Californians Defend Rent Control

Posted by Peter Dreier on June 5, 2008

On Tuesday, California voters provided a tremendous victory for tenants’ rights. They defeated Proposition 98, which would have phased out rent control, by a landslide margin of 61 percent to 39 percent.

The ballot measure, which would have amended California’s constitution to ban rent control, was sponsored by the state’s landlord lobby, but they sought to camflouge the anti-rent control language by wrapping it inside a provision opposing the abuse of eminent domain by local governments. As the Sacramento Bee editorialized on Wednesday, the landlord lobby “tried to use fear of eminent domain to bamboozle voters into approving sweeping agendas to cripple government action should end in California.” The Los Angeles Times observed that “repeal of rent control was slipped into the measure without much fanfare apparently was enough to turn off a majority of voters.”

At the same time that voters gave a resounding “no” to Proposition 98, they gave an overwhelming “yes” to Proposition 99, a more limited measure that protects owner-occupied residences from eminent domain, but excluded any language about rent control. The vote in favor of Proposition 99 was 62.5 percent to 37.5 percent.

In other words, California voters knew exactly what they were doing, despite the barrage of TV and radio ads, and direct mail, that hit them in the final weeks before the election.

Polling by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California released before the election found that a majority of Californians support rent control, even though only a handful of cities have adopted it.

The strategy for tenants activists and their allies was to expose the deceptive Prop 98 by revealing that it was funded by landlords and designed to kill rent control — and that the eminent domain cover was really a Trojan House to appeal to voters hostility to local governments that favor big developers over small property owners.

Once the California Apartment Owners Assn. and its allies put Proposition 98 on the ballot earlier this year, a broad coalition of tenants rights groups, environmental groups, local government officials, AARP, labor unions and others quickly gathered signatures to put Proposition 99 on the ballot to provide voters with an alternative that would deal with widespread opposition to the abuse of eminent domain (but without the draconian measures within Proposition 98) and also protect rent control.

Proposition 98 would not only have taken away rent control but also barred government agencies from using eminent domain except for public uses. Proposition 99 did not carry a rent control provision but had similar but more narrowly focused eminent-domain language, including exempting public works projects.

Eminent domain has become increasingly controversial because it is sometimes abused by local and state governments to raze people’s homes and businesses in order to build big commercial projects — in other words, a misuse of government authority to promote private profit. But eminent domain can also be wielded wisely and fair, when local governments need to assemble parcels to build schools, parks, environmental reclamation projects, and other public facilities.

Proposition 99 was a fascinating coalition of the California League of Cities, tenants groups, environmentalists, seniors groups, and others. They recognized that they had to deal with the public’s distrust of eminent domain without eliminating it altogether, and while protecting cities’ right to adopt rent control if they want to.

The liberal and progressive groups waged a two-pronged campaign. One was an expensive media campaign. The “No-98/Yes-99” campaign put out lots of mail featuring elderly renters worrying about being evicted with the repeal of rent control laws. Most major California newspapers editorialized against 98 and in favor of 99. Even those papers who aren’t sympathetic to rent control believed that Prop 98 was deceptive and that its provisions against eniment domain would hamstring local governments.

The second prong was a concerted grassroots get-out-the-vote campaign by tenants groups, labor unions, environmental groups, and others. Because there were no major statewide races on the ballot, and only a few hotly-contested primary contests for local offices, overall turnout was only 22.2 percent — the lowest in more than 30 years. But the grass-roots groups —the Coalition for Economic Survival, ACORN, Coalition LA, and other community groups in LA, and their counterparts in other cities, like the San Francisco Tenants Union — did a good job of targeting their members and other tenants.

Larry Gross, director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, which spearheaded get-out-the-vote efforts in Los Angeles, said, “From the beginning, this measure was about whether to abolish rent control. In this election, rent control won big.” He added: “We know that landlords will be back with some other scheme to throw people out of their homes and jack up rents. Thats why today were not just celebrating victory. We’re going to build on this victory and continue to organize. We will be even stronger the next time these landlords come knocking on our doors.”

Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, California’s new statewide organization for renters’ rights, predicted that the election would usher in a new era for tenant rights in California. “The landlords’ attack on rent control was squarely rejected by voters. Landlords will regret waging this campaign. This election has reinvigorated a grass-roots movement for tenant rights in California.”

After the election, Tom Adams, president of the California League of Conservation Voters board, told the Los Angeles Times: “Despite the fact that landlords spent nearly $8 million to fool the voters about Prop 98, the voters once again showed that they see these cheesy schemes for what they are. Hopefully, this will send a strong signal to others that the voters have little tolerance for dishonest tactics.”

Over 80 percent of the funding for Prop. 98 came from landlords and groups that represent them. It was also backed by the Jarvis-Gann Taxpayers Assn., a small but vocal group that opposes government in general.

This was the group that sponsored Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that limits local governments’ ability to raise property taxes and which has been primarily responsible for the decline of local public schools, municipal govenrment, and sound fiscal policy. Back then, Jarvis was a lobbyist for the Apartment Owners Assn.

During the campaign for Proposition 13, Jarvis promised renters that landlords would look out for them if Prop. 13 passed. But when landlords not only failed to share their tax rebate with renters, but even raised rents, it ignited a statewide movement for rent control. Dozens of California cities adopted some form of rent control in the 1970s and 1980s.

Because rent control has been popular with voters, California landlords have tried other means than local and statewide ballot measures to weaken or eliminate it. In the mid-1990s, for example, the landlord lobby used its clout in Sacramento — a result of its generous campaign contributions — to get the legislature to pass a law restricting cities from passing strong rent control; only “vacancy decontrol” — which allows landlords to raise rents once a tenant leaves an apartment — is permitted. That law weakened existing laws in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Berkeley, West Hollywood, and other cities. Many cities have adopted these tenant protections for residents of mobile homes. (Not suprisingly, owners of mobile-home parks were a major funder behind the Proposition 98 anti-rent control initiative).

Renters are still a sleeping giant in California politics. There is a handful of effective local groups, but the rent-control movement has not made significant headway in the past decade. It has mostly had to fight defensive battles, such as the fight against Proposition 98 and in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles to defend tenants from condo conversions and illegal evictions.

But Tuesday’s victory could be a defining moment for tenants’ rights in California. If tenants groups and their allies — multi-issue community groups, labor unions, senior citizens groups, and others — can rebuild an organizing infrastruture, they can build on the momentum of Tuesday’s exciting victory.

About the author more »

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and director of the Urban and Environmental Policy program at Occidental College. He is a member of the boards of the National Housing Institute and the Southern California Assn. for Nonprofit Housing, and chair of the board of the Horizon Institute, a progressive think tank in Los Angeles.

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