Erika D. Smith

Unsure about rent control? Here’s another way to protect California tenants

Capitol chant: 'Fight, fight, fight. Housing is a human right'

Renters and other advocates came to the California Capitol Jan. 11, 2018 to support expansion of local rent control laws. They protested during a committee hearing in the Assembly, but lawmakers killed the bill they supported.
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Renters and other advocates came to the California Capitol Jan. 11, 2018 to support expansion of local rent control laws. They protested during a committee hearing in the Assembly, but lawmakers killed the bill they supported.

It should come as no surprise to anyone living in housing-crunched California that so many voters are fine with advancing a ballot measure that would pave the way for what the California Apartment Association calls “extreme” rent control.


In just two weeks, signature gatherers bankrolled by the notorious L.A. activist Michael Weinstein have have amassed 100,000 of the 365,880 valid signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot. Anya Svanoe, of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, calls it “the easiest signature-gathering we’ve ever done.”

Californians, she told my colleague Angela Hart, are “hungry for rent control.”

Yeah, not quite.

What Californians are actually “hungry” for is a way – some way, any way – to avoid having to move when their greedy landlord decides to increase the rent by 40 or even 50 percent with two months’ notice. Californians are “hungry” for a policy that will protect them from becoming homeless, living under a bridge like so many men, women and children already are in this state.

Rent control is just being sold as the only palatable solution on the menu.

But there are other ways to help people stay in their apartments without resorting to an imperfect, blunt-force policy tool that could very well make the housing crisis worse by shrinking supply.

Take the two-fold, rough outline of a plan under consideration in Sacramento.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg last month proposed offering rental assistance to as many as 1,800 families who are on the verge of ending up on the street. The money would come in the form of grants or loans, mostly from the private sector.

To qualify, renters would have to prove they’ve had some sort of life-altering event, such as an unexpected car repair, a hospital stay or even a sudden rent increase, that could cause them to lose housing. And, indeed, with rent increases in Sacramento continuing to rank among the nation’s highest, standing at about $1,600, plenty of people are in that situation.

Steinberg met two such people while attending the Women’s March a few weeks ago. Both told him they were worried about ending up homeless.

“They were just very compelling to me. It was raw. It was real,” the mayor told me. “It’s illustrative of how so many people are living on the edge.”

This is what rent control proponents get right.

It’s a lot easier, a lot cheaper and a lot more humane to help people stay in their homes than to let them become homeless and then try to find them housing. California is unique in that, with rent being higher here than anywhere else in the country, jumping more than 40 percent in some cities since 2015, an inordinate number of people are becoming homeless simply because they can no longer afford to keep a roof over their heads.

Life on the street is hard. People develop mental health issues from the stress of living hand-to-mouth, and often start abusing alcohol and drugs to cope.

Cities and counties should be doing all that they can to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. Rental assistance is certainly part of that, and many cities are already doing it.

In Sacramento, Sutter Health has agreed to contribute as much as $5 million to such a fund if a matching amount is found. During his State of Downtown address last week, Steinberg set a goal of raising $20 million.

But more is needed to help struggling renters now.

Supporters of the ballot measure would have voters repeal the 1995 the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which prohibits cities and counties from enacting new rental control ordinances or beefing up existing ones. Steinberg would have Sacramento crack down on rent gouging, which, if we’re honest, is really what most Californians who support rent control are after. That’s the second part of his plan.

“There’s a difference between strict rent control and price gouging,” he said. “If a landlord is unfairly taking advantage of a tight rental market and gouging, then stop it!”

As a renter, I’m “hungry” for the details on that one.

On Jan. 11, 2018, activists advocate for a bill to expand rent control in California.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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