Renters strike back: Statewide nonprofit, DSA launch rent control campaign in Sacramento

California bill aims to reverse law that hinders local action

Jonah Paul (center rear) of Sacramento’s chapter of Democratic Socialists of America addresses a crowd of residents on rent control March 4.

Jonah Paul (center rear) of Sacramento’s chapter of Democratic Socialists of America addresses a crowd of residents on rent control March 4.

Photo courtesy of Veronica Beaty

A bare-bones conference room off Broadway Avenue became the staging ground last week for a campaign to bring Sacramento’s surging rent prices under control. Despite the low-key environs, one group at the center of this effort has a track record for curbing rental prices in the Bay Area through grassroots activism.

The setting for the March 14 meeting was inside the office of Organize Sacramento, a local nonprofit offering strategic consulting services. But the main principals were two other groups—the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the Democratic Socialists of America—that announced they’re teaming up to launch a campaign for rent control in the capital city.

The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE, is a statewide nonprofit that played a key role in getting rent control passed in the city of Richmond in 2015. Boasting more than 10,000 members from San Diego to Oakland, ACCE specializes in helping neighborhoods find a political voice for housing justice and health initiatives.

Sacramento’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, has also experienced increasing membership as of late. One of its members, Russell Rawlings, ran for mayor last year and, at one point, was polling at 10 percent before he dropped out of the race to endorse winner Darrell Steinberg.

Rawlings was the first to speak at the rent control meeting.

“How many people in this room are paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent?” Rawlings asked, seeing hands go up. “It’s a reality for a lot of people, and it’s becoming a reality for a lot more.”

Referencing data from the Sacramento Housing Alliance, Ian Lee, president of the local DSA chapter, indicated the average Sacramento rent climbed from $873 a month in 2011 to $1,350 in 2016, while the price for an average one-bed unit shot up from $668 to $1,109 in the same period. Meanwhile, U.S. Census statistics found the region’s median income stagnated in that very time frame. Independent of those numbers, a report from RentRange indicates that, in 2015, Sacramento experienced the second-highest rent increase in the nation.

“These numbers, at the end of the day, are people,” Lee told the crowd. “Hundreds of thousands of people not being able to get by.”

Sacramento’s DSA chapter will be lending support on the ground to ACCE, which was in the coalition that overcame the well-funded California Apartment Association to bring rent control to Richmond. That battle involved passing rent control first through a city council vote and—after a ballot initiative from the apartment association was raised against it—through a counter-ballot measure that won with a resounding 65 percent of the public vote. The apartment association spent more than $200,000 in Richmond fighting rent control, according to the East Bay Express.

The Richmond measure caps yearly rent increases from landlords at the Consumer Price Index, which is roughly 2 percent a year. It also demands just cause be articulated for renters to be evicted.

The apartment association tried to block the regulations in court, claiming they were unconstitutional, but found itself on the losing end of a February ruling. The city of Richmond now lists its “Fair Rent, Just Cause for Eviction and Homeowner Protection” ordinance on its website.

The Bay Area city of Mountain View passed a similar rent control measure in November, but is still defending it from the apartment association in court.

ACCE’s Jovana Fajardo, who participated in the Richmond campaign, said her group would look to create a similar rent control model for Sacramento. She added that ACCE’s initial outreach around the capital is yielding alarming results.

“We have apartments [in Sacramento] that have raised the rent on tenants four times in one year,” Fajardo stressed. “And these aren’t cases of $25 each time. … We need to get tenants to start sharing their stories.”

One housing policy research group, the California Housing Partnership Corporation, has already found enough of those stories to determine Sacramento County’s lowest-income residents are spending 62 percent of their incomes on rent alone. That is another stat that Lee, Rawlings and others involved in the new campaign say demands immediate action.

Yet, even if a rent control measure is successful in Sacramento, a state law known as Costa-Hawkins severely limits the extent to which the city could enforce it. Under Costa-Hawkins, local rent control cannot be applied to single-family homes, condos or any unit built after 1995. Last month, Assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced Assembly Bill 1505 to repeal Costa-Hawkins. The audience at last Tuesday’s meeting was briefed on supporting the Santa Monica Democrat’s legislation.

The ACCE and DSA’s joint push to keep locals from being priced out of their communities will start with door-to-door outreach across the city. That’s the first step, Fajardo told attendees, in overcoming special-interest groups who can spend $20 per signature to defeat a ballot initiative.

Lee concurred, emphasizing that forming coalitions and reaching out to working-class Sacramentans is vital.

“The landlords are going to do everything they can to try to stop every one of us,” Lee said at the meeting. “By having these conversations on the streets, we’re trying to build a movement.”