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12 Sep 2019

Curbing Rent Gouging: Here's What You Need to Know About California's New Rent Increase Cap

Written by  Matt Levin, CalMatters
Assemblyman David Chiu is congratulated by his colleagues following the passage of AB 1482. Assemblyman David Chiu is congratulated by his colleagues following the passage of AB 1482. Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters

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. 

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