The rent control elections

Schenirer, Jennings and Ashby reluctant to back the pricing regulations that L’Ecluse, Brown and Garcia support

Illustration by Sarah Hansel

On Monday, a group of seniors got an up-close preview of next month’s primary contest between Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer and his District 5 challenger, Tamika L’Ecluse. For the 60 people crowding around the candidates in the break room of the Curtis Park Court Senior Apartments, the stakes couldn’t be higher. That’s because the managers of this federally-designated low-income complex had just hit every resident with their second rent hike in nine months. At least five tenants were forced out by the first increase. Now, paperwork for the second price hike had arrived with a number of eviction notices.

Since the apartments' ownership received public subsidies from the city, Schenirer attended the gathering with a team from the Sacramento Redevelopment and Housing Agency, as well as the building's onsite management. The panel absorbed a collective wave of fear, shock and anger.

“I'm already on Meals on Wheels, so cutting back food is out,” stressed Jackie Hilderbrand. “I'm worried I'm going to be on the streets next.” She looked at the manager and added, “When you just said that $70 isn't that much money, I almost fell out of my chair.”

For Hilderbrand, that chair is a wheelchair.

L'Ecluse watched from a corner, where she received hugs from several residents. She's made the city's housing crisis a focal point of her campaign. With the city experiencing some of the nation's highest year-to-year rent increases, L'Ecluse and Schenirer have both heard stories of residents being priced out. But they disagree about what will stop the displacement.

L'Ecluse is in favor of enacting some type of rent control. Schenirer is strongly against that, preferring instead to look for ways to build more market-rate housing and, in theory, stabilize prices over time.

An SN&R analysis of campaign filings shows that the housing positions staked out by Schenirer and fellow incumbents facing challenges to their reelection bids happen to align with the views of some of their largest donors.

In the last four years, Schenirer has accepted $57,525 in contributions from developers, real estate interests, construction companies and building trade unions. At least $27,800 of that came from groups actively opposing rent control.

L'Ecluse, by contrast, has taken zero dollars from those groups, raising her $35,500 war chest almost entirely from individual donations.

A similar trend is playing out in the city's other contested council races.

District 7 representative Rick Jennings also opposes rent control. His challenger, Tristan Brown, says rent control is desperately needed to prevent more locals from being forced out of the city or into homeless camps. Campaign filings show that Jennings has raised $65,075 from developers, real estate interests, construction companies and building trade unions in the last four years. At least $38,259 of that came from groups that have lobbied against rent control.

Brown, on the other hand, has spent the last two years collecting $40,779 for his campaign, with virtually none coming from those groups.

In the District 1 race, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby has said she's “open to discussions” about rent control but hasn't publicly advocated for it. Conversely, her challenger, Gabriell Garcia, says rent control is needed to prevent neighborhoods from further unraveling.

Ashby raised $44,100 from developers, real estate interests, construction companies and building trade unions in the last four years. At least $14,050 of that has come from groups against rent control.

Garcia has hustled all of her $6,000 from residents and small business owners.

While calling for caps on rent may not be a formula for raising campaign cash, there are signals that the strategy may ring true with voters. A pent-up demand for relief on the housing front has already garnered thousands of signatures to place a city rent control initiative on the November ballot. The desperation of the very people most likely to vote was on full display on May 21.

After listening to worried pleas and irate venting, Schenirer told the seniors he'd act as a liaison between them and Curtis Park Court's ownership.

“I want you to be happy—I want you to be here,” Schenirer said.

“You want our vote!” a man yelled from the back. “Act like you care!”

“You can vote for whoever you want, you can vote for Tamika, this isn't about that,” Schenirer stressed. “This is about doing what's right.”

But some attendees later told SN&R that Schenirer's assurances that he puts their welfare ahead of real estate corporations is hard to believe. And money is the reason they doubt.

Schenirer doesn't deny that something needs to be done about Sacramento's skyrocketing rents. The two-time incumbent told SN&R that he's been hearing alarming eviction stories all over his district, particularly in Oak Park. But Schenirer worries that rent control could make the problem worse by dissuading building and investment.

“I don't think it's going to be good for bringing the housing supply up in our area, which is a key factor in all the rent increases,” Schenirer explained.

L'Ecluse, who's a landlord herself, disagrees that a carefully vetted rent control policy would hurt businesses or stop families like hers from getting a fair return on their rental investments. L'Ecluse said she and her husband have learned that keeping good tenants stabilized in their units over time is a sound way to operate. She also notes that, given that the majority of rental units in the county are owned by out-of-town corporations or Wall Street hedge funds, the rent control battle isn't primarily about mom-and-pop landlords.

L'Ecluse says she knew that confronting the housing crisis meant not accepting campaign contributions from developers, property managers and real estate interests. When one developer tried to write a sizable check to L'Ecluse—well-known Schenirer enemy Paul Petrovich—she says the money was promptly returned.

“There is a conflict when you're accepting huge donations from the California Apartment Association and all the big realtors,” L'Ecluse said. “I made a pledge not to take money from any interests that would compromise my values.”

Similar questions are swirling around the District 7 race between Jennings and Brown. When the two recently appeared together in front of the Sacramento League of Women Voters, Jennings said he's against rent control because he thinks it could hinder building and economic growth. Brown told SN&R that he was frustrated but not surprised by his opponent's answer. That's because Brown was already aware of the money Jennings has accepted from special interest groups.

“Once you're an elected official who forms those alliances, I think it can be really hard to part course with them,” Brown said. “Generally, big money can put public officials in a really difficult position.”

Jennings' chief of staff, Dennis Rogers, stressed the campaign contributions play no role in the councilman's views on rent control.

“Anyone who's done any work with Rick understands his integrity,” Rogers said. “His position is what he believes in from a policy perspective.”

The concern that rent control might intensify the housing crisis is shared by Mayor Darrell Steinberg. However, when that claim came up at a February 14 housing summit in downtown Sacramento, it prompted a heated exchange between Matt Regan of the Bay Area Council and Dean Preston, executive director of the renters' advocacy group Tenants Together. During a panel discussion, Regan alluded to a University of Chicago survey and told the crowd, “Ninety-nine percent of America's top economists believe that rent controls, over the long term, have a deleterious effect on housing affordability.”

That comment drew an emphatic response from the man next to him.

“To say you're data-driven and then drop some really misleading, non-data-driven points?” Preston challenged. “There are data studies to show the statement around rent control inhibiting new construction is absolutely false, and I have five of them sitting in front of me. That is a talking point repeated over and over, and there is zero data in the state of California to show that.”

During the summit, Preston and Assemblyman David Chiu also expressed concerns about the vast amount of financial support developers and real estate firms are leveraging across elections in California.

Garcia said a glance at local campaign filings, including those of her opponent, should give voters the same concerns.

“I've been telling people throughout the campaign, if you saw the money, then you finally feel like it makes sense when it comes to the decisions they make,” Garcia said.

Ashby did not respond to interview requests by press time.

Within certain parameters of state law, city leaders are empowered to enact rent control measures. The council chambers have been filled several times over the last year with people begging them—sometimes tearfully—to do exactly that. The reluctance from the other side of the dais has now prompted housing advocates and labor unions to launch a ballot initiative called the Sacramento Renter Protection and Community Stabilization Charter Amendment. Organizers expect to meet the signature-gathering threshold for the November ballot by early next month. However, even if that measure passes in the fall, it might need the City Council to defend it.

When voters in Richmond and Mountain View circumvented their elected officials to pass rent control, they later relied on their respective cities' attorneys to defend those initiatives against lawsuits from the California Apartment Association.

For his part, 50 minutes of listening to fear and loathing in Curtis Park was all Schenirer had time for. His early departure prompted hands to shoot up and voices to call out to him.

“I'll be setting up a meeting in a couple weeks,” he assured them. “I'm not going anywhere.”

“Well I am,” replied tenant Jerome Malbrough. “I'm getting evicted.”