Hammer and Tong Fights Over Rent Control – Look at Santa Rosa and Scotland

New Orleans   With rents soaring and evictions rising in cities all over the US and the world, the real estate interests are finally facing their worst boogeyman: rent control! Rather than responding to the affordable housing crisis worldwide with new and innovative plans to provide additional housing, they are mainly digging in their heels and going deep in their pockets to fight even the most moderate proposals for market regulation or modifications.

Cases in point pop up everywhere. In Scotland, ACORN affiliate Living Rent, took advantage of devolution to win some introductory steps toward controlling spiraling rents, as the number of private tenants soars in a landscape that used to be heavily invested in public housing schemes. As an introductory step, there are now a series of thresholds that trigger the creation of “rent pressure zones,” which could cap rent increases in areas of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen. An extremely modest proposal to mandate inclusionary zoning for new housing developments in the City of New Orleans narrowly avoided overturn with state legislators tried to pull the rug on it.

All of these high pressure affordable housing contests are knife fights, and right now the sharpest blades drawing the most blood are in Santa Rosa, the smallish 175,000 county seat of Sonoma County, legendary mainly for being the heart of California wine country and northern suburbs of San Francisco. There is an election scheduled for June 6th on whether to implement a rent control ordinance approved narrowly on a 4-3 vote by the city council earlier in the year. Real estate interests quickly mobilized petition signatures, many claim under dubious conditions, sufficient to force the issue to the ballot. Veteran political professionals all agree on only one thing – this is the most expensive election of any kind in Santa Rosa, totally almost $1 million on both sides.

On one side the Chicago-based National Board of Realtors recently dropped over $300,000 into the fight as part of the more than $800,000 raised by the ordinance opponents. On the “yes” side one of the key players is the Gamaliel network affiliated community organization, the North Bay Organizing Project, a well-regarded dynamic and effective coalition of 22 faith, labor, and immigrant organizations. I got to know Davin Cardenas, the lead organizer, on the Organizers’ Forum Dialogue in Bolivia, where his work and contribution created a fan club of me and our entire delegation.

The election is too close to call, but the irony again is how moderate the proposal really is, especially in the face of the apocalyptic arguments of the realtors. The city has an estimated 11,076 apartments that would be affected, or about 18 percent of the city’s 67,000 housing units. With an average household size of 2.6 residents, that’s about 26,400 people. The provision excludes single family houses, duplexes, triplexes that are owner occupied, and condominiums. The ordinance only takes rents back to January 1, 2016 which was at the tail end of a 5-year surge that pushed rents up 50% with a vacancy rate of 1% in the city. There are also a number of exceptions that allow rents to be increased, including a virtual communistic guarantee of profits for the landlords. This ordinance is decidedly not the revolution.

Perhaps the real stickler is that the ordinance is not solely about rent regulation, but also establishes in this growing wave of tenant evictions nationally, that separation can only be for “just cause.” And, if established that there was no just cause, there is a real penalty: landlords would have to pay for the tenant’s relocation! That actually sounds fair, but the numbers on average rents in Santa Rosa mean it could cost the landlord $6000 on the average. Winning the vote might not do everything needed to curb rents sufficiently, but the fact that it might seriously reduce the number of evictions may be the real battle cry being shouted around the country by the realtors once the doors are closed.

This is one local election worth following closely, because winning might be the ripple that could start a tidal wave.

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