Rent control is one of the foremost demands of grassroots movements organizing around housing justice today. To activists across the country, from Los Angeles to Chicago, expanding rent control is a no-brainer policy that would slow displacement and help guarantee housing as a human right.
While many California Democrats now see affordable housing as a top priority, rent control and other tenant protections are conspicuously absent from their agenda. They talk about housing the same way Republicans talk about health care and taxes—free the market and watch prosperity trickle down.
Fortunately, a 2018 California ballot measure gives us a very real opportunity to advance the fight for rent control. In the midst of our current housing crisis, with 58,000 homeless people alongside 58 billionaires in Los Angeles alone, and global investors confident that the city “still has room for rents to rise,” expanding rent control has perhaps never been more urgent.
But implementing strong rent control measures in California cities first requires getting rid of a state-level law called Costa-Hawkins, passed in 1995, which places three major restrictions on rent control throughout the state:
- Single-family homes cannot be covered by rent control. (Wall Street investors love this part, especially Blackstone and other big private equity firms that have spent billions of dollars buying up and renting out homes in California since the housing crash.)
- Buildings built after 1995 cannot be covered by rent control, and cities that already had rent control at the time of Costa-Hawkins’ passage are prevented from expanding it. (So L.A., for example, cannot expand rent control to units built after 1978.)
- All rent control laws must include “vacancy decontrol,” meaning property owners can raise rents to whatever price they want once a tenant moves out of a rent-controlled unit.
There was a bill proposed in the State Assembly to repeal Costa-Hawkins, AB 1506, but it quickly died in committee in early January after two Democrats abstained from the vote.
But California voters will have a chance to do what the Democrat-dominated state legislature refuses to, as a Costa-Hawkins repeal measure will likely be on the November 2018 statewide ballot as the “Affordable Housing Act.”
Housing advocates’ support of this fight is crucial, because repealing Costa-Hawkins would be revolutionary (what some others would call a “non-reformist reform”). Here is what I mean:
Getting rid of Costa-Hawkins directly weakens the institution of the capitalist real estate market and challenges the dominant neoliberal notion that a profit-centered provision of shelter can realistically provide decent housing for all.
By rejecting the idea that property owners are entitled to as much wealth as they can possibly squeeze out of their tenants, Costa-Hawkins repeal represents a huge step toward ensuring housing as a human right, rather than a commodity. Simply put, it’s a reform that places us on exactly the right path.
This is especially significant considering the pathetic solutions being proposed by state-level Democrats, who seem happy to simply tinker at the margins of a system that leaves over 118,000 Californians homeless and 1.5 million households spending over 50 percent of their incomes on rent. An anti-capitalist logic of housing provision is wholly absent from debates occurring at the highest levels of California politics, as our elected officials (California Democrats) recently even failed to pass a statewide “just-cause” eviction bill—the absolute minimum as far as renter protections go.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed 15 housing-related bills in September of 2017, and 13 of them were aimed at spurring private construction or preservation of units. The thinking behind these reforms is clear: free the capitalist market from burdensome regulations, and housing will trickle-down to all.
The other two measures were a $4 billion bond for construction of low-income housing (pending two-thirds approval by voters) and a $75 real estate transaction fee (though not even applicable to home or commercial building sales!), which some analysts say together will not even provide enough new construction to keep up with population growth.
It’s abundantly clear that most California politicians have no intention of challenging the immensely profitable status quo, which would mean proposing solutions that match the scale of the crisis. The only slightly imaginative solution offered this year has been SB 827, from YIMBYist Scott Wiener, which really was just another deregulatory, trickle-down approach, at best, and an absolute gentrification bomb, at worst. There’s been no talk of taxing the rich to finance the construction of public housing on a massive scale, and hardly any talk of expanding rent control.
But in 2018, we can change that. Repealing Costa-Hawkins will not end the capitalist real estate market, or even implement any new rent control measures on its own. But it would be the most significant step in decades toward de-commodifying housing and treating safe shelter as a human right.