California Eyes Allowing Stronger Rent Controls

Like New Yorkers, Californians in the state’s main urban areas are suffering from skyrocketing rents in part because state law strictly limits the kind of rent controls local governments can enact—but a bill introduced in the state Assembly in February could change that.

AB 1506, sponsored by Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), has only one line: It would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act of 1995 and its “statewide limits on the application of local rent control with regard to certain properties.” That law prohibits local governments from limiting rent increases in buildings constructed after Feb. 1, 1995 or on vacant apartments—creating a “decontrol-recontrol” system in which vacant apartments go to market rate and then go back into regulation at the new tenant’s rent. 

It also nullified laws limiting vacancy increases in five cities—Berkeley, Santa Monica, Cotati, East Palo Alto, and West Hollywood—and prohibits cities that already had rent regulations from extending them to buildings constructed after their laws went into effect. For example, in Oakland, which enacted its rent-control law in 1983, more than one-third of the city’s 92,000 rental units are exempt.

“Costa-Hawkins ties the hands of cities when it comes to protecting tenants from landlords who charge runaway rents,” declares Tenants Together, a coalition of more than 40 tenant, community, and legal-aid organizations, including the Coalition for Economic Survival in Los Angeles, the Oakland Tenants Union, the San Francisco Tenants Union, and San Diego Tenants United. “Since it passed in 1995, tenants have paid ever increasing rents and been forced from their communities or into homelessness due to high housing costs.”

The law’s vacancy-decontrol provision, Coalition for Economic Survival head Larry Gross wrote in March, “puts a bullseye on the back of every long-term, low-rent tenant in every rent-control jurisdiction in the state.” In Los Angeles, he said, 64 percent of city residents are renters, and “64 percent of those renters are paying unaffordable rents.” 

“We’re facing a historic crisis, and we see preserving our existing affordable housing as one of the ways of addressing that problem,” says Sean MacNeil, a spokesperson for Assemblymember Bloom.

Not surprisingly, the bill has drawn fierce opposition from the real-estate lobby. The California Rental Housing Association, a trade organization of more than 18,000 landlords, called it “the most threatening piece of legislation put forth in the last 20 years.” The California Apartment Association, which spent more than $1 million campaigning against rent-control initiatives on the ballot in several Bay Area cities last year, warned that “should AB 1506 succeed and Costa-Hawkins be repealed, each city and county in California would have the ability to adopt rent control measures without any limitations.”

The bill faces less imposing obstacles in the state legislature, however, than repealing vacancy deregulation would in the New York state Senate. Democrats have more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses. It’s currently awaiting a hearing date in the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee, whose chair, David Chiu (D-San Francisco), is one of the two cosponsors. To proceed further this year, it needs to be approved by the committee by May 12, and then has to be passed by the Assembly by June 2 to go to the state Senate. If it doesn’t make it though these steps before the legislative session ends in September, supporters can revive it next year without having to start from scratch, says MacNeil.

“We’re confident of getting it to the floor,” he says.