More California cities enact rent control to protect tenants

When Bell Gardens resident Monchis Curiel received a note from her landlord last year that the rent for her two-bedroom apartment would more than double the next day – from $1,200 a month to $2,500 – she was shocked.

Curiel, 47, has lived in the city for more than three decades and knew her landlord had to give at least 60 days’ notice for such a large raise. She decided to fight the move in court and won. And because her landlord didn’t want to pay the moving fees under the Los Angeles County Rent Stabilization Ordinance, Curiel was offered a one-year lease at her original rent.

Curiel, a single mother of four who makes about $14,000 a year, said if she hadn’t known her rights as a renter, she would have been forced to move out.

“I would have separated my children from my family. They would have gone to their dad’s and I would probably sleep in a car,” she said. “It was important to me that my children have a roof.”

After fighting her eviction, Curiel joined tenants’ attorneys calling for a rent control law in Bell Gardens. On Aug. 22, the city council voted unanimously to move forward with a rent stabilization ordinance that would limit this annual rent rises to 50% of the local consumer price index, with the increase capped at 4% even if inflation is higher.

Rent control has long been a tool to protect people from being evicted from their homes. But as California’s rents soar amid a hot real estate market, more cities are turning to protection. This was praised by tenants’ groups and opposed by homeowners’ associations, which criticized the Bell Gardens plan.

Last week, the Antioch City Council passed a similar rent control ordinance that limits annual rent increases in the city of Bay Area to 60% of the CPI or 3%, whichever is lower. On August 1, the Pomona City Council imposed a rent cap of 4% or the change in CPI.

Santa Ana passed a rent control regulation in November that limited increases to 3% per year, or 80% of the change in CPI. The City of Oxnard capped rent increases to 4% a year in April. And in November, Pasadena residents will vote on their own rent control measure.

Some California landlords were allowed to increase their rent by as much as 10% starting Aug. 1, the maximum annual increase under Assembly Bill 1482, a statewide law passed three years ago. However, the 10% cap only applies to buildings built before 2007 that are not subject to rent control, meaning other landlords can raise their rents even higher.

Cities and counties throughout California have also enacted local ordinances protecting against no-fault evictions. AB 1482 protects tenants who have lived in their home for at least a year.

Bell Gardens City Manager Michael O’Kelly said the city’s ordinance requires a final vote, which is scheduled for September 12. If approved, it would come into effect 30 days later.

“Rent in [Bell Gardens] and throughout Los Angeles County, and although the city has lower rents compared to surrounding communities, many residents — particularly low-income households — are struggling to pay for rising housing costs and other basic needs such as food, transportation, and health care satisfy,” he said.

Lupe Arreola, executive director of Tenants Together, a nationwide tenant advocacy group, said that according to the latest U.S. Census data, about 44% of California renters spend more than a third of their income on rent. She also found that about 75% of single mothers and 64% of single fathers are renters.

“When you have a single parent raising an entire family on one income, any increase in spending could be destabilizing and also mean the difference in wealth in the family [or it] could mean eviction,” she said.

Arreola said rising rents are not keeping pace with wages, which could lead to evictions and “irreparable damage”.

“It’s not just an economic issue, it’s definitely one that has to do with justice and the safety and health of the community, making it so that children are at the heart of the decisions our community makes,” she said.

About 78% of Bell Gardens residents are renters, according to data from the Southern California Assn. from governments. And about 64% of households in the city spend 30% or more of their gross income on rent.

According to data from the US Census Bureau, approximately 96% of Bell Gardens residents are Latino and at least 26% of the population live in poverty.

“Even before COVID and before inflation, people were struggling to pay their rent,” said Susy Herrera, communications director for California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, one of the groups fighting for rent control in Bell Gardens. “People definitely had multiple jobs, and COVID has really exacerbated that.”

Herrera said that through the organizing effort, she heard from the group of people who hope rent controls will be implemented in their cities.

Not everyone is in favor of the control measures.

Daniel Yukelson, Managing Director of Apartment Assn. from the Los Angeles area, opposes all forms of rent control and said the Bell Gardens ordinance “went far beyond anything remotely ‘fair and balanced.’ ”

“On the heels of eviction moratoria and contested rental income over the past two years and unprecedented inflationary pressures, property owners will never be able to keep up and will walk out of business,” he said.

Yukelson said rent control laws could also hurt renters by locking them up in rent-stabilized units.

“They are less likely to give up their below-market rental unit to buy their own property to pursue a better job opportunity outside of the area, and they often stay put long after their rental unit’s usefulness has ended is.” he said.

California’s first experience of rent control began during World War II amid high vacancy rates and the post-Great Depression construction slowdown. The Emergency Price Control Act of 1942 controlled the prices of goods and services, including rents.

The law was lapsed a few years later, and California saw a surge in renters’ advocates in the 1970s, another period of high inflation. More than a dozen cities have some form of rent control, including Los Angeles, Inglewood, Palm Springs, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, San Francisco, Alameda, Berkeley, Hayward, East Palo Alto, San Jose and Los Gatos Rent Advocates say that they still experience rent increases.

Santa Monica, for example, was one of the first California cities to introduce rent control in 1979, but Anastasia Foster, a member of the Santa Monica Rent Control Board, said laws across the state have been hampered by the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act of 1995. It bans rent control for condos, single-family homes and buildings built after 1995, and bans “vacancy control,” which allows landlords to increase the rent for a new tenant at any cost after the previous tenant moves out.

Foster pushed back on the notion that rent control laws meant landlords weren’t seeing an adequate return on their investments.

“Even if there’s a close year or close timing for the whole economy, including landlords, the effect is not the same,” she said. “There are tenants who have to choose between paying for groceries or medicines. I don’t think millions of dollar buildings have the same level of risk as our tenants.”

In November, Santa Monica voters will decide whether to tighten their rent control rules to limit increases to no more than 3% a year. According to current regulations, tenants can receive an increase of 6%.

The spate of recent local rent control measures is at odds with failures to expand the policy nationwide. California voters rejected initiatives to expand rent controls by nearly 20 percentage points twice in 2018 and 2020 after campaigns worth over $100 million in which landlord groups outbid the initiative’s supporters by more than 2 to 1.

A nationwide eviction ban was introduced during the 2020 pandemic to prevent millions of evicted tenants from potentially spreading the coronavirus if they were forced to move out. The Supreme Court in June 2021 denied a lawsuit by landlords to overturn the state moratorium on evictions, but allowed the protections to expire in August 2021 by barring President Biden from extending it by two months.

Curiel said she has begun working with the Unión de Vecinas de Bell Gardens, a community group affiliated with California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, to try to enforce rent control in the city so no other renter has to endure what she went through.

“That changed the town of Bell Gardens,” she said. “It’s history. In none of the years that I’ve lived here, nothing was ever done for us tenants until we spoke out and united. We won this great victory.”

Liam Dillon, a Times contributor, contributed to this report. More California cities enact rent control to protect tenants

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