Beyond the borders
As the politics of rent stabilization heat up inside the city, the new Sacramento Tenants Union enters the suburbs
Eliza Deed says it’s a cold winter for those caught up in Sacramento County’s housing crisis.
In October, Deed paid the rent for her Carmichael apartment as usual. Deed’s complex, The Trees at Madison, had recently been purchased by Pearl Investment Company. Deed accidentally made her money order out to Pearl Investment Group, rather than Pearl Investment Company. It was sent back to her, marked as a nonpayment. Deed says she made a correction on the money order, initialed it and put it back in the management’s drop box the same night.
Three days later, Deed was served with an eviction notice.
Panicked, the 28-year-old called her bank and the money order company, Money Gram. Both companies told her the corrected payment she’d dropped off was valid—a cashable check.
At the same time, Deed was still dealing with a fire that broke out in the wall of her apartment in mid-September. A month later, the damaged Sheetrock and electrical wires still hadn’t been fixed.
Now, Deed was being told she’d be the one facing lawyers. It was that or get out of her unit.
Deed posted a video on Facebook about the incident, which got the attention of the recently formed Sacramento Tenants Union. The tenants union reached out and offered to help Deed host “a community share event” at her complex where other tenants could tell their stories. Deed says that led to her identifying at least five other families who were being evicted for reasons that they contest.
Pearl Investment Company co-owner Darryn Begun denies this, telling SN&R that he’s only evicted four tenants since last summer and that no tenants are currently facing legal proceedings. His definition of being evicted is whether he’s filed an unlawful detainer action against them. Pearl also contends his bank wouldn’t take Deed’s original money order.
After Deed’s Facebook video started getting shares, property management at The Trees backed off from evicting her. That hasn’t stopped Deed from trying to get to the bottom of why so many of her neighbors say they’re being forced out of the complex.
In an October 31 letter to tenants, Begun strongly denied he had engaged in serial evictions, writing that his team actively works to “avoid the eviction process where possible.” Begun also noted that his company has not levied any rent hikes since taking over. However, in the same letter, Begun claimed that his company never served Deed with an eviction notice.
Deed provided SN&R with a copy of an eviction notice that was issued to her on October 16.
Deed says those mixed signals from Pearl Investment are why tenants don’t trust the company’s letters promising there’s no eviction “epidemic” going on. Deed plans to stay involved in organizing with her neighbors.
That’s a trend that could be picking up momentum across Sacramento County as the housing crisis worsens. And while developers and apartment owners claimed an Election Day victory by defeating a statewide initiative to allow expanded local housing control, advocates say the battle to help working-class tenants and prevent wide-scale displacement is just heating up here.
Inside Sacramento’s city limits, advocates have qualified a rent control measure and tenants bill of rights for the 2020 ballot. But even if that measure passes, it won’t help those being evicted from The Trees, nor anyone seeking tenant protections in Carmichael, nor anyone who lives in the county. That matters: Data suggests the rental crisis is a countywide phenomenon.
Between 2015 and 2017, nearly 23,000 people from across Sacramento County went to court to fight an eviction, figures that don’t include people who didn’t have the time, money or will to contest their case.
Special software developed by Princeton University indicates that, in 2016, the city of Sacramento averaged five evictions per day, while the county averaged 15. The program found that North Highlands had an eviction rate nearly five times the state average. That’s what drove North Highlands renter Shaun Dillon to join the Sacramento Tenants Union when it formed last winter.
“The big thing people don’t hear about is that there is a crisis in the county, too,” Dillon said. “The eviction rates are far above the city, and the amount of tenants who are spending more than half their income on rent is higher there, too.”
Dillon and other members of the Tenants Union held a know-your-rights meeting inside Deed’s apartment on November 29. The gathering was open to renters throughout the county. The keynote speaker was Lora Grevious, an attorney for the Sacramento Justice League who handles wrongful eviction cases.
The Tenants Union is putting on a Tenants Taking Action forum at 7 p.m. on December 11 at the Arcade-Dimick public library. Dillon said that evening will focus on how to approach county supervisors about tenant relief, as the group tries to build a movement across the county.
“The unincorporated county is huge and has a ton of people, and we really intend to be there to support them,” stressed Tenants Union member Kitty Bolte. “We’re looking at establishing a hotline that locals can call when they have questions about their rights. At the moment, there’s a hotline which goes to Tenants Together in the Bay Area, but it’s complicated for people in Sacramento who call looking for information, because a lot of the cities in the Bay have rent control or just-cause eviction laws, and we just don’t have anything like that.”
Deed says it has been difficult to get fellow tenants in her complex to share their eviction stories publicly, though she hopes by organizing with the Tenants Union they’ll see they are not alone.
“They’ve been extremely supportive of me,” Deed said of the organization. “It helps to know that you’re not the only one going through it, and that even people who aren’t going through it understand your pain and want to help you fight the situation. I have a football team of supporters, and I’m blessed to have them.”
For his part, Begun says he has no issue with the organizing at his complex.
“I don’t have a problem with tenants taking an interest in the property that they live in,” he said. “As long as they’re responsible, I’m fine with it.”
Meanwhile, rising rents and combative politics are intensifying in the city of Sacramento.
According to Sacramento Self Help Housing, a nonprofit working to prevent homelessness, its assistance line has received 10,359 calls in the last three years, with a large portion about rent hikes and evictions. During that time frame, renters in the city were hit with some of the highest annual rent hikes in the nation. That’s why a coalition of housing and labor groups say they’re moving full-steam ahead with bringing the Sacramento Renter Protection and Community Stabilization Charter Amendment to the 2020 ballot.
If passed, the measure mandates that annual rent increases be capped at the consumer index price, between 2 percent to 5 percent. It also stops no-cause evictions and establishes a rental control board comprised of publicly elected members. The measure would amount to muscular tenant protections, but the severity of the housing crisis did temporarily bring its authors to the negotiating table with Mayor Darrell Steinberg.
Housing advocates and the mayor were trying to see if some compromise could be reached with the apartment and real estate lobbies, and then rapidly passed through the City Council. Advocates now believe the mayor’s mission was undermined when council members Rick Jennings, Steve Hansen and Eric Guerra went another direction, introducing the Tenant Protection and Relief Act.
That competing proposal had its first public hearing October 23 before the council’s Law and Legislative Committee. Jennings’ chief of staff, Dennis Rogers, said the measure requires that anytime a tenant’s rent is raised by 6 percent or more, that person has the right to nonbinding mediation with their landlord at McGeorge School of Law. The initiative also includes funding for tenants’ rights outreach, along with regulatory streamlining to encourage the building of more affordable units. The trio pushing the measure wants it to sunset in three years.
“We’ve been trying to figure out responses to the issues that tenants are facing that are meaningful, can be done quickly and don’t involve a big war,” Hansen said during the hearing.
Councilman Jeff Harris praised the effort. “I think this is an important bridge to get us to that point where the market stabilizes,” he said.
But Tamie Dramer of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, which is supporting the 2020 ballot measure, challenged the proposal.
“People want and need real relief from rent gouging,” Dramer said. “Basically, this is meaningless.”
The City Council could vote on the Tenant Protection and Relief Act as early as this month. Michelle Pariset of the Housing 4 Sacramento coalition told SN&R that advocates are campaigning hard for the rent control and special protections on the ballot in 2020. She said Sacramentans won’t be fooled by what she views as a political stunt.
“It’s perfect to look like something that’s helping, but it does nothing for the crisis, and its purpose is to undermine the rent stabilization campaign,” Pariset said of the Tenant Protection and Relief Act. “They didn’t even talk to any of the housing advocates when they engineered this, which tells you everything you need to know.”