September 10, 2015; San Francisco Bay View

The San Francisco Bay View features a provocative article on the efforts of the California Apartment Association (CAA) to block a rent control ordinance in Richmond, California, a town of about 100,000 people just north of San Francisco. Richmond officials passed the rent control ordinance to reduce displacement pressure on low-income tenants. According to Bay View, rents in Richmond have risen 24 percent over the last few years, reflecting high demand in the Bay Area and a short supply of rental housing. Property owners object to the rent caps on approximately 9,000 units in Richmond and the new fees on landlords.

In reaction to the enactment of “the first rent control ordinance in California in more than 30 years,” the CAA launched a petition drive and filed over 7000 signatures to block the ordinance from taking effect. Landlords do not typically use this kind of grassroots politics, but in this case, the imminent impact of the ordinance, which had been scheduled to go into effect on September 4th, forced the petition strategy.

Officials at the County Elections Office are checking to see if they have met the threshold of 4100 valid signatures. If the signatures hold up, the ordinance will be delayed more than a year or killed outright by a City Council that is already split over the issue. The Bay View explains, “According to the city attorney, if 10 percent of registered voters sign the petition and the signatures are validated, the ordinance is suspended. Then, the City Council could repeal the ordinance or put it on the ballot at the next regular municipal election, scheduled for November 16th, 2016.” At the same time, the Contra Costa Times reports that rent control proponents may ask the county district attorney to investigate whether petition circulators committed fraud by misrepresentation.

More typical forms of landlord advocacy come through the state legislature or by bringing litigation, two venues where money speaks louder than votes. Tenant advocate Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival based in Los Angeles, told me that the landlords still have enormous influence in Sacramento and most cities in California:

It’s all about money and the ability to line the coffers of campaign war chests. That money buys influence. They have also, for the most part, not been successful at the ballot box. Best recent example is was in 2008 with Proposition 98, which they placed on the statewide ballot as an anti-eminent domain measure, but which would, in fact, have wiped out all rent control and tenants’ rights laws in California. They spent millions on it and we crushed it with a 2-to-1 vote victory.

Richmond City Council member (and former mayor) Gayle McLaughlin expressed a similar conclusion when telling the Contra Costa Times, “The real power in Richmond is still the large corporations, developers and real estate interests with more than enough money to pollute our politics as we have seen with the petition (to rescind rent control).”

The Bay View article suggests that the Richmond City Council majority might enact the “just cause” portion of the original ordinance and extend that coverage to all renters in Richmond. “Just cause” would require landlords to renew existing leases unless the tenant is in violation of the lease—no more termination at will. But the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center (a non-commercial, democratic collective) reports that CAA may have used misleading tactics in its fight against a “just cause” ordinance in the nearby city of San Mateo, California.

Stay tuned for developments; the battle between tenant advocates and the CAA in the Bay area seems likely to continue.—Spencer Wells