March 21, 2017

Will democrats deliver for tenants?

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Speakers at Mar 17 Assembly hearing

Speakers at Mar 17 Assembly hearing

By Randy Shaw

State Must Address Housing Crisis

As California activists mobilize against Trump’s planned elimination of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and Veteran’s Homeless programs (the USICH), these efforts must not obscure a critical question: when will California’s Democratic-controlled legislature start helping the state’s tenants? Consider:

  1. Democrats have not enacted a single major piece of pro-tenant legislation since 2003 despite controlling the Senate and Assembly;
  1. Democrats have controlled the Governor’s office and Legislature since January 2011 without enacting pro-tenant legislation or adding new affordable housing funding for working families;
  1. Democrats, not Republicans, killed Ellis Act reform in 2014 and 2015;
  1. Democratic legislators privately complain about Governor Brown’s refusal to fund affordable housing but take no public actions in response.

That’s a pretty grim record for the nation’s most Democratic state. A state whose residents suffer from the country’s worst affordability crisis. It reflects a Democratic majority that includes “corporate” Democrats and pro-labor and pro-enviro legislators whose support for those causes earn them support despite their opposition to tenants rights.

Will 2017 be any different? Will housing and progressive groups finally hold pro-labor and pro-environment Sacramento Democrats accountable for addressing the state’s housing crisis?

Los Angeles is Key

I wrote last fall (“The Real SF vs. LA Battle,” September 12, 2016) that Los Angeles now controls what happens in Sacramento. And the problem then was that “on housing funding and tenants’ rights, San Francisco’s need for state help is being undermined and/or ignored by Los Angeles’ competing priorities.”

Fortunately, this scenario has changed. Assemblyman Richard Bloom, who represents Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and parts of Los Angeles,  recently joined with Oakland’s Rob Bonta and San Francisco’s David Chiu to introduce a bill  repealing the 1995 “Costa-Hawkins” legislation. That measure has proved catastrophic for affordable housing in California. It prevented cities from limiting rent increases upon vacancies and exempted single family homes and condos from rent control.

Bloom told the Los Angeles Times that “ Costa Hawkins provided relief for landlords, but in the process we are seeing an escalation of costs for tenants that at this point in time is untenable and that needs to be addressed,” Los Angeles rents have gone up 23% since 2013 and statewide rents have risen a whopping 26% since 2014.

On March 17, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon joined Chiu, Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon (D – Whittier), and Assemblymembers Mike A. Gipson (D – Carson), Adrin Nazarian (D – Sherman Oaks) and Miguel Santiago (D – Los Angeles) at a hearing in Los Angeles on the need for action on housing. Although one purpose of the hearing was to rally people to oppose Trump’s federal housing cuts, Chiu in particular made it clear that California must act on housing. Chiu stated, “cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are working to address the crisis, but the State of California has to play a role as too many people continue to suffer from skyrocketing rents and home prices.”

Speaker Rendon stated that “Housing is a sword of Damocles hanging over California’s economy.” While Rendon did not include increased tenant protections or expanded rent control among the many steps that must be taken—-legislators often favor funding housing over getting in a war with landlords over rent control—-the Speaker’s public commitment to do something about housing is a prerequisite for legislative action.

Another prerequisite for success is the increased public presence of Los Angeles-based groups. After years in which the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) and Larry Gross’s Coalition for Economic Survival (CES) seemed to be the only local  players in state tenant legislation, the LA Tenants Union, People Organized for Westside Renewal (POWER), and the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) all turned people out to the March 17 hearing. With the statewide Tenants Together organization helping to unite groups in Los Angeles and across the state, the groundwork is being laid to put the pressure on Democratic legislators to finally address their constituents’ high housing costs.

As Tenants Together Director Dean Preston put it, “Democrats have a supermajority in the legislature. They should use it to repeal Costa-Hawkins and let cities protect their residents from rent gouging and displacement.”

Timing is Right

Some may question moving to repeal Costa-Hawkins rather than putting all resources toward stopping proposed federal housing cuts. But these attacks on housing make it even more imperative that California show that, unlike the Trump Administration, it is affirmatively addressing the housing crisis.

On immigration and climate change, Governor Brown and the state legislative leaders have argued that Trump’s agenda makes it more imperative than ever for California to be a national leader. Shouldn’t the same logic apply to California’s response to Trump’s  draconian housing cuts?

As Assemblymember Bloom points out, keeping Costa-Hawkins as is makes no sense amidst the state’s worsening affordability crisis. The legislation was always designed as an economic windfall for landlords, but the industry then argued it would unleash a flood of new construction and return tens of thousands allegedly taken off the market.

After twenty years, both assumptions have been proven wrong.

In the seventh year of Democratic control of the State Legislature and the Governor’s office (the Assembly and Senate are both 2/3 Democrats), it’s time for Democrats to deliver for California tenants.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His most recent book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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