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A renters’ revolt in California could be heading to the November ballot as a campaign to lift decades-old restrictions on rent control reported Friday it had gathered more than enough signatures to qualify.
Organizers are planning rallies in Sacramento, Oakland and Los Angeles on Monday as they hand in the signatures, which must be counted and verified by election officials before the initiative makes it on the ballot.
“People are paying a higher percentage of their income toward housing than they ever have before. That is not normal,” said Amy Schur, campaign director for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, one of the groups behind the initiative. “The current crisis is such that it is absolutely unsustainable.”
Propelled by the pain of sharply rising rents, the initiative, if it qualifies, is sure to set the stage for an expensive clash between renters and the trade association representing landlords, which sponsored the state law that renters are trying to repeal. The law, known as Costa Hawkins, makes it illegal for cities to apply rent caps to any properties built after 1995, when it was passed — or earlier. If a city adopted rent control in 1980, as Oakland and Berkeley did, everything built afterward is exempt from rent control.
The law also bars cities from passing rent-control ordinances on rented condominiums or single-family homes, or from adopting a policy known as “vacancy control” — limiting the increases that landlords can charge to new renters.
“It certainly will be a high stakes battle,” said Steve Maviglio, a veteran political consultant hired by the opposition who expects the “yes” campaign to spend as much as $30 million. “We’re going to have to compete with that to educate people about why this will essentially freeze housing construction for apartments in the state.”
Asked about the estimate, Schur shot back that her campaign would surely be outspent by “the corporate landlord industry” fighting to keep the restrictions intact. But, she added, her organization was training armies of renters — including 200 in Sacramento this Sunday — on how to talk to their neighbors about rent control and get out the vote.
“This is, in fact, the only policy solution that promises to address this crisis quickly enough to avert an even greater disaster in our housing market,” she said.
Tenants’ rights advocates and community groups initially lobbied state lawmakers to repeal Costa Hawkins, but a bill to do so failed to pass its first committee hearing in January.
At the hearing, which drew more than 1,000 people on both sides of the debate, some lawmakers said they worried that lifting the restrictions could actually hurt tenants by further squeezing the short supply of rentals and driving up prices.
But advocates for the repeal, including Assemblymen Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, and David Chiu, D-San Francisco, argued that renters facing enormous rent hikes they can’t afford need immediate help, and that cities need more tools to help them stay in their homes.
An Apartment List survey released this month found that Bay Area suburbs had the highest prices for two-bedroom rentals in the country, with Danville apartments leasing for $5,400 a month, Cupertino for $5,050, and Los Altos for $4,690. And a new national study by the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation has found that tenants renting single-family homes make up the fastest-growing segment of the housing market — the type of rental that cannot be subject to rent control under California law.
Repealing Costa Hawkins would not change existing rent control policies or bring rent caps to cities that don’t already have them. Rather, it would allow local officials to expand renter protections in ways prohibited under current law.
Funding for the repeal initiative is coming largely from Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation — the same man behind the failed 2016 ballot measure, Proposition 60, that would have required the use of condoms in pornographic films.
The campaign needs to submit 365,880 signatures by late June to qualify the initiative for the ballot; a spokesman says the group has more than 565,000.
COSTA HAWKINS, EXPLAINED
What is Costa Hawkins?: It’s a decades-old California law that makes it illegal for cities to adopt certain kinds of rent control ordinances.
What are the restrictions?: Single family homes and condominiums are exempt from rent control under this state law. So is any apartment built after 1995, when Costa Hawkins was passed, or in some cases much earlier. If a city adopted rent control in 1980, for example — as Oakland and Berkeley did — then that is the cutoff; everything built afterward is exempt from rent control. Costa Hawkins also prohibits cities from regulating how much a landlord can raise the price after a tenant moves out, a policy known as vacancy control.
How many cities in California have some form of rent control?: At least 15, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs, including Berkeley, Beverly Hills, Campbell, East Palo Alto, Fremont, Hayward, Los Angeles, Los Gatos, Oakland, Palm Springs, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Monica, Thousand Oaks, and West Hollywood. Campaigns are underway in Sacramento, Santa Cruz and in Santa Rosa.