How more rent control in Bay Area cities affects housing crisis

Berta Beltran went to the meeting after a recent rent hike jolted her into realizing how families like hers could end up in one of the many encampments around town — such as the one right outside her front door.

“We already have homeless people living in the parking lot,” she said in Spanish as neighbors held up bright yellow “Rent Control Now!” signs at the meeting. “Is that where they want us to end up?”

With a narrow 3-2 vote, Antioch became the most recent California city to approve a 3% cap on many annual rent increases. It’s part of a wave of jurisdictions, along with Oakland, Richmond, Concord, Alameda County, Petaluma and several Southern California communities, that have recently passed or are debating rent stablization laws and related tenant protection measures.

The COVID-era rent control reckoning — which advocates say is the biggest groundswell since 2015 rent limits proposed in Silicon Valley and the East Bay — comes as cities plan to build hundreds of thousands of state-mandated homes in the next decade. With frustration mounting after pandemic eviction battles , worsening homelessness and record home prices locking millions into renting, fed-up tenants are signaling that waiting around for alternatives is no longer option.

“I think people are willing to push more,” said Debra Ballinger, senior adviser to Contra Costa County tenant advocacy group Monument Impact. “They’ve kind of had enough.”

No landlord advocates spoke in opposition to the Antioch rent stabilization measure during nearly two hours of public comments on Tuesday, but the measure sets the stage for more showdowns to come. Property owners have already sued to end remaining pandemic eviction restrictions in neighboring Alameda County and criticized similar rules in San Francisco.

In previous Antioch city meetings, landlords and industry groups argued that a landmark 2019 state law, AB1482 , already sufficiently limits rent hikes to 10% per year. Most landlords, Delta Association of Realtors President James Britto contended, strive to keep properties up to code and operate fairly.

“There’s always a few that ruin it for everyone,” Britto said at a City Council meeting earlier this summer. “We don’t really need more regulations.”

As landlord-tenant tension threatens to boil over at the local level, state politicians and Gov. Gavin Newsom focused this year on building for the next generation. At a press conference on Wednesday in San Francisco, he signed three dozen new state laws focused on housing construction and homelessness.

“We need to all be a little bit more accountable,” Newsom said, “to this crisis of affordability.”

Though California voters have repeatedly voted against a statewide expansion of rent control with ballot measures like 2018’s Proposition 10 , one open question is whether the surge of local reforms could translate to bigger state reforms in coming years.

If so, Bay Area renters like Khan wonder, how many tenants struggling now would still be around to see it happen?

Rent control redux

Even before the pandemic upended the housing market, cities like San Francisco, Berkeley and Santa Monica were already national poster children for rent control. But in recent years, rent control debates have evolved along with decades of dueling economic studies about how much the policies curb displacement, ironically encourage price hikes or both.

The policy approved Tuesday in Antioch — officially called a “rent stabilization” ordinance because of how it limits annual increases, as opposed to rent control policies that enact hard limits on monthly rent — follows a model also recently approved in Oakland and up for a vote this November in Richmond with Measure P . Under these policies, most rentals built before 1995 would be subject to annual rent hikes of either a flat 3% or 60% of the annual rate of inflation, whichever is lower — figures in line with existing rules in San Francisco and Berkeley.

In some cases, tenant organizers are also pushing for related policies to prohibit landlord harassment or strengthen eviction protections in Antioch, Concord , Petaluma and Alameda County.

One trend is how public appetite for stronger renter protections is spreading to places once a world away from the activist tenant culture of cities like San Francisco, said Tenants Together legislative director Shanti Singh.

From Contra Costa County to Orange County, rent stabilization and tenant protection measures are being approved in more suburban areas with less history of renter advocacy. Singh credits the shift to factors including the sprawl of urban affordability concerns, more door knocking by tenant organizers and the unique economic pressures posed by the pandemic.

“What sort of was the tipping point, I think, is inflation, and renters being really fired up about the way that they’ve been treated and what they’ve had to deal with on top of this pandemic,” Singh said. “It is kind of the perfect storm.”

New research released this week also points to potential weaknesses in existing state renter protections. The report, titled “ Rising Rents, Not Enough Data: How a Lack of Transparency Threatens to Undermine California’s Rent Cap ,” found that 60% of California rental listings posted this past spring had annual price increases above the state’s annual 10% rent cap. That’s according to an analysis of Zillow data by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation and Oakland’s TechEquity Collaborative, based on if the rent cap were to apply to units leased to new tenants.

Though the state rent cap measure AB1482 was negotiated to balance tenant issues and concerns about discouraging housing investment, the report authors wrote that the findings raise “significant questions” about how many residents are still seeing rent increases higher than those allowed by law.

Sparse rent reporting requirements make it difficult to gauge what longtime tenants are really paying, the report adds, though “the steepest increases seem to be occurring in lower-rent neighborhoods.”

“The pressures on rents are real,” the report authors wrote. “Price increases are rising across the board for various goods and services, and the rental market is experiencing even higher inflationary pressures.”

Zuleny Paiz, a 20-year resident of the unincorporated Alameda County area of Cherryland, has felt that pressure firsthand. It was never easy to find affordable housing in the Bay Area, Paiz said, after moving to the East Bay from Guatemala with an aunt more than 25 years ago.

But the longtime home care worker never expected the kind of rent hikes she’s seen in the past few years. Though Paiz said she gets along well with the landlord of her two-bedroom in a safe neighborhood close to good schools for her three children, she said her variable work doesn’t pay enough to account for rent that has increased from $950 in 2017 to a current rate of $1,945, or a nearly 105% jump in five years.

Though she’s been meeting with other tenants and advocating for new renter protections for months, the county Board of Supervisors has yet to bring the issues to a full vote — a timeline complicated politically by the fact that the board is also under intense pressure from landlord groups to wind down local emergency pandemic eviction protections.

“We need rent stabilization,” Paiz said in Spanish. “We’ll keep fighting.”

‘Will I be able to stay here?’

Though rent control policies have been gaining more ground in recent months than they have in years, there are still big barriers to broader statewide changes. That’s thanks in large part to a powerful California law called the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act , which barred new rent control measures for single-family homes, condos and properties built after 1995, the year the law passed.

Barring another effort to overhaul Costa-Hawkins after the most recent attempt failed in 2020 , those limitations leave tenant organizers focused on more targeted local measures. They can either attempt to win support of city councils and county boards of supervisors to pass new ordinances, or they can go to the ballot and ask voters for changes to existing rental rules, as is happening in Richmond.

Landlord lobbying group the California Apartment Association, meanwhile, has warned members in recent years about a “2.0” version of 2018’s Proposition 10 state rent control ballot measure, plus other “threats of radical rent control.”

“In today’s political climate, all communities are vulnerable to rent control,” the association advised in one online class for landlords. “With this rising threat of rent control, California’s state law limiting rent control, the Costa-Hawkins Act, is more important than ever.”

To Khan, the young Antioch renter who spoke in support of rent stabilization last week, both the personal and political stakes are high when it comes to what happens next.

After graduating from college a few months ago, she rented a $1,000-a-month bedroom in a shared apartment and has started working part-time to organize other tenants with Monument Impact. Though she’s pleased about her first big political win, she wonders how long she — and others in more dire situations — will be able to hold on.

“It’s like everyone has to move away because of how expensive things are turning out to be,” Khan said. “I’m struggling to figure out, will I be able to stay here?”

Lauren Hepler is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @LAHepler

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