The 2019-2020 California legislature session started out promising. But the last couple of weeks have seen bold ideas crushed by powerful lobbies. Bold ideas to protect renters went up only to have their teeth removed.
The real estate lobby still dominates California.
2018 was the year of the renter. Across California millions mobilized to collect signatures, knock doors, and vote for Proposition 10. Since 1996, California has been dominated by Costa-Hawkins. This bill, put forward by the landlord lobby and passed in a rush, has stopped cities from passing any kind of rent protection for more than 20 years.
It was a direct reaction to the City of Santa Monica wanting to update rent control. Along with the Ellis Act, it has lubricated the eviction machine. Landlords are free to push rent as high as they want to drive out tenants. If that doesn’t work, they can use Ellis to kick out everyone as long as they meet certain conditions. Coupled with the rise of Airbnb, cities across the state are seeing some of the nation’s worst eviction rates.
Even though Prop 10 lost, it was popular in big cities, where the majority of California’s 17 million renters live. Big counties like San Francisco and Alameda voted yes for rent control. So did Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest city.
But that wasn’t enough to overcome the nearly $100 million that was spent to oppose it. Some of the wealthiest men in the nation put down big money to protect their profits. Corporate landlords like Blackstone, and infamous billionaires like Sam Zell and Donald Sterling (yes, that same Donald Sterling who was deemed too racist to own the Clippers) funded a misinformation campaign.
Our legislators were listening and saw the support for Prop 10. Multiple bills to rein in sky rocketing rent and protect tenants were put forward.
- AB 36: Would expand rent control to any building that has been a rental property for more than 10 years.
- SB 529: Would have guaranteed tenants the right to organize without fear of retaliation, compelled landlords to negotiate, and allowed tenants to withhold rent under certain conditions.
- AB 1481: Would end no cause evictions in California.
- AB 1482: Would impose a statewide rent cap by limiting rent increases to inflation plus 5%.
And then they were systematically gutted in favor of landlords.
AB 36 originally applied to any building that was 10 years old or more, then it was amended to push that back to 20 years or more. We know that a significant amount of development has happened in the last decade. These buildings have high rents and have driven gentrification at a brutal pace. It passed the California Senate and will be moving to the Assembly. But it will do nothing to force new developments to be affordable.
SB 529 was hailed by tenant groups across the state as a landmark piece of legislation. Rent strikes have become increasingly popular as a way to force slumlords to the table. But these actions are risky for tenants. In Los Angeles, buildings covered under the Rent Stabilization Ordinance have some protections. This process is called REAP, the Rent Escrow Account Program. Under REAP tenants suffering substandard conditions no longer pay rent to the landlord, instead they pay it into an escrow account controlled by the city until the landlord fixes the problems. After the rent strike provision was removed completely, SB 529 went to the Senate floor on May 29th, and lost by 1 vote. It needed 21 votes to pass, but 3 Senators cast no vote at all, leaving only 20 Ayes. Two of the abstainers are Democrats.
AB 1481 was originally written to keep people in their homes by forcing landlords to prove that they had a good reason to evict. After a round of amendments to bill is no longer about stopping evictions, it now simply charges landlords a fee to evict. Depending on how long a tenant has lived in the building, the landlord has to pay them either two or three months rent to get them out. While this sounds reasonable, if you are living in a building and paying low rent what you receive will probably not be enough to cover the cost of a new apartment. And big corporate landlords, who are becoming larger every day, can easily afford the fee and then pass that cost along to the next tenant. It also added a sundown provision so the law would effectively repeal itself in 2030.
AB 1482 originally limited any rent increases to inflation plus 5% and would impose a hard limit of 10%. In a bit of good news it expanded protections for affordable housing covenants giving local governments the chance to buy these buildings to keep them affordable. Then, and apparently at the author’s request, it was inexplicably amended to sundown in 2030. While 10 years of rent control is better than no rent control there is no reason to end these protections. AB 1482 passed the Assembly, but it’s fate in the Senate is uncertain.
Throughout this process the heavy hand of the landlord lobby was seen in everything. The California Association of Realtors and California Apartment Association worked hard to trim protections. They demanded 3 year limits, negotiated weaker language, and used the threat of campaign donations to sway votes.
In the end, the landlord lobby won. Instead of 4 strong bills that would protect tenants across the state, we have two watered down bills that have another crucible to negotiate and two bills that are effectively dead for this session.
We can’t ignore the obvious: our legislators are mostly property owners. Only 1 member of the California legislature does not own their own home. And 60% of our elected representatives are landlords. We don’t have tenants in power and without those voices we will never see the kind of legislation that we need.
We’re running to not just rein in rent and stop the eviction machine. We’re running to build public housing. We’re running to build density to achieve sustainability. We’re running to expand public transit. And we’re running to create a Green New Deal to provide good paying, clean jobs for everyone in California.