Rent Control Gearing Up to Be One of California’s Biggest Ballot Measure Fights on Election Day

Mountain View, California

Mountain View, California


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Proponents say it is necessary in an increasingly unaffordable housing market, but many local government officials say passing Prop 10 will pave the way for tenant rights groups to run roughshod over elected representatives.

Advocates of California’s Proposition 10 argue removing state limits on local rent control will improve housing stability for low- and middle-income families, but passing the ballot measure on Election Day doesn’t mean jurisdictions will rush to expand their policies.

Local governments are already able to impose rent control on half of rental units across California, but the state’s current law, the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act, curtails the extent to which they can curb rent increases.

“It’s tying our hands,” said Shane Murphy Goldsmith, president and CEO of the Liberty Hill Foundation, during a California Budget & Policy Center webcast on Wednesday.

The housing justice nonprofit contributed $100,000 to the campaign endorsing Proposition 10, which would repeal Costa Hawkins and allow local governments to make their own rules on rent control. Goldsmith said she sees stronger local rent control ordinances as a tool in the fight against homelessness. Every 5 percent increase in rent in Los Angeles leaves 2,000 more people homeless, according to a 2017 report by real estate company Zillow.

A handful of cities, including Berkeley, Beverly Hills, Oakland, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood, support Proposition 10. But the League of California Cities and California Apartment Association oppose the measure, arguing that it will create an atmosphere where advocates for renters tenants rights groups might circumvent local governments through the initiative process.

Mountain View City Council rejected rent control in 2016, only to see it pass the same year after tenant activists successfully petitioned to get a measure on the ballot that voters approved.

“In Richmond, we’ve seen what happens when tenants’ rights groups make an end run around local leaders and push forward radical rent control,” said Mayor Tom Butt in a statement. “Proposition 10 will enable these groups to further limit the voice of elected officials, and put power in the hands of unaccountable boards and bureaucracies, while creating rules that hurt homeowners, renters and taxpayers alike.”

Activists face an uphill battle, even if Proposition 10 passes, because local officials are often “cozy with apartment interests and developers,” said Peter White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network.

CAA, the landlord organization, has already spent $34 million opposing Proposition 10—three times more than proponents have raised, said Veronica Carrizales, policy and campaign development director for voter education group California Calls.

“Prop 10 campaigns are sexy now, when you can take the pictures,” White said. “But when campaigns go dark, that’s when the work really happens.”

Right now, it looks like the voters favor the status quo. The Public Policy Institute of California released a poll in late September showing 48 percent of likely voters would vote no on Proposition 10, compared to 36 percent in favor. But proponents note that 16 percent of voters remain undecided.

“Voters know what it feels like to be priced out of housing,” said Carrizales, who lived in a labor camp for migrant farmworkers in the Coachella Valley as a child. While basically a retrofitted military barracks, it offered a “stable place to live” and attend school, she added.

Expanded rent control would not force landlords to rent at a loss but rather limit rent increases across a broader swath of housing, such as now including single-family homes and older apartments built before a certain year, said Sara Kimberlin, senior policy analyst at CBPC.

With rents rising faster than incomes in most places, the savings for renters hit hardest by the housing crisis can be “significant,” Kimberlin said. But rent control may also lead landlords to neglect unit maintenance or pull rentals off the market to decrease housing supply—both challenges local governments can pass policies to prevent, she added.

“We’re destroying affordable housing by not regulating rent,” Goldsmith said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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