Voting yes on housing justice in California

November 6, 2018

Julien Ball writes from San Francisco on the importance of a ballot measure that, if passed, would help to counter the corporate landlords and their gentrification plans.

CALIFORNIA VOTERS have a chance on Election Day to pass a ballot measure, known as Proposition 10, that would restore the right of cities to pass strong rent control.

Martha Simmons’ story illustrates why it would be an important victory for housing justice if Prop 10 passes.

Martha is one of the millions of California renters who have been negatively affected by the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act of 1995 — the state law restricting local authorities from implementing rent control, which Proposition 10 would repeal if it passes.

Martha grew up in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, and her family has roots in the historically working-class, African American area for several generations. Thus, in 2005, she was happy to move into a home on Ingerson and 3rd Street that was big enough for her large, multigenerational, tight-knit family.

The rent, $3,300 per month, wasn’t cheap, but by working long hours at her job as front-desk security at a downtown building, Martha found that she could afford it and even begin to save money. The landlord, Dorothy Banks, never made repairs, but Martha put up with that because Banks promised her that when she sold the home, Martha could buy it.

Rallying for pro-tenant Proposition 10 in California
Rallying for pro-tenant Proposition 10 in California (L.A. Tenants Union | Facebook)

She continued to make the repairs that she could out-of-pocket to keep the home in good condition. At one point, the septic tank flooded the unit where Martha’s sister lived, rendering it uninhabitable. Martha’s sister suffered severe health problems before eventually moving out.

Despite all this, Martha continued to work to make the rent on time and put some money aside to buy the home one day. But that was before San Francisco’s real estate market exploded.

When Banks decided to sell, instead of accepting Simmons’ $650,000 offer on the home, she raised the rent, first to $4,700 a month, and then to $5,200, in the hopes she could drive the family out and sell the home empty, getting more money for it.

Simmons desperately scrambled to make ends meet, working three jobs, sleeping just a few hours a night and cashing out her 401(k) retirement fund to make the payments on time. But when even that wasn’t enough, she was faced with an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent.

She joined the community group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) to help organize rallies and protests, but nothing succeeded in getting Banks to reconsider.

Martha and her family finally realized their dream of home ownership, but only by moving to Oakley, on the outskirts of the Bay Area, more than 50 miles from their former home — joining the legions of working people and people of color who have been displaced from San Francisco and other California cities due to evictions and rising rents.

WHAT HAPPENED to Martha and her family is perfectly legal because of a state law called Costa-Hawkins that, among other restrictions, bans cities from covering single-family homes like hers under rent control laws.

Martha is supporting Prop 10, which would repeal Costa-Hawkins, in the hopes that others will be spared what she suffered. “It’s stressful to have one foot in the door and one foot in the street,” says Martha. “No human being should have to go through what we went through. It’s disturbing to know so many people are going through the same thing.”

Costa-Hawkins — named after its legislative sponsors Democratic state Sen. Jim Costa and Republican State Assembly member Phil Hawkins — was a bipartisan bill passed by the legislature over two decades ago at the behest of the real estate industry.

The law bans cities from passing strong rent control in several ways:

First, it bans cities from covering single-family homes or condos under rent control.

Second, it stops cities from applying permitted rent control regulations to so-called “new construction,” defined as any construction after the 1995 passage of the law. Cities that already have rent control are barred from extending rent control to buildings constructed after those cities passed their ordinances. In San Francisco, that date is 1979, and in Los Angeles, it is 1978.

Finally, it bans vacancy control — a type of rent control that restricts rent increases in between tenants. So when a tenant leaves, landlords can charge as much as they want to the next tenant.

In a city like San Francisco, a market with large numbers of higher-income earners, lack of rent control between tenancies creates a huge incentive for landlords to evict low-rent tenants so they can bring in tenants who can afford market rate. In San Francisco, that median rate was $3,253 per month for a one-bedroom apartment in 2017, according to the real estate website Curbed.

Lack of vacancy control, coupled with the ban on rent control for any so-called “new construction” means the sometimes gradual and sometimes rapid loss of affordable, rent-controlled apartments, with no way to replace them. That, combined with the decades-long, federal divestment from affordable and public housing, has amounted to a deliberate, bipartisan attack on our ability to solve the affordability crisis.

REPEAL OF Costa-Hawkins has long been at the top on the wish list for California tenants’ rights groups struggling to deal with the affordability crisis, but only recently have they considered it possible.

While cities like San Francisco have established nonprofit organizations advocating for tenants’ rights, in other cities, volunteer-led groups have more recently formed to organize tenants and press for local rent control ordinances.

The Los Angeles Tenants Union has organized rent strikes. In several cities, ACCE successfully organized tenants’ chapters to take on corporate landlords like the Blackstone Group, which bought thousands of single-family homes and raised the rent. And since 2015, the Bay Area cities of Richmond and Mountain View have passed the first local rent control ordinances in California in decades.

Earlier this year, groups around the state organized to push for AB 1506, legislation that would have repealed Costa-Hawkins. The San Francisco-based Anti-Displacement Coalition organized protests to get State Assembly member David Chiu, one of the sponsors, to bring the bill to his committee for a vote.

When a committee hearing finally took place in January, hundreds of tenants and their supporters from around the state packed the room, along with landlords organized by real estate front groups.

When the Democratic-led Assembly failed to move the bill out of committee, Los Angeles-based groups such as the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, ACCE and the Eviction Defense Network began collecting signatures to put Proposition 10 on the ballot.

PROP 10 is facing an uphill battle. State and national real estate groups have spent a whopping $77.5 million on misleading ads to convince voters that the referendum is bad for renters.

A number of Wall Street developers and real estate investment trusts like Blackstone Group, its subsidiary Invitation Homes, Essex Property Trust, Equity Residential and AvalonBay Communities — with portfolios of tens of thousands of California homes between them — each donated $3 million or more to defeat the initiative.

These corporations know that passing statewide restrictions on local control is one of the most effective weapons in their arsenal — and that if Prop 10 passes, groups in the 32 states that currently have an outright ban on rent control could decide to take matters into their own hands and repeal those restrictions, too.

Passage of Prop 10 would be only the first step in winning the kind of rent control needed to address the affordability crisis. Once Costa-Hawkins restrictions are lifted, it will be up to cities to pass the rent control they need to address the crisis. Local political leaders of both parties rely on real estate developers and real estate industry groups for campaign donations, and industry lobbyists often enjoy almost unfettered access to politicians.

Working people and tenants will have to build movements with the necessary size, organization and social power to stop evictions, beat back rent increases and force politicians to pass local laws that prioritize them over real estate industry profits.

But voting “yes” on Proposition 10 is crucial to widening the scope for what victories are possible for the housing movement in the years to come.

Further Reading

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