Renters take to the streets

County supervisors ease restrictions on granny flats, but affordable housing still rare

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the May 3, 2018, issue.

Tenants are fed up with runaway rent increases and unjust evictions. On April 23, hundreds marched on the state capital to demand new protections.

The Renters Rising 2018 event was sponsored by Housing Now and Tenants Together, two advocacy groups trying to stem a displacement crisis linked to rapidly spiking homelessness, as well as an estimated shortage of more than two million affordable housing units in the state. Speaking at the march, Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles union, said the most vulnerable tenants are children.

“In 2014, homeless children increased by 20 percent. Is this not shameful?” Caputo-Pearl said. “Today, 3 percent of all children live in shelters, in cars or on the streets.”

According to Housing 4 Sacramento, a local advocacy group that sponsored the Sacramento Fair Rent Charter Amendment, for every $100 increase in monthly rents, there is a corresponding 15 percent increase in local homelessness. In 2017, the Sacramento region saw a 30 percent overall annual increase in nighttime homelessness.

One way affordable housing proponents are pushing back is by trying to repeal the little-known but far-reaching Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which limits the ability of local governments to control rent and establish tenant protections. In January, Assemblyman Richard Bloom tried to get Costa-Hawkins repealed, but the Santa Monica Democrat’s bill died for lack of votes in the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee. The following week, the committee’s chair, Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco, told reporters that California’s legislature was “paralyzed” when it comes to addressing the housing crisis.

Now, tenant groups across the state are trying to bypass that paralysis at the ballot box. They say investors and speculators are abusing loopholes in anti-displacement laws like the Ellis Act, acquiring low-rent properties, evicting all existing tenants and re-renting them at much higher prices. In San Francisco, investors have reportedly displaced 3,610 households over the past 10 years using Ellis Act provisions. This tactic seems to be coming to Sacramento. One renter at the march, who identified himself as “Swish,” said his friend had just been displaced from an apartment by rising rents.

“When his landlord put in a common-area basketball court, he justified raising rents,” Swish recalled. “His rent jumped from $700 a month to $1,800 per month. The increases are hardest on young families. Rents need to be cheaper.”

A bill to require that evictions be based on cause was scheduled to be heard Tuesday in the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

Just weeks before the march, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors moved to encourage more affordable rentals by easing the restrictions on small, cottage-style units, known as accessory dwelling units or “granny flats.” Given the area’s shrinking housing supply, supervisors are hoping a streamlined procedure for bringing such rentals online will help ease some pain.

The county initiative is not without controversy: Some feel that this type of infill building could cause traffic, parking or infrastructure problems. Homeowners have also voiced concerns about the intrusion of rental properties into neighborhoods that were originally intended for homeownership. But with the Sacramento region’s housing stock low and the average home price close to where it was when the market collapsed, local politicians are looking to release pressure where they can.

Eric Rasmussen of the Board of Realtors told supervisors they were making the right move.

“We should not have preconceived attitudes about renters and their potential disruption of homeownership or neighborhood values,” Rasmussen said.