By Chris Reed.
The California housing crisis remains an intense focus in the state Legislature, with lawmakers touting dozens of bills they argue could bring relief to residents stressed by high rents and mortgages.
But if some progressives get their way, the state will embrace a traditional, if deeply controversial, tactic – rent control – to address the problem.
An initial effort to bring rent control to the table was launched in February by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, with the introduction ofAssembly Bill 1506. The measure would have scrapped the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, a 1995 state law that put sharp limits on local rent controls. Not only could such restrictions not be put on newer housing, the law essentially exempted single-family houses, duplexes and condos from rent-control laws in place in 15 California cities. Bloom’s measure would have greatly expanded the number of homes that could be subject to rent control, including new stock.
But earlier this month, Bloom abruptly announced he wouldn’t pursue AB1506 this year and would bring a revised version up next year. The Sacramento Bee reported the decision was driven by intense opposition from the California Apartment Association and the California Association of Realtors.
Nevertheless, some groups – starting with the Los Angeles-based tenants’ rights group Coalition for Economic Survival – arepressing for other politicians to take up the cause. The coalition says there is a moral, humanitarian and economic case for sharply expanding the 600,000-plus older units in the Los Angeles area now subject to rent control. The group’s executive director, Larry Gross, told LA Weekly that the 1995 law that Bloom sought to replace punishes low-income families by allowing rent-controlled units to be increased to market levels when someone moves out.
The San Francisco-based group Tenants Together continues to feature a web page urging support for AB1506 and depicts the Costa-Hawkins law as a favor done for special interests with no consideration for how it affects Californians’ lives.
From rent-controlled home to Airbnb listing
Meanwhile, several Los Angeles landlords are facing a possible crackdown from the City Council over allegations that they forcibly evacuated renters in rent-controlled units using provisions of a 1985 law that allows such evictions if the properties are being taken off the rental market. But instead of doing so, some landlords allegedly began renting the units on websites for short-term rentals like Airbnb. Initial approval has been given to a new city law tightening up eviction procedures.
Such allegations about bad behavior by landlords suggest why rent control could prove a resilient issue: It provides a target to blame for those upset with the housing crisis.
Anti-landlord sentiment was strong in two Bay Area communities – Mountain View and Richmond – which approved ballot measures in November that seek to limit rent increases and make evictions more difficult. Local unions and social-justice groups endorsed the measures. If such Democratic factions offered support at the state level, rent control would likely find a sizable constituency.
These dynamics reflect why Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, told the Los Angeles Times that the “rent control debate is very quickly assuming a central place in the broader discussion of affordable housing.”
A large majority of economists agree that rent control is counterproductive because it discourages new construction and maintenance of existing housing, and prominent Democrats such as California Gov. Jerry Brown and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio have said adding housing stock provides the only long-term path to housing affordability.
But for Democrats who agree with Bloom that the housing crisis is taking a toll on many Californians’ quality of life, a housing policy that focuses on the long term may not have as much appeal as something with the immediate impact of rent control – whatever its history.