Erika D. Smith

The fight over rent control is about more than housing in Sacramento. Lives are at stake

Supporters of a rent control initiative march near the Capitol in April. The Sacramento City Council is considering whether to pursue several policies to protect renters and boost the supply of affordable housing.
Supporters of a rent control initiative march near the Capitol in April. The Sacramento City Council is considering whether to pursue several policies to protect renters and boost the supply of affordable housing. AP

Mayor Darrell Steinberg clearly didn’t arrive at Tuesday night’s Sacramento City Council meeting expecting a miracle. He was probably just hoping there wouldn’t be a brawl.

Such are the low expectations for discussing solutions to the affordable housing crisis.

“The politics of this issue are not very good,” Steinberg told the packed room from the dais. “In fact, the politics of this issue are difficult at best. You’ve got pretty strong lines in the sand.”

Talk about an understatement.

If five hours of sometimes heated public discussion made anything clear, it is that it’s going to take a lot more than five hours of public discussion to solve the city’s crisis of rapidly rising rents and stubbornly limited supply of housing — and maybe even that won’t work.

Everyone agrees that there is a crisis. Everyone agrees that people are suffering because of it. And so everyone agrees that the status quo must change. But that is where the agreement ends. Negotiations have been happening behind the scenes for months, but that hasn’t lessened the polarization.

Developers still want nothing to do with rent control, or “rent stabilization,” as Steinberg likes to call it. Labor-backed tenants’ rights groups still want that, plus some sort of “just cause” eviction policy, so renters can’t be forced out on a whim by greedy landlords. They’ve got an ace up their sleeve in the form of a potential rent control ballot measure targeted for 2020.

Meanwhile, Councilmen Steve Hansen, Eric Guerra and Rick Jennings have a plan, which no one seems to like, except for maybe the business community. And Steinberg’s plan — the highlight of which is a temporary 5 percent annual cap on rent increases that would only apply to apartments that are at least 20 years old — seems like a non-starter with most of the City Council.

So far, everyone is blindly adhering to their political tribe. That’s why it’s worth remembering what is at stake if they can’t find a way to compromise.

Earlier this week, the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness released its annual report on how many homeless people died in Sacramento County. It’s a grim tradition that seems to get grimmer every year, and 2017 was no exception: There was a 75 percent increase over 2016 to 124 deaths. That works out to one death every three days.

One of the people who will make next year’s list will be the still-unidentified homeless man who was found dead last week near the entrance to Discovery Park. His body was out in the open, just lying on the sidewalk in the 200 block of Jibboom Street.

For some people, it’s probably hard to make the connection between the homeless people they see every day, many of them mentally ill or drug addicted, and the mushrooming affordable housing crisis.

But consider that Sacramento’s eviction rate is more than double the average in the rest of California. And that’s because of the city’s yawning affordability gap. Wages largely have largely remained stagnant while rents have skyrocketed, leading to a 55 percent spike in cost-burdened renter households between 2000 and 2017.

“I can sit at Temple Coffee on 10th Street and have conversations with a half-dozen people who...tell their stories about how tough it is and how they can’t find a place to live and how they’ve been evicted because they can’t afford the rent,” Steinberg said Tuesday. “Not only is this issue a burden on our collective conscience, it ends up costing more in the long run when these same people end up using publicly funded social service programs.”

As a city of taxpayers, we’re going to end up paying for this affordable housing crisis one way or another. It will be expensive either way. The only question is how many lives will be lost and ruined in the process — and whether we can afford to live with the consequences.

So, yes, the politics of housing are, as the mayor put it, “difficult at best.” But no one should forget this is about much more than politics.

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