CVIndependent

Tue07072020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

If we’re going to beat this pandemic, we need to do a better job at testing.

A friend decided over the weekend to get a COVID-19 test. He’s developed sinus issues, as well as an annoying cough. He’s confident he doesn’t have COVID-19—he is fairly susceptible to these types of coughs, especially during allergy season—but he wants to be safe, seeing as he is in a high-risk category, and he lives with his elderly father.

He called the county on Saturday to get an appointment at the Cathedral City testing site, and got an appointment for Thursday. However, five days to get a test—plus another five days or so to get results—is a long time, so he called CVS to see about getting an appointment there. They said they could get him tested on Wednesday—with results in another 5-7 days.

I realize my friend’s story is merely one anecdote, and does not make a trend—but I’ve heard plenty of other stories, and seen plenty of news coverage about testing delays, like the Los Angeles Times reporting today that L.A. County appointments are being booked as quickly as they’re made available.

The county and the state—in the absence of federal leadership (and don’t get me started on that)—need to do everything they can to make COVID-19 testing more available, with results returned faster. The quicker someone can learn whether they’re positive, the faster they can take precautions—and the faster contact tracers can get to work.

We need to do better—and we can’t just wait for the technology to get better. Someone with pre-existing health conditions and an elderly father living with him shouldn’t be facing a 10-day wait to find out whether or not he has this god-awful virus.

Today’s news:

The Washington Post looks at the grim state of the pandemic in the nation as we emerge from the Fourth of July weekend. Key quote: “The country’s rolling seven-day average of daily new cases hit a record high Monday—the 28th record-setting day in a row.” 

• While Harvard University will be allowing some students back on campus for the fall, all courses will be taught online, the school announced today

• Related: Instead of focusing on testing or evictions or anything helpful, the federal government announced today that foreign students will need to leave the U.S.—or face deportation—if their colleges move to online-only courses. Sigh. 

• Up in Sacramento, the Capitol building has been closed for a week after a Marina del Ray assemblyperson and four others who work there tested positive for the virus

Here’s another piece on the impending national eviction crisis. Key quote: “Of the 110 million Americans living in rental households, 20 percent are at risk of eviction by Sept. 30, according to an analysis by the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, a Colorado-based community group. African American and Hispanic renters are expected to be hardest hit.”

• The World Health Organization continues to say that the coronavirus is spread by large respiratory droplets that don’t linger in the air. Well, a large number of experts are now calling on the WHO to change its guidance—because they’re sure it’s transmitted by smaller droplets that remain airborne for longer.

• The Washington Post asked five infectious-disease experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, what risks they’re willing to take in their day to day lives, in terms of going out, letting people into their homes, etc. Some of their answers are a little surprising.

• Speaking of Dr. Fauci: He announced today that the average age of coronavirus patients nationwide has dropped by 15 years in recent weeks. Key quote: “It’s a serious situation that we have to address immediately.”

• Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms—rumored to be on Joe Biden’s VP short list—announced today she’s tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Fortunately, she has no symptoms as of now.

Hate incidents against Asian Americans are skyrocketing due to stupidity and this damn virus (mostly stupidity)—and activists want Gov. Gavin Newsom to do more about it.

• Good news: The feds today released information on the companies that received PPP loans totaling more than $150,000. Key quote: “The Ayn Rand Institute, named for the objectivist writer cited as an influence on libertarian thought, was approved for $350,000 to $1 million.” Wait what?

• And because nothing makes sense anymore, announced-presidential-candidate-but-not-really Kanye West’s Yeezy was one of those companies, receiving more than $2 million in PPP money.

And so was … Burning Man?! Yes, really. Our partners at CalMatters look at some of the California-based takeaways from the long-overdue PPP data release.

• San Diego County today joined Riverside County (and much of the rest of the state) in being forced to close indoor dining at restaurants, because the county has now spent more than three days on the state’s watchlist.

• Let’s end with a couple of positive pieces: The San Francisco Chronicle talked to Bay Area doctors about how much they’ve learned since the pandemic began about treating COVID-19and the new treatments that are saving lives.

NBC News takes a look at the relationship between Dalila Reynoso and Smith County, Texas, Sheriff Larry Smith. She started calling for the sheriff to do more to slow COVID-19 in his system’s jails—and he listened.

That’s enough for today. Wear a mask. Please support local journalism, without fees or paywalls, by becoming a Supporter of the Independent.

Published in Daily Digest

It was an insanely busy news day, so let’s get right to the links:

• First, a correction: In the emailed version of yesterday’s Daily Digest, I had the month portion of the date wrong for the city of Palm Springs’ “Restaurant, Retail, Hair Salon & Barbershop Re-Opening Guidance for Business Owners” webinar. As a few eagle-eyed readers pointed out: The webinar is taking place at 9 a.m., May 28—in other words, tomorrow. Get info here, and please accept my apologies for the mistake.

• Other Palm Springs news: The City Council voted yesterday to extend the eviction moratorium through June 30.

• While this news is certainly not surprising, it’s an economic bummer for sure: Goldenvoice is reaching out to artists slated to perform at the already-delayed Coachella festival, and trying to book them for 2021 instead. Translation: A Coachella cancellation announcement may be coming soon.

If you’re going to read only one piece from today’s Daily Digest, please make sure it’s this one. Yesterday, we talked about the appalling lack of journalistic integrity NBC Palm Springs showed by airing an unvetted fluff piece—multiple times—provided by Amazon talking about all the great things the company is doing to keep its workers safe. In reality … at least eight workers have died. Today, the Los Angeles Times brings us the story of one of those eight fallen workers. Grab a tissue before you get to know the story of Harry Sentoso.

• Gov. Newsom announced today that more information regarding gym/fitness center-reopening guidelines would be released next week, as the state moves further into Stage 3.

• The Coachella Valley Economic Partnership just released a new survey of local businesses regarding the impact of the pandemic … and the only word that comes to mind is “yikes.” One takeaway: 99 percent of businesses have experienced a reduction in revenue—and 56 percent of those declines were between 91 and 100 percent

• It’s well-known that a number of COVID-19 antibody tests are flawed, but now there are concerns about the accuracy of the diagnostic tests. NBC News looks into the matter.

• Well, this could be interesting: President Trump, angry that Twitter placed a fact-check notice on an obviously untrue statement of his, apparently plans on taking some sort of action against social media companies via executive order. Will tomorrow be the day our democratic republic comes to an end? Tune in tomorrow! 

• In Pennsylvania, Democratic lawmakers are accusing GOP lawmakers of covering up the fact that a lawmaker had tested positive for COVID-19—possibly exposing them in the process. Republicans say they followed all the proper protocols … but didn’t feel the need to tell Democrats about the positive test, because of privacy. Jeez. The barn-burning video of Rep. Brian Sims expressing his extreme displeasure is horrifying.

• From the Independent: While tattoo shops remain closed (at least legally) across the state, they may be allowed to reopen soon, as we move further into Stage 3. The Independent’s Kevin Allman spoke to Jay’e Jones, of Yucca Valley’s renowned Strata Tattoo Lab, about the steps she’s taking to get ready.

• An update on what’s happening in Imperial County, our neighbors to the southeast: A coronavirus outbreak in northern Mexico is causing American citizens who live there to cross the border for treatment—and overwhelming the small hospitals in the county. The Washington Post explains how this is happening, while KESQ reports that packed Imperial County hospitals are sending patients to Riverside County hospitals for care.

• Don’t let the headline freak you out, please, because it’s not as horrifying as it sounds, although it remains important and interesting: The “coronavirus may never go away, even with a vaccine,” explains The Washington Post.

Nevada casinos will begin coming back to life on June 4. The Los Angeles Times explains how Las Vegas is preparing for a tentative revival.

• Another business segment is also making plans to reopen in Nevada: brothels. The Reno Gazette-Journal explains how brothel owners are making their case to the state.

• Given that Santa Clara County health officer Dr. Sara Cody issued the nation’s first stay-at-home order, it’s 1) interesting and 2) not entirely surprising that she thinks California’s reopening process is moving too quickly.

• Some of us are naturally inclined to follow rules; some of us bristle at them. University of Maryland Professor Michele Gelfand, writing for The Conversation, explains how these primal mindsets are coming into play regarding masks and other pandemic matters.

The Trump administration is still separating migrant families—and often using the pandemic as an excuse to do so, explains the Los Angeles Times.

• The New York Times reports on the inevitable upcoming eviction crisis. Eff you, 2020.

Some Good News, John Krasinski’s feel-good YouTube series, has been sold to ViacomCBS. Here’s how and why that came about.

• Finally, here’s an update on increasing evidence that sewage testing may help governments stop new coronavirus outbreaks before they blow up.

That’s all today. I am going to now go raise a toast to the life of Harry Sentoso and the other 100,000-plus Americans this virus has claimed so far. Please join me if you can. We’ll be back tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

I spent most of my day wildly oscillating between despair and inspiration.

The despair came from, y’know, the news: The increasing numbers of reported infections and deaths. And the fact that we’re only two weeks into what’s going to be a rather lengthy shelter in place order.

The inspiration came from … well, people doing amazing things.

Below, we have links to 16 stories—and three quarters of them are at least partially “good” news. Go look (after you finish reading this introduction, of course). I promise you: You will feel a little better after perusing these links.

I am also inspired by what’s going on in my little corner of the journalism world—where things, economically, literally could not be worse. We are all fighting to stay alive while covering the biggest story in a century. Yet some of the ideas that my fellow publishers—people who are clearly more creative than I—have come up with to serve their communities and bring in revenue are amazing.

This brings me to the fact that yesterday, I said I’d be sharing more info on the Independent’s future plans today. Well, we’re going to save that for the weekend now, partially because some of those plans have changed slightly due to the wisdom of my fellow newspaper people, but mostly because I wanted to get all this good news out to you.

On with the news:

• Breaking and important news: Gov. Gavin Newsom has finally heeded the call for an eviction moratorium in the state. But make sure you read the fine print.

• Duke University has come up with a way for medical professionals to safely decontaminate and re-use N95 masks—which, given there’s a shortage, could be a big frickin’ deal.

• Meantime, a group of amazing locals are sewing masks in case they’re needed. Get to know and support the C.V. Mask Project.

• Elon Musk can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but he did a very amazing thing by delivering 1,000 ventilators to the state in Los Angeles.

• Buried within this piece from The Washington Post about the Alabama governor, well, being an idiot: Hints that the shelter in place order in California is working.

• OK, this is one of the stories down here that is decidedly NOT GOOD: Kaiser Permanente is no longer filling routine prescriptions for chloroquine.

• A lot of scientists are being told to stop working and stay at home, like the rest of us. Our partners at CalMatters, via the Independent, show how that will take a toll on everything from wildlife research to cancer treatments.

Are gun shops essential businesses? Gov. Newsom refuses to say for sure.

• Walmart says all this working from home has made Americans eschew pants.

• The Independent’s Beth Allen checks in with an update from the high desert, where Pappy and Harriet’s is offering takeout—but locals want people to stay away.

• News from the sports world, sorta: Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry did an online chat with Anthony Fauci, and it was amazing.

• More news from the sports world, sorta: A baseball-jersey company has shifted gears and started making masks and gowns.

• The recently passed stimulus package will make it easier to tap into retirement accounts.

• Buzzfeed listicles generally fill me with despair over the state of what passes for journalism these days, but this one, while still annoyingly presented, is helpful: It highlights children’s shows that Amazon is now streaming for free.

• Meanwhile, international treasure Patrick Stewart is reading sonnets to us all.

• Like indie film? Well, some art house theaters are now streaming what would be new releases of indie films, and keeping half of the proceeds. Since we don’t have one locally, we’re going to send you to some friends of mine from my Tucson days: The amazing Loft Cinema.

That’s all for now. I’ll be back over the weekend with the update on the Independent that I promised. Wash your hands. Get takeout from a local restaurant if you can afford it. Savor the food. Live in the now. Enjoy life. And you like what the Independent is doing, please send us a few bucks.

Published in Daily Digest

Shirley Gibson isn’t quite sure how to feel about these numbers.

As directing attorney of the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County—which offers legal services to low-income tenants caught between the preposterously priced southern suburbs of San Francisco and the preposterously priced suburbs of Silicon Valley—she’s seen firsthand how California’s housing affordability crisis has overwhelmed her clientele.

Rents in San Mateo County have increased nearly 55 percent in the last decade. A two-bedroom in Redwood City, the county seat, now goes for $3,500, according to data from Apartment List. Strong demand, fueled by the influx of high-income tech workers, means vacancy rates are low. 

“I don’t know what a normal housing market is anymore,” said Gibson. “There’s a tush for every seat right now. You can rent any unit you want within a week.”

Theoretically, that should have swelled the ranks of tenants needing her to defend them in eviction court. Ever-escalating rents should make it harder to pay rent on time, and delinquent payments are the most common reason a landlord sues to remove tenants from their property. Cutthroat demand presumably would spur landlords to evict more readily, knowing they won’t risk months of lost revenue in a post-eviction vacancy.

Yet eviction lawsuits against San Mateo renters from 2010 to 2018 dropped nearly 50 percent.

“This year (2019) is going to be the lowest you’ve ever seen,” said Gibson. “I don’t have a perfect explanation for why that is the case.”

It’s counterintuitive amid a worsening housing crunch, but it’s happening statewide. While the median rent in California increased 23 percent between 2011 and 2018, the number of times California landlords sued their tenants to evict them dropped by nearly 40 percent over roughly the same period, according to data collected by UCLA researchers.

Two crucial caveats: Those dropping numbers nonetheless represent a significant number of California renters facing the prospect of a court-ordered eviction: Landlords initiated more than 137,000 of them in fiscal year 2017. And there’s no data on evictions that don’t end up in court, although researchers estimate they’re about twice as common as those that do.

Still, the data shows a steep and steady drop in eviction court cases this decade, in every sizeable county—with cases diminishing more in some of the priciest areas.

“It’s a puzzle that I’m not sure we have an answer to,” said UCLA eviction researcher Kyle Nelson.

Are landlords simply expanding efforts to evict tenants outside the courts? Have attempts to beef up legal aid to low-income residents paid off?

Neither academics nor landlords nor tenants can say definitively. But here are some of their best guesses.

Evictions outside court could be rising (but we lack data to know for sure): An unfavorable court judgement hangs an enduring legal albatross on renters—what some have termed “the Scarlet E.” In California, evictions stay on a tenant’s rental history for seven years, during which it becomes incredibly difficult to find another place to live.

But eviction lawsuits are one of the few forms of eviction that actually leaves a data trail. And that only happens if a renter stays in an apartment after being served with an eviction notice, forcing a landlord to go to court.

Landlords have plenty of other options. California doesn’t know how many families move out after a “three days to pay rent or quit” sign is affixed to their door, let alone how many strike “cash for keys” arrangements or other informal agreements to leave. (If a renter moves out because the rent is raised, that’s not an eviction).

Eviction researchers say there’s good reasons to think these undocumented evictions could be on the upswing. High rents and low vacancies mean landlords may be more willing to waive delinquent rents, buy out tenants or otherwise induce or threaten them—to get them to leave.

“Say there are more rent increases and more tenant harassment, and either way, a tenant has to move,” said Aimee Inglis, program director with Tenants Together, a statewide renter advocacy group.

Gibson, the San Mateo tenant attorney, says she’s seen a dramatic uptick in “no-fault” evictions over the past decade, even as court cases have declined. Until a new California eviction protection was passed in 2019, landlords could force renters to leave after their leases expire without giving a specific reason why, as long as they’re given 30 or 60 days of notice.

Why have landlords used “no-fault” evictions? Say a landlord suspects a tenant is dealing drugs on their property, but lacks proof. If the tenant fights that in eviction court, the landlord could very well lose. But if the landlord simply sends a “no-fault” notice that a tenancy will end in two months, the renter is typically out of options.

Renter advocates say landlords often abuse “no fault” evictions to retaliate against tenants who ask for expensive repairs or maintenance. The practice can also camouflage illegal discrimination.

“Instead of these fault-based cases, we’re getting these much harder to defend no-fault types of cases where legally, they are harder to wrangle,” said Gibson.

In 2013, roughly half of the eviction notices clients brought to her legal aid clinic were “no-fault” lease terminations. By 2018, that share had increased to 75%—a more common reason than non-payment of rent.

There’s no statewide data on the number of “no-fault” notices. Reports of their prevalence have surged in recent months, because a new state law restricts them: As of Jan. 1, most landlords are required to cite one of several acceptable reasons for evicting a tenant.

It’s partly the economy—but that’s not the whole story. 

As the Great Recession of the late 2000s ravaged California’s economy and housing market, eviction lawsuits spiked. Adding to the misery of unemployment reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression, banks and corporate landlords frequently served eviction notices to families who lost their homes in foreclosures. The result: nearly 230,000 eviction court cases in fiscal year 2010.

Landlords say eviction lawsuits also increased during that time, because the same population most vulnerable to foreclosures—families with shoddy credit histories and incomes too small for their mortgages—were likely to miss rent payments after they moved from foreclosed homes into rentals. 

“You had individuals with bad credit, maybe not a lot of assets, and they moved into apartment complexes,” said Chris Evans, an attorney with the firm Kimball, Tirey and St. John, which represents landlords in more than 15,000 eviction lawsuits a year. “Inevitably those individuals, with the economy struggling, faced evictions as well.”

As California’s economy slowly rebounded, eviction cases began their decade-long descent.

But Nelson, the UCLA researcher, says that the state’s economic recovery is only part of the story. In Los Angeles County, the highest recorded number of eviction lawsuits were actually filed in the early 2000s, during the comparatively much milder recession associated with the dot-com bust. Eviction rates in the mid 2000s were higher in many Southern California counties than they are today, despite cheaper rents.

Most mysteriously, eviction lawsuits have continued to drop years after the state emerged from recession, even while rents have outpaced gains in renters’ incomes. 

Has legal aid for tenants helped?

Tenant groups and landlord lawyers agree that over the last decade, it’s become a lot more expensive to take a renter to court.

“Because of the cost of eviction, landlords really started working to avoid it,” said Evans.

He estimates that a decade ago, his firm’s landlord clients spent less than $1,000 to get rid of a tenant who contested an eviction. That included attorney fees, court filing fees, sheriff lockout fees and other costs—all costs renters risked having to pay if they lost. In the vast majority of eviction lawsuits, tenants represent themselves.

Now, if the renter takes the case to a jury trial—an option tenants have increasingly threatened over the last decade on the advice of counsel, says Evans—it costs his clients between $10,000 and $15,000. And a jury trial is a gamble for landlords.

Tenant attorney Gibson cites San Mateo as an example of how expanded tenant legal services can change landlords’ eviction calculus. Her legal aid organization, buoyed by increased philanthropic support, has seen its practice expand from a one-person team to a six-person team over the last 12 years.

“Suddenly, there are more lawyers in the community, more defense to (court eviction proceedings), so it’s getting harder and more expensive for landlords,” she said.

As a response to the foreclosure crisis, in 2009, state lawmakers created low-income legal-aid pilot programs in several high-cost counties. An independent evaluation found that renters represented by state-funded attorneys were nearly 20 percent less likely to lose by “default judgement,” where landlords win simply because a renter doesn’t show up to court.

Is technology allowing landlords to better screen tenants?

As recently as a decade ago, the process for screening a rental application was fairly basic: Landlords ran a potential tenant’s credit report, and that was pretty much it.

Now, due to an explosion of third-party renter-screening services, landlords can quickly and easily view much more data about prospective renters — whether they pay utility bills on time, whether they pay rent on time, and whether they have a prior criminal conviction.

Fueled by technological innovations, the screening services are fairly cheap—$50 gets you a lot of info. 

“It’s just a much better picture of a resident’s ability to pay prior to them moving in,” said Cynthia Wray, who’s been in the apartment-management industry for nearly three decades. “And we just didn’t have that 12 years ago or more, and I think that’s made a huge difference.”

Corporate landlords and real-estate investment trusts, who over the last decade have snapped up a sizable chunk of California rentals, are major utilizers of sophisticated screening services. As opposed to “mom and pop” landlords who might own one or two properties, investment firms have rigid rules about who they will and won’t accept as tenants.

Has the state gentrified so much that those at risk of eviction just left?

Possibly. That appears to be exactly what happened in Washington, D.C.

Much as in San Francisco or Los Angeles, the cost of living in Washington, D.C., exploded over the last two decades. At the same time, eviction lawsuits steadily dropped while the city’s low-income housing stock shriveled as neighborhoods gentrified.

“As D.C. got more expensive, it got too expensive for people to rent if there was any chance they had any financial problem,” said Maya Brennan, senior policy associate at the Urban Institute. “So renters with low incomes have either been pressed out over the past 10 or so years, or pressed into a ‘shadow rental market’”—when tenants live in warehouses or garages not sanctioned as legal dwellings.

Brennan says it’s more likely these low-income renters are now in more affordable suburbs in Virginia and Maryland.

That logic could extend to California, which for nearly two decades has lost more residents than it has gained from other states—an exodus fueled by Californians making less than $50,000 a year.

But many more of those low-income Californians simply moved to cheaper places in-state. Bay Area rent refugees have flocked to the more affordable climes of Sacramento and Stockton. Los Angelinos are retreating to Riverside and the Inland Empire.

You’d expect eviction suits to tick up in those counties as more vulnerable renters move in. But they haven’t.

Michael Lens, an urban planning professor at UCLA, recently tried to determine what made one Southern California neighborhood more likely than another to see landlords initiate formal evictions. One hypothesis: gentrification.

“The conventional wisdom is that landlords will be more aggressive in trying to push people out … when they think they can get somebody who will pay more,” said Lens. “But that’s not what we find, on the court side of things.”

Instead, two factors had a stronger correlation with eviction filings than rising rents: whether a neighborhood was very poor, and whether a neighborhood had lots of African Americans.

Despite lots of national publicity in recent years, eviction research is still in its infancy. Which means a definitive answer for California’s counterintuitive trend may not surface for a while.

“Evictions are incredibly complex, and the world of people thinking about them deeply expanded dramatically over the past couple of years,” said Brennan. “But the number of people with enough regionally specific knowledge has actually not increased that much.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Millions of California renters are about to receive some of the nation’s strongest protections against rent hikes and evictions—and the primary advocacy group for California landlords is OK with that.

State legislators this week passed AB 1482, a bill from Assemblyman David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco, which limits annual rent increases to 5 percent plus the rate of inflation (typically 2-3 percent). Modeled after a first-in-the-nation Oregon measure adopted earlier this year, the bill also requires landlords to provide a “just cause” for evicting tenants and, in some circumstances, pay for tenants to relocate.

“We do not have time for those suffering in our streets,” Chiu said after the bill’s final passage. “We do not have time for those (who are) one rent increase away from eviction and homelessness.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom has lobbied fiercely for the bill in recent weeks, arguing that the measure is necessary to combat the state’s twin gentrification and homelessness epidemics. Half of all California renters—more than 3 million households—spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, meeting the federal government’s definition of “rent-burdened.”

“These anti-gouging and eviction protections will help families afford to keep a roof over their heads, and they will provide California with important new tools to combat our state’s broader housing and affordability crisis,” Newsom said in a statement. The bill now awaits his signature.

Here are five takeaways from the most ambitious renter-protection bill the state has passed in recent memory.

The new measure would curb extreme rent hikes, and it’s stronger than what Oregon passed. But it’s not conventional rent control.

Oregon made national headlines when it became the first state in the country to pass a statewide measure capping how much landlords could increase rents. Often characterized as rent control by the national press, the Oregon law limited yearly rent increases to 7 percent plus inflation.

Although Chiu’s bill imposes a tighter cap—5 percent plus inflation—the assemblyman has been very careful to frame the measure as “anti-rent-gouging,” as opposed to typical rent control. Fifteen California cities currently impose some form of traditional rent control on apartments, with the legally allowable rent increase hovering between 1 and 4 percent. Chiu’s bill also does nothing to prevent landlords from raising rents when a tenant leaves, a provision called “vacancy control” that is often associated with how rent control worked decades ago in places like Santa Monica and Berkeley.

“Words matter. This is not rent control. This is an anti-rent-gouging bill,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, Democrat from Alameda, a co-author of the bill.

So how many renters will the new California law actually help?

While landlords have access to proprietary data that can better answer that question, publicly available data can’t. A UC Berkeley study of 10 gentrifying California communities found that over a five-year period, the average yearly rent increase exceeded 10 percent about once every three years. An analysis by the real estate data company Zillow, working with admittedly incomplete data, found that about 7 percent of California renters would have benefited from Chiu’s cap in 2018. While a minority of California renters will enjoy real savings from the new law, those who do benefit are very likely to be low-income and thus most vulnerable to rent hikes.

Mike Wilkerson, an economist with ECONorthwest, which analyzed the Oregon plan with proprietary landlord data, said the majority of major rent increases in Oregon are occurring in lower-cost units. He suspects the same is true of California.

“Really, what this is doing is protecting lower-rent units, where we’re consistently seeing rents going up,” Wilkerson said shortly after the California bill was introduced. “And the benefit is preserving more units to be naturally affordable.”

Some opponents of the California legislation argue that the measure could backfire: Landlords, they say, may treat the rent cap not so much as a limit on what they can charge but as a benchmark for what they should charge—especially if they fear future unanticipated costs or having to take a tenant to eviction court.

“The large property owners can build this cost into their business because they have a lawyer on payroll,” said Sid Lakireddy, president of the California Rental Housing Association, an advocacy group for smaller landlords. “That’s not the case for mom and pop (landlords) throughout the state.”

Although the rent cap has received most of the attention, the eviction protections are arguably more controversial. And a “third rail” of California housing policy gets very lightly touched.

In most parts of California, landlords can evict a tenant without stating an explicit reason why they don’t want that renter in the property anymore.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom said in August he wanted to strengthen the rent-cap bill, he mostly meant he wanted to see “just-cause” eviction protections included. Assuming Newsom signs the bill, California landlords will have to list one of several specific reasons why they want a tenant out, such as dealing drugs from an apartment or failure to pay rent on time. Landlords who want to convert a unit into a condo or move a family member in will have to fork over one month’s rent to the displaced tenant for relocation assistance.

Marcos Segura, an eviction defense lawyer with the nonprofit Central California Legal Services, said a relatively small minority of his clients in the Central Valley are evicted without cause. Most of the time, landlords accuse them of not paying rent or otherwise breaking the lease.

But he says “just cause” protections could prove beneficial in preventing landlord retaliation. When landlords do evict tenants without cause, he says, it’s often because tenants have been complaining about shabby living conditions.

“If you take that option away from landlords, where they can serve no-cause eviction notices, in those cases, it would make all the difference in the world,” Segura said.

To compromise with landlords and developers, Chiu exempted an increasingly popular swath of California rental housing from his rent cap: single-family homes. While single-family homes owned by investment firms would be subject to the new measure, those owned by “mom and pop” landlords—the vast majority of the single-family-home rental market—would be exempted.

Even with that carve-out, Chiu’s bill represents the largest expansion of renter protections in recent California history, applying to 8 million renters, according to estimates from the lawmaker’s office.

Many of the renters live in cities that already have local controls but aren’t eligible for it. A state law passed in 1995, colloquially known as “Costa-Hawkins,” bans cities from expanding rent control to units built after 1995 and in some cities limits control to units built well before then. In Los Angeles, for example, rent control can apply only to units built before 1978.

Chiu’s bill would apply to all eligible California rental units built at least 15 years ago, meaning units built as recently as 2005 would be subject to rent caps.

That would be a major shift in California housing policy. Costa-Hawkins has been considered a “third rail” for the California Legislature for decades. While AB 1482 doesn’t actually touch the language of the 1995 law—cities would still be banned from expanding tighter rent limits on newer properties—millions of new housing units would be subject to a legal limit on rent increases.

Developers say the measure shouldn’t impede new construction, and they don’t oppose it. But no signature housing-production legislation will accompany the rent cap.

For those concerned with California’s million-unit housing shortage, the most compelling argument against a rent cap was that developers kept saying it could impede the construction of new housing.

While California apartment builders generally forecast annual rent increases of 2 to 3 percent when lining up financing for their projects, the flexibility to raise rents to what the market can bear helps persuade investors to plow money into the often uncertain and time-consuming process of building new housing.

But even before Gov. Newsom’s public comments, the California Building Industry Association—the premier lobbying group for California developers—announced it would not oppose the bill after it exempted new construction from the rent cap for 15 years.

“The new construction exemption is key, because it’s hard to get investors to invest in multifamily units on a 10-year window; it just doesn’t pencil out,” said Dan Dunmoyer, head of the group. “Fifteen years is a balance of what is doable for attracting capital. Anything less than that just makes it harder to bring investors to California.”

The organization’s withdrawal of opposition was also notable, because it has had mixed success in pushing through legislation it says would ease regulatory burdens and allow for more housing. Many Capitol insiders thought packaging a pro-development bill with a pro-tenant bill was a logical way to ensure that both could become law.

In Oregon, a bill that allowed developers to build fourplexes in areas zoned exclusively for single-family homes was passed shortly after the rent-cap bill. A similar developer-backed effort in California, SB 50, fizzled this year.

When making public comments about strengthening the rent cap bill, Newsom also publicly embraced SB 330, a bill from Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley, that would limit many of the tools developers say cities use to stymie new housing.

Dunmoyer says Skinner’s proposal is a step in the right direction. But he admits it wasn’t the big boost to housing production that developers had hoped for, considering Newsom’s audacious goal of 3.5 million new housing units by 2025.

“I’m not surprised (the rent cap bill passed) because I’m a political analyst who looks at the dynamics—it’s easier to regulate than reform,” Dunmoyer said.

This is a big win for Newsom, who angered a key interest group to make it happen.

Gov. Gavin Newsom kind of needed this.

Shortly after a state ballot initiative that would have allowed cities to expand rent control failed overwhelmingly last November, Newsom (who very quietly opposed it) said he wanted to broker a deal between tenant groups and landlords. He reiterated his desire in February in his inaugural State of the State speech, calling on lawmakers to send him a package of renter protections he could sign into law this year.

Newsom’s late efforts to strengthen the bill by adding eviction restrictions and tightening the rent cap flipped opposition among key interest groups. While he was able to secure a compromise from the state’s biggest landlord lobby, he angered the powerful California Association of Realtors, who thought the governor was breaking a deal they had struck on a softer version of the rent cap.

The Realtors are a major source of fundraising for California Democrats, contributing nearly $1.38 million in campaign funds to sitting Democratic lawmakers and $2.5 million to the state Democratic Party since 2017. Since the stronger bill was introduced, Realtors have flooded Democratic lawmakers with phone calls and emails.

How Newsom’s intervention will affect future relations between the Realtors and state Democratic leaders remains to be seen.

The Realtors have a reputation for holding a grudge, no matter the party involved. After Rep. Mimi Walters, a Republican from Irvine, voted for a Trump tax-reform plan the Realtors opposed, the state and national realtor advocacy groups spent $3 million supporting her 2018 Democratic opponent, Katie Porter. Porter won.

The big landlord lobby is OK with this. Which could hurt the prospects for rent control at the ballot box in 2020.

The California Apartment Association and its allies spent more than $70 million against a statewide rent-control initiative in 2018, defeating it by nearly 20 points. That victory gave landlords a major rhetorical advantage in pushing back against Chiu’s bill: Californians had already been given an opportunity to expand rent control and voted it down.

So why cave now, less than a year removed from that decisive victory?

Progressive firebrand Michael Weinstein, president of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is currently collecting signatures for yet another statewide rent-control initiative for the November 2020 ballot. Weinstein maintains Chiu didn’t go far enough to protect tenants. However, landlords can now say lawmakers have already moved to curb excessive rent increases and egregious eviction practices without endangering new development.

“We will argue the state has already spoken on this topic; we will argue this is a balance; we will argue everyone came to the table and found some common ground finally for a temporary solution,” said Debra Carlton, lobbyist for the California Apartment Association.

Landlords may have also gained assurances from key Democratic leaders that they may oppose, or simply mute their support for, rent control in 2020. Asked by the Los Angeles Times whether the California Apartment Association had requested that Gov. Gavin Newsom oppose Weinstein’s potential initiative, Carlton gave no comment.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. 

Published in Politics