The push for rent control: Why now?

Housing shortage and lack of tenant protections are motivators

Tenant advocate Jovana Fajardo supports renter-protection laws in Sacramento.

Tenant advocate Jovana Fajardo supports renter-protection laws in Sacramento.

Photo by Lisa BAETZ

The “Tenants Rights Legal Clinic” is Thursday, April 13, at 5:30 p.m. at Fruitridge Elementary School / Fruitridge Community Collaborative, 4625 44th Street, Room 11. Call (916) 228-8829 for additional info.

Last year, the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission selected Bryan Valenzuela as one of two locals to create public art for the new Kings arena. Today, you can witness his sculpture—blown-glass spheres suspended midair—inside the Golden 1 Center. During arena-christening festivities, politicians thanked him and other creative-class denizens for giving Sacramento its artistic soul.

And then, at the end of 2016, his landlord thanked him—with an eviction notice.

For seven years, Valenzuela rented the top floor of a Midtown house, paying $1,100 a month. Last September, he says, his landlord told him the monthly rent would be increasing by 36 percent. A brutal rent hike, but not unusual in a region facing an unprecedented housing-affordability crisis.

“In the last year, the rent's gone skyrocket, because—I hate to say it—maybe the arena,” he told SN&R. “Obviously, I benefited from [the arena]. … But, you know, obviously there's other downsides to it, for even people like me.”

After the rent hike, Valenzuela spent nearly two months negotiating with his landlord. He said that, over the years, he'd kept quiet about reporting plumbing, electrical and even rodent issues, which he took care of himself. But now that his landlord intended to up the rent, he wanted tenant improvements.

No dice: In October of last year, the landlord served him with a 60-day eviction notice.

Jovana Fajardo calls this is the new normal for renters in Sacramento. She's the local director with Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE, a community-organizing group. Her focus is on tenant rights and renter protections, and she's seen it all in recent months.

“There's some apartment complexes where they've had four rent increases in one year,” Fajardo explained. “I've had tenants calling me crying.”

Fajardo and others argue that Sacramento is in dire need of renter-protection laws, including limits on the on the amount and frequency of rent increases, and also protections against no-cause evictions.

Historically, the absence of such protections didn't affect most capital-city renters. “It has been a place that has not been expensive. You didn't have price gouging,” explained Leah Simon-Weisberg, who represents Bay Area tenants facing eviction, and who also was elected to the city of Berkeley's rent board. “But that's really changing.”

The crisis has been amplified by the region's housing shortage. Since 2014, for example, year-over-year rent growth has increased by double digits annually, according to Yardi Matrix, a reputable real-estate research and management firm based out of Santa Barbara.

And it's not just Midtown. The neighborhoods of Arden-Arcade and Rancho Cordova experienced close to 20 percent in rent appreciation from 2015 to 2016. Fajardo says most of the tenants she works with live in south Sacramento and Oak Park.

The bummer news for renters is that most experts agree rent hikes will continue locally through 2017, due to several factors, but predominantly a dearth of new units available to rent (fewer than 2,000 in the region) and anemic mid-to-high-paying job growth.

All this makes for a perfect storm of renter vulnerability. Fajardo says a lot of the tenants she's met are Spanish-speaking and “scared” of fighting for rent control. “They're going by without repairs, and letting mold or cockroaches go by, because they're afraid of being evicted,” she said. “We have pictures of tenants where the roof has caved in because of the mold.”

One critical issue mentioned by several individuals interviewed for this story is that the city of Sacramento isn't funding its rental-inspection program. For instance, the city inspects only 10 percent of its rental-housing stock each year.

“My understanding is that Sacramento passed a version of routine inspection; they just don't do it,” Simon-Weisberg explained.

These struggles have incited a new local movement to pass renter protections.

So-called “rent control” isn't new in California. From San Jose to Los Angeles and Oakland to Beverly Hills, tenant protections have been on the books for years.

When it comes to rent control, ceilings on rent increases vary from city to city. In general, increases are limited to one a year and are based on the Consumer Price Index. For instance, voters in the city of Richmond approved a rent-control measure last November that limits rent hikes to 3 percent.

Richmond also prevents landlords from booting tenants for no reason. Property owners can evict tenants for not paying rent, breaching a lease or being a nuisance. But if landlords want to make repairs, move in, or sell a property and take it off the market, they're required to pay tenants relocation assistance.

That city also has a new rent board, whose members are appointed by the city council, which is different from other cities, such as Berkeley, whose voters directly elect board members.

Fajardo said she's unsure about the specific asks of the renter-protection movement in Sacramento, or whether activists will push for a City Council ordinance or ballot measures. “Well, we'll see. We're just kicking off the campaign.”

It's worth noting that these renter protections apply only to multifamily housing built after 1995, not newer apartments, condos or single-family homes. This is because of state law, the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which was also passed that year.

A Southern California lawmaker was working to repeal Costa-Hawkins this legislative session, but this past Thursday announced that the effort would be paused, in part due to pressure from landlord groups and the California Apartment Association.

The CAA spent nearly a quarter-million dollars in 2016 working to defeat several renter-protection ballot measures in Northern California.

Groups that represent property owners, such as the CAA and the local Rental Housing Association, flat-out oppose any form of rent control, including ceilings on the amount that rent can be increased, or just-cause-eviction policies.

A spokesperson for RHA told SN&R in 2015 that landlords would prefer “slow, steady, predictable rent increases for everybody's sake.” He noted how people forget that, during the recession, it was a renter's market, and property owners “were upside-down and panicking.”

But Fajardo sounds ready for a fight. “These policies are what's going to help the community,” she said. “We really need to put our tenants and our families first.”

In the meantime, her organization will host a “Tenants Rights Legal Clinic” on Thursday, April 13, in collaboration with Legal Services of Northern California. A flier for the event advertises all sorts of advice, including how to get repairs made, or even how to get your security deposit back.

The latter might help artist Valenzuela: He says he lost a $1,350 deposit during his eviction—and the landlord even sent him a bill on top of that, for things he said were broken or damaged. “We didn't get any of our deposit back, and they tried to charge us,” he said. “I've tried to get hold of the resources that are supposed to protect me from this.

“But it's a labyrinth.”