Following the success of San Francisco’s Prop. F, tenant advocates are preparing for a statewide fight to repeal the Costa-Hawkins act, which places limits on the ability of cities to pass local rent control laws for some types of housing. (Photo courtesy Deepa Varma)

Prop. F victory in SF could build momentum for statewide rent control fight

Tenant organizers girding up for a statewide ballot fight over rent control are hoping that the momentum from the passage of Proposition F in San Francisco will spill over into the November election.

Across the state, advocates collected more than 500,000 signatures — about 100,000 more than required — to place a measure seeking a repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Act, which limits the ability of cities to impose rent control on properties, on the November Ballot.

Passed into law in 1995, the Costa-Hawkins Act prohibits cities from applying rent caps to single family homes and new construction built after 1995, unless rent control laws were passed prior to that date. In San Francisco, the date is 1979.

It also allows landlords to hike rents to market rate once tenants vacate rent-controlled units.

Advocates say that the passage on Tuesday of Prop. F, which makes San Francisco only the second city in the nation to offer free legal representation to tenants in eviction proceedings, has been instrumental in generating support

for ramping up tenant protections, including a potential Costa-Hawkins repeal. San Francisco voters approved the measure 55 to 45.

“We have the people, they have the money,” said Carroll Fife, director of the Oakland/San Francisco ACCE Chapter, referring to property owners. “People see what’s been done in San Francisco and want to duplicate that in other areas of the state,” she said.

Tenants rights groups who rallied behind securing legal representation for renters say that Costa-Hawkins has effectively tied the hands of city leaders in regulating San Francisco’s “runaway rents.”

The November initiative, called the Affordable Housing Act, would allow local governments to regulate how much landlords can charge for renting apartment and houses. The California Secretary of State must still verify the signatures to officially qualify the measure, and has until June 18 to do so.

The Costa Hawkins repeal campaign is backed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, as well as the Eviction Defense Network and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).

An attempt by state legislators to pass a Costa Hawkins repeal in 2017 failed. Supporters of the Affordable Housing Act acknowledged that they will likely be outspent in the campaign — the measure is facing strong opposition that includes the California Apartment Association, which is fighting the repeal on the grounds that it could discourage the construction of new housing.

“We think [the repeal] will result in a housing freeze,” said CAA spokesperson Steven Maviglio. “It will chill the ability of developers to build the affordable housing we need to relieve the shortage.”

The group also argued that a Costa-Hawkins repeal could make small landlords subject to complicated bureaucratic processes.

“There is an amazing amount of single-family units owned by normal people, not developers, who rent out their homes. So to get a rent increase, they would have to go through the Rent Board, and have [it] justified,” said Maviglio. “That hardly seems fair, especially for people who use this as their life’s saving and now are subject to rules and regulations.”

Campaign finance filings show that the repeal’s supporters had raised some $2.17 million as of June 3, while its opponents had raised more twice that amount.

Proponents of the repeal say that skyrocketing rents and rampant displacement have united renters across the state behind their cause.

“We are in a place where we need to take some really big steps to keep people here,” said Deepa Varma, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, who called the fight against Costa Hawkins “an uphill battle.

“We are dealing with the entire real estate industry here and we are talking about directly impacting their profits,” she said. “If the repeal passes 2018 will be a huge year for tenants.”

San Francisco tenants rights attorney and Prop. F proponent Dean Preston said that for decades, Costa-Hawkins has taken “all the power away from The City to address the housing situation in a way that works at the city level.”

According to Preston, a Costa-Hawkins provision that bans local enforcement of vacancy control, which would ban landlords from raising the price of a unit to market rate after a rent-controlled tenant moves out, has been a major barrier in addressing the housing crisis.

“The inability to have vacancy control in San Francisco is the single biggest reason that San Francisco has experienced such completely absurd runaway rents,” said Preston, adding that more than 10 cities around the state “have been actively collecting signatures” to place the repeal on the ballot.

Should voters decide to repeal Costa-Hawkins in November, it “would not immediately change anything in San Francisco,” he said, but would allow lawmakers to engage in discussions around implementing additional rent control protections.

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