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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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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