all of us engaged in these campaigns.

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The New HUD Seems OK with Racial Discrimination

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Little Rock       It has become a modern foundation of public policy, following Rahm Emanuel, now the Mayor of Chicago, and earlier when the comment was attributed to him when he was chief of staff for President Obama, to “…never let a serious crisis go to waste.”  Like Katrina a dozen years ago, many governmental policy makers saw the $28 billion in community development recovery funds going to Houston, the Gulf Coast, and Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma as just such an opportunity.   They might have been right except for the devastation being wrecked on the Housing & Urban Development department by Hurricane Ben Carson, its turn-back-the-hands-of-time Trump secretary.

Carson claims he’s not going soft on the mission of HUD to assure fair and equal housing and therefore to combat racism in public policies.  This claim is despite the fact of all evidence to the contrary.  He has removed the words “inclusive” and “free from discrimination” from HUD’s mission statement according to a report in The New York Times.  He has put a hold on various fair housing investigations he inherited from the Obama administration.  He canceled a settlement conference with Facebook over fair housing violations in their ad targeting that have led fair housing organizations from around the country to join in filing suit against the department and Facebook in federal court in Manhattan recently.  He has gone soft on big developers over disability access.  He tried to reverse an Obama pilot, years in the making, that would allow section 8 vouchers to be used in more affluent neighborhoods.

Most disturbingly is the way HUD and local officials have handled a housing development in Houston, long recognized despite its gung-ho growth and prosperity in recent years as one of the most segregated cities in the country.   Before the Obama administration turned over the keys to the HUD building, they had slapped back hard at Mayor Sylvester Turner’s attempt to nix a 233-unit mixed income, racially diverse project called Fountain View in the upscale, largely white area around the Galleria.  Under Carson’s regime, a watered-down settlement was approved that bypassed HUD’s own lawyers and negotiated directly with Turner, despite his opposition to the project.  A proposed $14 million penalty that the developers would have had to pay to the Houston Housing Authority if the Fountain View project was scuttled also disappeared from the negotiations.

Not surprisingly, since HUD under Carson no longer has much interest in enforcing fair housing, national and local groups have now sued the city and HUD to block $5 billion in funds that are desperately needed for rebuilding neighborhoods until this issue is resolved.  This is a classic devil-and-the-deep-blue-sea situation.  For the sake of rebuilding Houston, are we supposed to join HUD and say racial discrimination is now hunky-dory?  We know that any delays in recovery funds can be fatal to neighborhoods.  On the other hand, allowing continued racial segregation, HUD-sanctioned or not, in Houston or any other city will eventually kill the city’s very heart and soul.

The choice seems clear.  Even if Carson and HUD are now OK with racial discrimination in housing and elsewhere, we must oppose it at every opportunity, no matter the pain.

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