Erika D. Smith

It shouldn't take a threat of rent control for Sacramento to fix the housing crisis

Supporters of a rent control initiative march across the street from the Capitol calling for more rent control in April. Sacramento voters could see a statewide measure and a local measure on their ballots this fall.
Supporters of a rent control initiative march across the street from the Capitol calling for more rent control in April. Sacramento voters could see a statewide measure and a local measure on their ballots this fall. AP

As a kid, I lived by the motto: “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow."

That was great for avoiding household chores, but somehow I expected more from elected officials trying to manage a housing crisis so severe that it’s ruining people’s lives and dragging down the entire city of Sacramento in the process.

And yet, here we are.

In less than two weeks, a coalition led by the powerful SEIU labor union must decide whether to follow through on a threat that it has been making for months — filing the paperwork to put a citywide rent control measure on the November ballot.

As options go for addressing the housing crisis-turned-catastrophe, this is the nuclear one. It would cap rent increases on older apartments at 5 percent a year, force landlords to cough up thousands of dollars in aid to evicted tenants and create an elected housing board to set maximum rent increases every year.

Sacramento's business community has been fretting about this for months, warning that such a measure would deter theconstruction of the affordable housing that this city so desperately needs. Members of the City Council are wary, too, as is Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

But it wasn’t until Thursday — a mere 13 days before the SEIU must file paperwork with the city clerk’s office to meet the deadline for the ballot measure — that Steinberg finally, finally decided to speak up.

"The issues raised by SEIU and the housing advocates are very real," he told my colleague Ryan Lillis, "but I want to work hard to maximize the chance that this doesn't go on the ballot."

Instead, Steinberg says he has started working behind the scenes with labor and business representatives to draft a tenant protection ordinance that would, ideally, avoid a rent control ballot measure. He hopes to bring the ordinance before the City Council sometime this summer.

"I'm not going to flinch because everyone has their fighting gear on," Steinberg said. "You have to address the real life crisis of today's circumstances. I'm looking for a reasoned, intelligent conversation and debate about a very serious set of issues."

That’s nice. It really is. But where were all of these public pronouncements of political courage six months ago? Or a year ago?

Because while Steinberg and the City Council have been busy doing other things — you know, putting off until tomorrow what they could do the day after tomorrow — rental prices have climbed faster in Sacramento than almost any city in the country.

The housing crisis has mushroomed to the point that elderly people are being pushed out of their homes and onto the streets or to live with their children. And young professionals are being forced to move from apartment to apartment, displacing poor people who can’t afford the upheaval and exacerbating the worst aspects of gentrification.

Sure, the Bay Area is bad. But even in Sacramento, we’re now looking at a median rent for a two-bedroom apartment of more than $1,500 a month. Five years ago, it was about $1,100. California’s booming economy aside, wages, as you might suspect, have not kept up.

So, while it was clearly a political stunt the behest of SEIU, the people who attended Thursday night’s City Council meeting and told their sobering stories of astronomical rent increases and surprise evictions were extremely effective.

What do you say to someone who went to college and has a good career, but is so broke that she has to go into debt just to pay rent? Or to someone who has had to move five times in two years, paying a hefty deposit each time? Where was the urgency for those people, the renters who make up 52 percent of Sacramento’s population?

But, then again, even the most casual political observer understands that the timing of the negotiations over this proposed tenant protection ordinance isn’t about tenants. It’s about Measure U.

On Thursday, Steinberg also said that he would ask voters to raise the city’s sales tax through a ballot measure this November. Initially approved by voters in 2012, the current tax is a half centand temporary, though it generates about $50 million a year for police, firefighters, parks and other city services.

Steinberg wants voters to double the tax to 1 cent and make it permanent, saying the some of the money generated could be used to beef up the city’s housing fund and to provide permanent housing for homeless people. It's a solid plan. Much better than a ballot measure.

In perfect world, Measure U would pass with broad support in November. Just like in a perfect world, the Legislature would've acted and voters wouldn’t have to wrestle with a statewide ballot measure to repeal the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Act, which limits the use of rent control in the state.

But this isn’t a perfect world, and registered voters — particularly the 40 percent of them who are renters in Sacramento — are angry.

They're angry with the business community, especially the California Apartment Association, for trying to kill every bill at the Capitol that includes even an iota of protections for tenants. That includes one that bit the dust from Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, which would've required landlords to give “just cause” for evictions.

And, perhaps most of all, voters are angry with their elected officials, both at the state and local levels, for ignoring this housing catastrophe for so long. Can anyone really blame SEIU for stepping into this vacuum of leadership and riling up the public with calls for rent control?

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