Gavin Newsom

Governor Gavin Newsom speaking at a rally in 2018.

California’s housing crisis is more dire than ever, but state lawmakers have continued to kick the can down the road.

Significant amendments to ambitious tenant protection policies have hamstrung legislative efforts to temper California’s acute housing crisis. Even in early committee drafts, the California legislature has either watered down or dismissed bills that would establish modest rent caps, reduce evictions, and provide emergency rent subsidies for renters at risk of homelessness. Similarly, efforts to jump-start housing production have stalled in Sacramento, despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s bold campaign promise to build 3.5 million new homes. Critics across the political spectrum are blaming California’s highest-ranking Democrats, Governor Newsom and Senate President pro tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), for a failure to lead on the issue.

California has the highest poverty rate in the nation when accounting for housing costs, but on housing construction, it ranks 49th of all states per capita in new housing built. With homelessness soaring and a mass exodus of lower-income residents to cheaper states flatlining the population, there is little political appetite for moderation.

There were signs of trouble well before a full Senate or Assembly vote took place. Governor Newsom reportedly called members of the Assembly’s powerful Judiciary committee to demand the passage of Assembly Bill 1482, an anti-gouging cap on annual rent increases greater than 5 percent plus inflation—another of his signature promises on housing—but Assembly Bill 36, by Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), which would have eased restrictions on local rent control policies, was quietly shelved.

At a subsequent press conference, Newsom’s Chief of Staff Ann O’Leary claimed that the Governor had called committee members to urge the passage of all tenant protection bills, including AB 36, but legislators had heard no such thing. O’Leary was forced to make calls to various assembly members apologizing for the confusion.

AB 1482 was amended significantly before a full assembly vote, establishing a 10-year expiration date and exempting small property owners. [Update: the bill was further amended to exire in three years, raising the rent cap to 7 percent above inflation.]

Just-cause eviction protection was similarly kneecapped, as AB 1481 by Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) was amended to merely require several months’ relocation payments for “no-fault” evictions, such as owner move-in evictions, and only establishing protections after six months’ tenancy. [Update: the bill was not brought up for a vote, effectively ending its chances of passage this year.]

“That’s pathetic,” said Randy Shaw, Executive Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco. “Three months’ rent? I don’t see that as a new protection since the tenants’ rent is going to be jacked up anyway.”

Shaw described the difficulty these bills faced as the implosion of what was supposed to be a “grand bargain” on housing—appeasing property owners with increased production of denser housing near transit with bills such as Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB 50, while protecting tenants from displacement with just cause eviction protections and emergency price controls. Indeed, just-cause eviction was the first plank of the ten-point proposal authorized by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments known as the CASA Compact.

“It’s still shocking to me that with a Democratic supermajority, and with a Governor who said he would support tenants’ rights, that this fell apart,” Shaw said. “It wasn’t the Republican party that destroyed this. It was all Democrats.”

Even some Democrats who opposed Proposition 10, the November 2018 ballot measure to enable local rent control expansion, unsuccessfully supported some of these bills. Assembly member Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) was criticized for her unwillingness to support Proposition 10, but was a coauthor of Bloom’s AB 36, which would have significantly weakened the Costa Hawkins Rental Act. Wicks’ own AB 724, a bill to establish a statewide rental registry, failed to pass to a full assembly vote. In an interview, Wicks said she was “determined” to create a rental registry database in the future, and felt similarly about Bloom’s bill.

“I’m committed to Costa Hawkins reform, and I want to work with Assemblymember Bloom to see it through,” she said.

The fate of AB 724 evinces the tenuous coalition behind tenant protections, and the overwhelming odds such policies face.

“Compromises usually have to be made in the legislative process,” said Megan Abell, Director of Advocacy for the TechEquity Collaborative, a nonprofit that cosponsored AB 724. “We’re looking at opportunities to take a second bite of the apple.”

Abell emphasized that efforts such as just-cause evictions and rent control needed to be “part of a package” pairing protections with increased housing production, to “give both sides a piece of what they’re looking for.”

“We’re bailing out a sinking ship without plugging in the hole,” said Alexander Harnden, Policy Advocate for the Western Center for Law and Poverty. “Tenant protections are necessary to make sure that as we’re building housing, we’re also keeping people stably housed to make sure we’re not adding to the problem.” Harnden explained that the Western Center was supportive of efforts to expand affordable housing, and was not opposed to more aggressive production efforts, but the main focus of their coalition in this legislative session was on tenant protections.

“Generally, we’re seeing that tenant protections are one of the hardest things to get through the legislative process,” Harnden said. “If we don’t address that, we are just going to get the same increases we’ve seen in homelessness.”

And that’s exactly what California is seeing now. On the day that the Senate Appropriations Committee announced that it would be delaying Wiener’s SB 50, a major housing production bill, for another year, countywide homeless population counts were released that indicated a major spike. Results from the biennial homeless census showed a 17 percent increase in homelessness in San Francisco, while the population rose by 43 percent in both Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. In Southern California, the counties of Los Angeles, Riverside, Ventura, and San Bernardino reported increases by over 20 percent, while Kern County saw a staggering 50 percent increase.

The Senate Appropriations committee also quietly struck down Wiener’s SB 48, which would have streamlined the permitting of homeless navigation centers statewide. The same committee amended SB 18, by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), to remove provisions that would have provided emergency rental assistance to tenants facing eviction due to late payments, a strategy homeless advocates say is critical to preventing more street homelessness. Meanwhile, SB 529 by Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), a bill to enable tenant organization, was amended in the Appropriations committee to remove legal protections for tenants organizing a rent strike.

[Update: SB 529 fell one vote short of the majority required to pass the State Senate.]

Critics are putting the blame squarely on Senate Appropriations chairman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge). Portantino began his political career on the La Cañada Flintridge City Council, representing a city that has permitted zero multifamily housing units over the past two decades, and home to a planning commissioner who recently opposed subsidized affordable housing on the grounds that “people like people of their own tribe.”

Senate President pro tempore Toni Atkins weathered a deluge of calls from local and state advocates to circumvent the Appropriations committee and bring SB 50 to a floor vote, but Atkins rebuffed those demands in a statement: “California urgently needs affordable housing. Let’s take time to craft the right solution.

But with a national election in 2020, observers are skeptical that the legislature will have the backbone to support controversial housing production and tenant protection bills given that time.

“The idea was, groups that would otherwise oppose tenant protections would go along with it because they wanted SB 50 to pass,” Randy Shaw said.

Ironically, legislators who continue to stall on housing production and tenant protection measures may incur the ire of voters. A recent poll commissioned by California YIMBY found that two-thirds of voters polled statewide supported SB 50, and a later poll by EMC Research reported that overwhelming majorities of voters in the Bay Area and Southern California support just cause eviction and a rent cap.

Although real estate interest groups remain largely opposed to eviction restrictions and rent caps, Debra Carlton, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs for the California Apartment Association, argued that tenant protections without housing production incentives would place an undue strain on current property owners without adding downward price pressure on the rental market.

“You’re not helping the next generation by stopping housing production,” Carlton said. “If the NIMBYs and local officials are going to get in the way of housing production, and then turn around and point the finger at our industry, I’d say that quite frankly is rather ironic.”

The disappointment from all sides is palpable, to the point that Gov. Newsom’s subsequent announcement of a $1 billion state task force to study homelessness solutions, led by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, was met with little fanfare and even mockery.

When asked of Newsom’s role in the situation, Randy Shaw was succinct: “He dropped the ball,” Shaw said.

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