17 million Californian renters have no chance in Sacramento. A new caucus wants to fix that

One of the largest in California Constituencies carry almost no weight in the halls of power in Sacramento. Member of Parliament Matt Haney, who walks these halls regularly, wonders if that must be the case.

As he should.

After all, he’s one of them.

“Tenants as an organized political force are more underpowered than the numbers suggest,” Haney told Capital & Main. “Because they’re almost half the state, they don’t have much leverage at the legislative level — and not just at the state level, but at the local level.”

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Haney, a newly minted Democrat from San Francisco, is one of 17 million Californians who live in rented apartments (in his case, a one-bedroom in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood for which Haney pays $3,200 a month). If 17 million renters sounds like a lot, it is: the number represents 44% of the state’s 39 million residents. But when Haney got to Sacramento, he asked around and found that of the 120 senators and representatives who worked in the Capitol, he was one of only three tenants who didn’t own a home.

Your collective decision of three people: form a caucus.

The Renters’ Caucus is the first of its kind in the state and the smallest such group in the Capitol. Haney, who was elected its chair, jokes that if she does her job well, “we might be able to double our membership.” But behind the light laughter lies a sober assessment of the prospects for renters across the state — and the need for a more organized legislative effort to represent them.

“It’s a huge problem everywhere,” said Haney, who was previously a San Francisco regulator and volunteer tenancy attorney. “Some of the issues affecting renters — like eviction protection and financial assistance — have really jumped on people’s radar during the pandemic, but there’s so much more work to be done.”

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The pandemic retreated Curtain up on the vulnerabilities of many people in California who rent where they live. As the state lost more than 2.7 million nonfarm payroll jobs in March and April 2020 alone, millions of residents were left unemployed. Living little better than paycheck to paycheck, many of them quickly fell into arrears.

That’s hardly shocking. According to a report by the California Budget & Policy Center, more than half of renter households in the state spent more than 30% of their total income on rent — what economists call “burdened housing costs.” One in four spent more than 50% on housing alone.

Of course, lower-income families bear the brunt of this type of burden. According to the center, two in three California households with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line are renters, and six in 10 lowest-income renters pay more than half of their income to the landlord. (California has the second-highest median rent in the country, after Hawaii.)

“Many of our neighbors are just one crisis – one car accident, one illness – away from being homeless. It doesn’t have to be.”

~ Isaac Bryan, Member of the California State Assembly

As of September 2020, the state legislature has passed four measures aimed at protecting renters from evictions during the pandemic and providing billions of dollars for rent reductions. But eviction protection expired this summer, and thousands of households are still waiting to hear if their applications for financial aid have even been approved.

For many tenants, the months since have been filled with anxiety. In July, Attorney General Rob Bonta issued legal guidance to local law enforcement on how to deal with “self-help evictions” by landlords — things like changing locks, cutting off the power and removing tenants’ belongings. At the time, Bonta said nearly 1.5 million renters were at risk of eviction “who were struggling to meet next month’s rent as the cost of living continues to rise.”

Under California law, the only type of legal eviction is through a jury trial. But Haney said renters are often unaware of their rights because they have much less access to legal counsel than the owners of their properties. That’s a scary proposition given rising rents and the phasing out of COVID relief. “There was a huge spike in eviction notices once pandemic protections expired,” Haney said.

* * *

In Los Angeles County, Where more than half of residents live in rented accommodation, the idea of ​​protecting and strengthening their rights is not new. According to a recent report, LA renters are the second most burdened expense in the country, and Los Angeles housing assemblies have been pushing for such a requirement tenancy law, among other things. But without strict guidance from state legislatures, the problems remain largely local — in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and other markets where housing costs are spiraling away from renters’ ability to pay.

“We have 5.89 million renter households in California, and I’m one of them,” said Assemblyman Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles), one of the caucus members. “Many of our neighbors are just one crisis – one car accident, one illness – away from being homeless. It doesn’t have to be.”

Bryan, Haney and Assemblyman Alex Lee (D-San Jose) organized with permission from the Democratic leadership. In a statement announcing the caucus, lawmakers mentioned as one of their goals the repeal of the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act, a law that has been on the books since 1995 and limits what individual cities can do to control rents. They also want to reform the Ellis Act, which sets conditions under which building owners can evict tenants on the premise of exiting the rental business.

The second largest contributor to the California Democratic Party over the past quarter century is the pro-landlord lobby group, the California Association of Realtors.

Though tenant rights in California often seem patchwork and dependent on local leadership, the sheer number of tenants in the state suggests a potential power base. Certainly some members of the Los Angeles City Council see it that way.

The explosive leaked audio of a conversation between three council members and a county labor leader that led to a resignation and public calls for more touched heavily on the issue of tenants and their potential power as a bloc. At one point, then-Councillor Nury Martinez noted that keeping Councilor Nithya Raman’s proposed district “consolidates their tenant district, and that’s not a good thing for any of us.” Ron Herrera, then president of the LA County Federation of Labor, added added: “She wants to upset the tenants to create a base.”

Over time, tenants might actually grow together in ways that generate more political clout. The challenge right now is to regularly bring tenants’ issues before those who may be able to approve some level of extended protections and rights on a statewide rather than a local basis.

“It’s a really small caucus, but that’s still very good news,” said Public Counsel’s Doug Smith, who volunteers legal work for lower-income Los Angeles residents and is part of a coalition advocating for tenant rights issues there. “It’s a way of bringing more attention to the issues we’ve been working on – and it creates space for political discussion.” I think it’s promising.”

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The challenge is equally obvious in Sacramento as elsewhere. About a quarter of state legislators are landlords themselves, and the second largest contributor to the California Democratic Party over the past quarter century is the pro-landlord lobby group, the California Association of Realtors.

On the other hand, “we’ve had a lot of support from lawmakers who are homeowners,” Haney said. “This is not a zero-sum game. It’s not that homeowners who aren’t tenants aren’t addressing the issues. After all, many of their constituencies do, and in many ways these are simply constituency matters.”

As the party’s smallest caucus — the Latino Legislative Caucus is among the largest, with 30 members, including Speaker Anthony Rendon — it remains to be seen what the Renters’ Caucus can achieve. The signs of progress are likely to be incremental: the group recently spotted a fourth tenant, Rep. Tasha Boerner Hovarth (D-Encinitas), who quickly joined her.

“As our caucus continues to grow, we can tackle the big issues tenants face together,” said Alex Lee. “The power imbalance is tipping in favor of the big landowners. But we will change that.”

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