California Says No to Rent Controls; Portland, Maine Says Yes

Landlord groups spent $85 million to defeat Prop 21

California voters in the November election again rejected a ballot initiative that would have allowed local governments to enact rent regulations, but Portland, Maine approved a city rent-control law.

The California measure, Proposition 21, lost by 60 to 40 percent. It would have repealed the state law prohibiting local limits on rents in apartments built after 1995, except for those built within the last 15 years. It would have also allowed rent controls on single-family homes and condominiums if they were owned by corporations or if the landlord owned more than two properties. It would have permitted limits on vacancy increases, currently forbidden by state law, as long as landlords could get at least 15%.

The measure won a majority in only two counties, both narrowly: Alameda, which contains Oakland and Berkeley, and the city of San Francisco. It lost Los Angeles County narrowly, and got only a quarter of the vote in most rural areas. Landlord groups put more than $85 million into the campaign against it. A similar initiative was defeated in 2018.

Voters in Sacramento and the L.A. suburb of Burbank rejected proposed local rent-control laws. In Sacramento, the City Council had asked supporters last year to withdraw the initiative after it passed a law limiting rent increases to 6% to 10%, but they refused. In Culver City, another L.A. suburb, voters nixed an initiative that would have voided the city’s new rent-control law, which went into effect in October, unless it was approved by voters.

But in Portland, Maine, 58 percent of voters approved Question D, which will limit rent increases to the rate of inflation in buildings with more than four units, unless the city’s rent board allows a larger increase to cover the cost of repairs. About 60 percent of the city’s 66,500 residents are renters.

Two weeks after the election, a national landlord trade group warned that it expected “rent-control threats to emerge in various parts of the country, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The National Multifamily Housing Council said the most likely states for such activity include Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Washington State, and it also anticipated “expansion efforts in California and New York.”