Happy New Year—you’re evicted!
Tens of thousands of Sacramento residents have been forcibly kicked out of their homes. Can rent control stop the displacement?
Marie Camacho walks through a whirl of falling leaves, stopping at the gate of a battered Midtown Victorian. Fliers in one hand, a clipboard in the other, she begins slowly climbing up the house’s creaking wood steps. Behind its faded walls a dog erupts into a mad frenzy. “He’s pretty loud,” Camacho says with a nervous laugh. She keeps heading for the stranger’s door. She’s not turning back.
Camacho is one of dozens of volunteers fanning out across the city of Sacramento to bring awareness to a grassroots campaign for rent control. And, in Camacho’s case, she can speak straight from the heart.
That’s because the young, disabled mother and her 4-year-old son are currently being evicted from their tiny flat. There’s no evidence Camacho’s been anything but a model tenant; but with rents skyrocketing around the city, she and her son are being cleared out nonetheless.
It’s a scenario that’s becoming tragically common.
According to court data obtained by SN&R, tens of thousands of local residents have been forcibly evicted in the past three years—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s a crisis spurred by Bay Area expatriates and the rise of Silicon Valley “super-commuters”—both of which are turning Sacramento’s dearth of low- and middle-income rentals into a big financial opportunity for landlords. Experts agree that a general shortage of local housing units is fueling part of the displacement. But, from the vantage point of housing advocates, another element of what’s forcing people from their neighborhoods is anti-social greed.
Some tenants are determined to push back now, before the existing community evaporates. That’s why Camacho, just weeks from possible homelessness, is knocking on strangers’ doors to talk about rent control.
“I love getting the word out,” she says. “There are a lot of people who are working to make this better, and letting more people know is how we’re finally going to make a change.”
Exile from Oak Park
Camacho’s son was a toddler when they moved into their small apartment on First Avenue in Oak Park. She says she was struggling to hold down a job at an insurance office due to a documented medical disability. Her problems were soon compounded by water leaking down into her apartment from the ceiling. Lights in her bathroom flickered off for good and several power outlets went dead.
“There was no way to give my son a bath in there without a light,” Camacho remembers. “All the water leaking started to create a moldy smell.”
Alarmed, Camacho says, she tried get the hazards fixed through the apartment complex’s management company, Reality Round-up. When the company’s online complaint system failed, Camacho started calling its office over and over. Camacho says it ultimately took three months to get the safety issues fixed.
“They kept telling me it was because they couldn’t get a hold of the lady upstairs,” Camacho recalls. “But she’s here every day.”
Meanwhile, her rent kept going up—17 percent over two-and-a-half years. Then, this August, Camacho was suddenly served a 60-day notice to vacate. No cause, at least related to Camacho, was cited. She quickly emailed her property manager, emphasizing the hardship an eviction presented because of her disability.
While she was waiting for a response, her brother Moses Camacho says he got a pretty clear picture of why the eviction was happening. Marie had run into an issue with Reality Round-up’s online billing system, so Moses stepped in to pay her rent over the phone. Moses says during a phone conversation with a Reality Round-up employee named Jim, he was told that the owner of Camacho’s complex wanted to clear it out, renovate each unit and then charge more money.
“He told me the owner wasn’t going to change all of the apartments at once, but rather one by one,” Moses says. “Then he said the owner was going to rent them for a higher price. Maria was paying the lowest amount there, so they were going to start with hers.”
Reality Round-up declined to comment for this story, citing client confidentiaity.
In October, Camacho was served a second 60-day notice to vacate, which was followed by a December 4 letter from the lawfirm Kimball, Tirey & St. John, representing the owner of the complex. The legal team noted in its message that Camacho’s eviction was happening because the owner wanted to “rehab” the unit. Camacho eventually got a brief extension. As things stand, she and her son need to be out by February 14.
“It’s stressful, very stressful,” Camacho admits. “It’s like not being able to breathe, because you don’t know what your next move is going to be.”
Numbers that count
How bad are eviction rates in Sacramento?
In October, two prominent media outlets ran headlines announcing that, despite the city reportedly experiencing the worst year-to-year rent increase in the nation in 2016, eviction rates remained relatively low in the capital. But those reports—both single-sourced stories that took their premise from findings by ApartmentList.com—were met with near bewilderment by local housing experts and community organizers. Many thought that a web-aggregating survey system like ApartmentList.com simply wasn’t reflecting the reality of what they’ve been seeing on the streets.
One person dumbfounded by the headlines was Jonah Paul, who has been knocking on doors across the city as a volunteer for Democratic Socialists of America and the Housing 4 Sacramento Coalition. The stories Paul’s been hearing paint a picture far more dire. He says one tenant he recently spoke with was forced onto the streets by a sudden, 65 percent rent increase. Another man he met had to send his children to live with relatives after a rent hike doomed his living situation. Paul says he even encountered a Sacramento restaurant owner who was suddenly priced out of her commercial space, which fast-tracked her trajectory to winding up a homeless Lyft driver. Hearing these stories made last October’s headlines hard to swallow.
“I felt like they didn’t even try to do any independent research,” Paul says of the news outlets. “They didn’t even use more than one source.”
Paul adds that, while each struggling Sacramentan he’s met represents an anecdotal story, the frequency of such encounters should alarm everyone.
“Short of a very thorough-going approach to strengthening tenants’ rights, stabilizing rents and building more housing that’s accessible at all income levels, there are going to be thousands of more stories like this,” Paul stresses. “The fact that I can go out and meet so many different people in a matter of hours, whose stories have so much in common, it’s very shocking.”
SN&R obtained three years of eviction-related court data from Sacramento Superior Court. Specifically, SN&R reviewed the number of unlawful detainer cases, which are filed any time a tenant chooses to legally fight a landlord’s eviction notice. While some unlawful detainer cases may involve home foreclosures, Tenants Together Executive Director Dean Preston says the vast majority are renters who have been served notices to vacate their houses and apartments.
According to the records, between January 2015 and October 2017, some 22,519 people in Sacramento County filed unlawful detainer cases. Preston notes that those 22,000-plus people are just a baseline when it comes to actual evictions.
“There are two types of displacements the unlawful detainers don’t capture,” Preston explains. “The first is informal evictions, where no paperwork is handed out and nothing is ever filed. A lot of tenants don’t know their rights and will just leave in those situations. The second is when a formal [notice to vacate] is served, which lays out the statutory timeline, and the tenant just moves without filing anything in court.”
Preston adds, “The real estate industry tends to not call any of those ’evictions,’ because no unlawful detainer is filed, but in our view they’re evictions, because they’re displacements.”
So how many evictions have actually occurred in Sacramento over the last three years? City and county officials have no data system or formal method of tracking them beyond law enforcement call logs, which misses the same displacements that unlawful detainer cases miss.
“There’s an enormous amount of pressure on tenants to move rather than litigate,” Preston says. “They don’t have the right to counsel, and they know they probably won’t have a lawyer.”
Next Thursday, this fight will spill into the halls of the state Capitol. That’s when tenants and housing advocates from across California plan to pack Room 4202 and demand the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee begin repealing a little-known law called the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act.
California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, when calculated against cost of living factors like rent. Tenant groups just won major victories for getting rent control in the cities of Richmond and Mountain View—inspiring the Sacramento campaign—but as long as Costa-Hawkins stands, the public’s voting power around rent stabilization is limited. Advocates say they can win some local battles, but they can’t win a war.
Costa-Hawkins became law under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson on the back of lobbying efforts from the real estate industry. In practical terms, it means when voters pass a ballot initiative for local rent control in any California city, those price limits and protections can only apply to apartments built before 1995. Costa-Hawkins also bars those measures from applying to condominiums and stand-alone rental houses.
In 2015, organizations like Tenants Together and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE, rallied Richmond voters to approve rent control, despite the California Apartment Association spending a reported $200,000 on ads and political maneuvers to defeat it.
Jovana Fajardo, director of ACCE Sacramento, was part of the movement to bring rent control to Richmond. When Sacramento’s campaign for rent control kicked off in March, Fajardo told the crowd that the Richmond miracle was still limited by the existence of Costa-Hawkins. The same is true in Mountain View, which also passed a rent-control ordinance, and will be true around California. Even if Sacramento tenants manage to overcome the CAA’s financial firepower and a lack of support from Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the City Council and pass rent-control, Costa-Hawkins will limit its effects.
In February, Assemblymembers Richard Bloom, Rob Bonta and David Chiu introduced Assembly Bill 1506, a bill amounting to a wholesale repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act. Drama immediately ensued.
The California Apartment Association expressed strong opposition, arguing on its website that the repeal would bring “construction of rental housing in California to a halt, exacerbating the state’s housing shortage.” Just two months later, Bloom announced he was shelving AB 1506 as a two-year bill, often a sign that legislation is about to die. The CAA’s senior vice president of public affairs, Debra Carlton, applauded the move in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, stressing that “rent control builds no new housing and that has to be our focus in the Legislature.”
Some economists like Robert P. Murphy of the Free Market Institute agree that rent control takes away the financial incentive for investors to build new affordable units, while drawing more people into the renters pool at the same time, further decreasing the supply of affordable units.
Yet housing advocates counter that smart rent control ordinances don’t take away an owner’s ability to make a profit; they just lessen the human toll that can be justified against the amount of profit. In recent months, groups with this message, including Tenants Together and the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, have kept pressure up on the authors of AB 1506 to bring it back. And now it is back, with its first official hearing on January 11.
One person who’ll be monitoring the action is Lazaro Cardenas, head of the recently formed Sacramento Tenants Union. The union is a collective of renters actively organizing against local slum conditions, illegal landlord actions and neighborhood displacement from devastating rent hikes. Cardenas says his organization is so new it hasn’t had a chance to take a formal position on repealing Costa-Hawkins, but likely will in the coming months. “Most of our members are very much in favor of a repeal,” Cardenas says.
From Cardenas’ vantage point, the rent control campaign in Sacramento and the statewide effort to repeal Costa-Hawkins are parts of a broader struggle to recognize housing as a human right.
“We understand that there needs to be policy decisions,” he says, “but tenants and renters need help right now. They don’t deserve to have bolts and locks put on their doors. They shouldn’t have to live with mold and rot in their apartments. This is about changing the dynamics of the tenant-landlord relationship, and giving the power back to the community.”