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Rent Control Is Coming To California’s November Ballot. Here’s What’s At Stake.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

Billy Martin, right, joined dozens of other supporters of a rent control initiative who marched into an office building where the California Association of Realtors is located calling for more rent control.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

California voters will decide this November whether they want local governments to have more freedom to enact “rent control.”

A voter initiative that would repeal an existing 1995 law, which limits cities from implementing some renter protections, qualified for the state ballot last week.

Here’s a look at what exactly the measure would do, why this issue is contentious, and what happens next.

What Is ‘Rent Control’?

Rent control is a blanket term for laws that aim to protect renters. These ordinances do everything from limit how much landlords can charge for rent to dictate when and why they can evict a tenant, among other possible provisions.

Rent control takes different shapes. Sometimes, rent increases are determined by the city’s cost of living. Others times, rent control is based on what a tenant is already paying, and mandates that any increases be limited to a percentage of that amount.

Most of the time, rent control rules are aimed at preventing sudden rent hikes for existing tenants. But some cities historically have had what critics say are stricter regulations that limit the amount that can be charged on the open market.

Rent control laws might also require “just-cause” terminations — meaning landlords have to have a justifiable reason for evicting a tenant, such as not paying the rent or because the owner wants to move in to a property. Some ordinances say that if an eviction isn’t the fault of the tenant, owners have to pay them.

Most cities create some sort of mediation process as part of their rent control policies. Often they’ll establish a “rent board,” which is either independently elected or appointed by officials. Both tenants and owners can petition a rent board for or against a change in rent amount.

More than a dozen cities in California have some form of rent control, including Alameda, Berkeley, Beverly Hills, East Palo Alto, Hayward, Los Angeles, Los Gatos, Mountain View, Oakland, Palm Springs, Richmond, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Monica and West Hollywood.

What Is The Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act And Why Do Activists Want To Repeal It?

This fall, California voters will decide whether to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act.

This state law was passed in 1995 and prevents cities from enacting rent control regulations on all single-family homes and condos, as well as any apartments built after 1995.

If a city already had a rent control ordinance on the books before Costa-Hawkins, then it considers a “new” apartment one that was built after that local law went into effect. For example, in Los Angeles, rent control can’t be applied to most apartment buildings constructed after 1978, when the city passed its own rent control law.

The law also says that, once a tenant moves out of a rent-controlled apartment, a landlord can raise the rent to “market rate” prices. Previously, “vacancy control” regulations prevented this in some cities.

Why Is Everyone Talking About Rent Control Now?

If you live in California, then you know: It’s expensive, and increases in housing costs often outpace wage bumps.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2018 “Out of Reach” report, which documents the gap between renters’ wages and the cost of rental housing, California renters would need to make $32.68 an hour to afford a two-bedroom rental home without spending more than 30 percent of his or her income on housing costs. California’s minimum wage is $11 an hour.

In response to this affordable housing crisis, campaigns to expand rent control are underway in more than a dozen cities statewide, from Sacramento to Santa Rosa to San Diego.

Backers of the statewide initiative first lobbied state lawmakers to repeal Costa-Hawkins, but that effort died in its first committee hearing in January.

The voter initiative needed 365,880 signatures to qualify. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla says it received 402,468 projected valid signatures as of Friday.

Who Supports This Measure, And Who’s Against It?

The Coalition for Affordable Housing is leading the campaign in favor of the statewide rent control measure. Its primary financial backer is the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The California Nurses Association, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Tenants Together, a statewide tenant rights organization, have also endorsed what’s being called the “Affordable Housing Act.”

Supporters argue that getting rid of Costa-Hawkins would give cities more tools to combat rising rents and increase affordable housing options.

The measure is opposed by the California Apartment Association, which represents thousands of property owners across the state. Opponents contend that rent control will actually make California’s housing-affordability crisis worse by discouraging developers from building new housing.

Gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom has said that he supports expanding renter protections, but that a repeal of Costa-Hawkins could have “profoundly problematic” consequences. His challenger John Cox also opposes the measure, calling it a “bad deal for renters.”

This week, a coalition of business groups and renters under the banner Californians to Protect Affordable Housing announced it will “aggressively fight the flawed rental housing initiative.”

What’s Next?

Expect supporters and critics of the ballot measure to make their case in coming months.

The main committees on either side of the measure have already raised millions of dollars, with much more expected.

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