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Rent Control Advocates Ramp Up Electoral Efforts

The real estate industry is a powerhouse opponent of rent control in California politics. But tenant activists are upping their electoral game.

Robin Urevich

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A Cancel Rent and Mortgages rally held in June. (Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Katie Valenzuela couldn’t afford glossy campaign mailers when she ran for a seat on Sacramento’s City Council last March. Instead of buying expensive door hangers, she met hundreds of voters face to face, especially apartment dwellers. “I’m a renter, too.” she told them. Today the councilwoman-elect recalls: “They knew I understood.”

Specifically, the 34 year old environmental lobbyist understood the fears of tenants living in a once affordable city whose rents were rising faster than in nearly any other in the country. Many told her they were a rent increase away from losing their housing altogether.
 


Candidates for public office who challenge California’s real estate industry – and win — are still a rarity.


 
Valenzuela’s instincts proved correct: She beat two-term incumbent Steve Hansen with 53 percent of the vote, surprising most political observers. When she takes office in December, she’ll be the only tenant on the city council, which, like many local governing bodies in California, has been dominated by homeowners and fueled by real estate interests opposed to rent control.

Candidates like Valenzuela who challenge California’s real estate industry – and win — are still a rarity. But her victory may signal a growing realization among a resurgent tenant movement that electoral politics are just as important as mass mobilizations or banding together to demand repairs or fight evictions. Some observers claim that with sheer numbers on their side, tenants may be another group in a long line of supposed sleeping giants in California politics. After all, 45 percent of the state’s households are renters.

Harnessing that power is still an uphill battle, however, as only a third of likely voters are renters.

With her two terriers on a leash in one hand and her phone in the other, Valenzuela, who once served as Capitol coordinator for Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), told Capital & Main that she entered the race precisely because Hansen didn’t understand the importance of rent control for the city’s tenants and how difficult their lives had become.

Still, a first run for office against an established city council incumbent was a potential political career killer, her friends warned. Valenzuela, an activist since she was a teenager in the Kern County community of Oildale, was unfazed. “I’m like, what choice do I have? I’m watching everyone in my community getting pushed out.”

*   *   *

Valenzuela was also inspired by two local unions that joined tenant advocates to gather more than 44,000 signatures to place rent control on this November’s ballot. Hansen, backed by tens of thousands of real estate dollars, tried to derail the effort by proposing nonbinding landlord-tenant mediation instead. Valenzuela, who accepted no campaign contributions from the real estate and oil industries, or from law enforcement, said that proposal would have cost the city a lot of money and kept tenants utterly defenseless against their landlords. Hansen’s gambit went nowhere.
 


“It’s a vicious circle. Tenants don’t vote because no one represents us.”

— Karen Kwak, Glendale Tenants Union

 
“It was a superdisconnected move,” Valenzuela said. “We’re hurting and you put forward something that isn’t what we need.”

Hansen didn’t respond to emails requesting comment for this story. But Hansen’s status quo strategy didn’t sit well with grassroots rent control supporters, who backed Valenzuela.

Months later, Hansen and his city council allies compromised with the Sacramento Association of Realtors to adopt a weaker form of rent control in exchange for an agreement by initiative proponents to withdraw their tougher ballot measure. Sacramento Association of Realtors spokeswoman Erin Teague said her group opposes rent control but opted for the compromise because it was particularly concerned about the elected rent board that the initiative would create.

When one of the proponents refused to sign off on withdrawal of the initiative, arguing the city council’s measure wouldn’t sufficiently protect tenants, the city went to court to block it from going to the ballot. The city lost that fight last month, and voters will weigh in on the measure this November.
 


After Santa Rosa’s city council adopted a rent control ordinance, the California Apartment Association promptly collected enough signatures to put the measure to a referendum
– and spent $890,000 to defeat it.


 
Among other recent electoral wins for tenants: Dean Preston, founder of the statewide advocacy group Tenants Together, won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last year, while housing advocate Diana Reddy won her bid for a city council seat in Silicon Valley’s Redwood City in 2018. Still, such victories remain rare.

“It’s a vicious circle. Tenants don’t vote because no one represents us,” said Karen Kwak, a member of the Glendale Tenants Union. Tenants make up more than 60 percent of Glendale’s 200,000 residents of the Los Angeles suburb, but calls for local rent control have been brushed aside. “I’d like to break that cycle,” Kwak said.

* * *

Led by the California Association of Realtors and the California Apartment Association, and backed by some of the largest development companies in the country, the real estate industry is a powerhouse opponent of rent control in state politics. In 2018, its $77 million No campaign crushed Proposition 10, which would have repealed the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act and allowed cities to enact tougher and broader rent control laws. The industry promises equally big spending this year to oppose Prop. 21, a similar measure that would reform Costa-Hawkins.

In places like the city of San Mateo, tenants had been all but invisible in local politics. But five years ago several dozen members of Faith in Action, a multiracial activist group, first came to City Hall to share stories and urge the city council to pass a rent control law. Organizer Adriana Guzman remembers the hostility with which rent control opponents greeted her group.

“Hey, this seat is also reserved for me,” she recalled thinking after individuals with an anti-rent control group told the tenants, about half of them people of color, that they didn’t belong at the city council meeting and exhorted them to go back to their countries of origin. It was a scary experience, Guzman said. “We didn’t know what to do, but at the same time, we knew we deserved to be there.”
 


Local candidates for public office who advocate rent control are often putting targets on their backs, while those who support the industry are richly rewarded.


 
After the council rejected rent control, Faith in Action launched a city ballot initiative that the industry fought with ominous-looking mailers warning that “known felons” could move into local apartments and landlords would be powerless to evict them. The measure lost badly.

San Mateo Mayor Joe Goethals, who describes himself as a progressive Democrat, said rent control doesn’t address the fundamental problem: the shortage of affordable housing. “We want to build more, and that should be our focus,” he said. Rent control supporters largely take Goethals’ point, but argue rent control would prevent tenants from losing their homes. Their opponents also contend rent control deters rental housing from being built because it makes home construction potentially less profitable.

But California Housing and Community Development Department figures show that rent-controlled municipalities are better at building new housing than those without rent control. Over 70 percent of the former are meeting goals for market rate housing construction, while only half of all of the state’s 539 jurisdictions are doing so. In the low and very low income categories, only 33 jurisdictions statewide are meeting their goals, including West Hollywood and Beverly Hills – two cities with rent stabilization ordinances.

Political reality is the other reason for not adopting rent control, Goethals said. He remembers thinking that if rent control passed, “It would be recalled at the next election. They would spend a fortune to strike it down.”

Indeed, after Santa Rosa’s city council adopted a rent control ordinance in 2016, the California Apartment Association promptly collected enough signatures to put the measure to a 2017 referendum – and spent $890,000 to defeat it. In the past four years, at least seven local rent control initiatives have gone down to defeat, while city councils have rebuffed many other such proposals. In 2017, the CAA sued the cities of Richmond and Mountain View to block implementation of their rent control laws. The organization backed down only after courts made initial rulings against it.

Local candidates for public office who advocate rent control are often putting targets on their backs, while those who support the industry are richly rewarded. For example, the national and state associations of realtors, along with the California Apartment Association, spent over $91,000 to back two Glendale City Council candidates in the March 2020 election. In 2018, the CAR had spent more than $50,000 to oppose housing activist and Redwood City Council candidate Diana Reddy, with one of its mailers warning that Reddy’s policies “would cut your home values by $60,000.” Reddy won the seat, but she says she’s still trying to convince her colleagues that rent control is worth pursuing.

In the city of San Mateo, Guzman said, tenants have become a bolder and savvier regular presence at local government meetings after their initial visit to the city council. They’ve also broadened their reach as the housing crisis has intensified: With middle income people like teachers and health care workers also facing displacement from soaring rents, tenants are strategizing ways to win their support for an eventual rent control push, Guzman added.

* * *

Statewide, the new wave of tenant activism got a surge of energy and troops in 2018 from Prop. 10’s campaign to expand rent control, said Occidental College professor of politics Peter Dreier. The new movement has involved colorful and confrontational direct actions, along with local and state lobbying efforts, and includes low and middle income tenants, with the activists’ income diversity adding to its potential power, Dreier noted.

For example, Mountain View, home to the Googleplex, boasts a median annual income of $128,000 and is one of four cities to adopt new rent control laws over the past five years. Alameda and Richmond in the Bay Area, and Inglewood, near Los Angeles, as well as unincorporated Los Angeles County, bring to 17 the number of California local governments that already have such laws. Culver City has adopted a temporary rent control ordinance, while Sacramento’s law will take effect September 14.

Still, tenant organizers are spread too thin, and too few are on the job full-time to build enough political power for tenants to overcome industry opposition, Dreier said.

But what if Prop. 10’s biggest financial backer, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which spent $22 million in its unsuccessful effort to repeal Costa-Hawkins, and is poised for a big outlay of cash to boost Prop. 21 this year, turned its attention to hiring a hundred tenant organizers? What if other large charitable foundations chipped in?

“They would be making a long-term investment in building a sustainable movement that would have an impact over the long haul,” Dreier said.

It could, Dreier said, shift power statewide in the same way tenant organizers in Santa Monica and West Hollywood did 30 years ago, when they took control of local politics.

Katie Valenzuela said she’s already getting calls from other potential grassroots candidates seeking mentors. They are looking at Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Valenzuela said, and thinking, “If you can do this [get elected] at a congressional level, you can do it on a much smaller scale.”


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