Tenant advocates take another try at expanding rent control with Prop. 21

Measure would allow city to impose new protections on properties 15 years or older

Proposition 21 could expand rent control in San Francisco and beyond, but like 2018’s Proposition 10, it faces an uphill battle at the polls.

Tenant organizers have long had their sights set on defeating the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which in San Francisco’s case limits rent control to units built before 1979. But they faced a setback in 2018, when voters overwhelmingly rejected Prop. 10, which would have repealed the law.

Where Prop. 10 sought an outright repeal, however, Proposition 21 seeks to amend California’s housing laws. And this time, the election is taking place in the middle of a pandemic when there are thousands of people unable to pay their rents. A new city report estimated the amount of unpaid rents due to the pandemic could total up to $3.2 million monthly in San Francisco.

Prop. 21 would free up cities to pass local rent control laws on buildings more than 15 years old on an ongoing basis starting in 2021. That would potentially allow The City to apply rent control to nearly three decades worth of more recent units, limiting the annual rent increases according to economic indicators.

The expansion would also apply to single-family homes and condos if the landlord owns more than two properties or operates as a corporation. In San Francisco, many housing battles revolve around corporate landlords.

The inclusion of rent increase limits on vacant housing is one of the more appealing aspects of Prop. 21 to tenant organizers including Brad Hirn of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.

“That’s why it’s such an incentive for landlords to push out long-term tenants so much, it can be such a huge jump in rent,” Hirn said. “So to have even a modest limit of 15 percent over three years would help suppress that incentive.”

Tenants have seen state protections marginally expand since Prop. 10, which organizers consider a starting point. Assemblymember David Chiu brought forward Assembly Bill 1482, which establishes “just cause” protections and limits annual rent increases to no more than 5 percent on top of the local inflation rate, or 10 percent. For comparison, San Francisco’s current rent increase limit is 2.6 percent.

Gov. Gavin Newsom also signed Assembly Bill 3088, negotiated at the 11th hour in August to prevent evictions from unpaid rent due to coronavirus until February, converting it into civil debt landlords can pursue in court. Tenants must pay 25 percent of rent from September to Jan. 31 and submit the proper paperwork to be eligible — a complicated process which organizers have said creates a “know-your-rights” crisis.

To the No on Prop. 21 campaign, the Legislature has sufficiently addressed tenant affordability issues.

“The problem that [Prop. 21] is supposed to address is essentially solved by [the new legislation],” said Steve Maviglio, a consultant with the No on Prop. 21 campaign. “What we need to do is make more housing. [Landlords are] in a rock and a hard place and really scared about what will happen if this thing passes, especially with vacancy control.”

Rent control measures have divided pro-housing activists particularly focused on production.

YIMBY Action members could not reach an agreement on Prop. 21, ultimately foregoing support, while SPUR, a regional urban policy think tank, recommended against the rent control bill. They were ultimately concerned that the 15-year rolling deadline and vacancy control would scare off developers, and instead said they would prefer a 25-year rolling deadline.

“I think it will further reduce the number of investors willing to invest in San Francisco if vacancy control is imposed,” said Kristy Wang, community planning policy director at SPUR. “There’s a better way to do it and a better way to pursue it.”

With the latest push on the ballot on shaky ground, the issue may still end up back with the state Legislature. A poll released on Monday by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that 48 percent of voters oppose Prop. 21 and 37 percent support it, with 15 percent undecided.

It’s an increase from October 2018 polls before Prop. 10’s defeat that showed 25 percent in favor. Prop. 10 ultimately garnered 41 percent of the vote.

“Rent control stabilizes people. Costa-Hawkins is really the great white whale of the tenant crisis,” said Shanti Singh, spokesperson for state group Tenants Together. “We’re going to harpoon it, it’s just a matter of when. The tenant movement is only growing.”


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