Rent-control push surges to forefront of state housing debate

A ballot measure that would repeal California’s 1995 state law limiting what properties can be subject to rent control seems certain to be on the November ballot after proponents submitted more than 565,000 signatures to state authorities last week, far above the minimum needed.

The measure’s lead sponsor is Michael Weinstein of the well-funded Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is working with tenants rights groups and social justice activists and which sponsored two 2016 state initiatives. At a news conference this week, Weinstein and his allies depicted rent control as an obvious solution to a housing crisis that has pushed rent and mortgages higher for years without drawing a vigorous response from local and state officials.

“The rents are too damn high and we need local control to solve the problem,” Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network said at a rally in Los Angeles, according to a published report,

The measure would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act of 1995, which banned rent control on housing units completed after its enactment and on existing single-family homes, duplexes and condos. The complex law imposed other limits as well, depending on rent-control provisions in individual cities.

Its passage came in the mid-1990s after developers backed by Republicans, planners and some community activists made the case that rent control laws adopted by 15 California cities after World War II – most notably Los Angeles and San Francisco – had had the effect of stifling new construction and leading landlords to skimp on renovations and repairs.

Economists and housing experts generally continue to see rent control as having a long-term negative effect on housing costs by making shortages more likely. A 2016 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office agreed with this conventional wisdom.

But with average monthly rents for two-bedroom apartments soaring past $2,500 in most Southern California coastal counties and above $4,000 in San Francisco and parts of Silicon Valley, public interest in rent control increased. In November 2016, eight measures to control housing costs were considered by Bay Area communities. Four passed, included laws capping annual rent hikes in Oakland, Mountain View, Alameda and Richmond.

Focus on housing stock plays better with policy wonks than public

The idea that rent control is no real long-term solution to a problem that is rooted in a shortage of housing units remains the view of some prominent Democrats. Most notably, Gov. Jerry Brown supported 2017’s Senate Bill 35, which makes it more difficult to use regulatory tactics to block properly zoned housing projects with at least some affordable units. According to one analysis, SB35 will compel more than 97 percent of California’s local governments to build more housing.

But this medium- and long-term approach to addressing the housing crisis has played better with policy wonks than the general public. Frustration over California housing costs has been a staple of social media and in the letters sections of newspapers for years.

This has caught the attention of elected officials. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti once appeared to be in the camp of those who saw adding housing stock as the key to slowing or stopping the increase in rent and mortgage costs. In 2014, the possible 2020 Democratic presidential candidate committed his administration to approving 100,000 new housing units by 2021 and has bragged about already being nearly three-quarters of the way to his goal.

But Garcetti surprised some political observers by coming to this week’s L.A. rally for the statewide rental control initiative and offering strong support. According to a City News Service report, Garcetti used one of the favorite talking points of activists – depicting rent control as a way for average citizens and City Hall to scale back the power of corporate and other interests. “I’ve always believed that those who live closest to a given block or a street know what’s best. Local government should have control over their own city,” he said.

In a statement, Tom Bannon, CEO of the California Apartment Association, offered a starkly different assessment: “This ballot measure will pour gasoline on the fire of California’s affordable housing crisis. It will do exactly the opposite of what it promises – instead of helping Californians, it will result in an affordable housing freeze and higher costs.”

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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