Inside the latest, smallest group in the California Legislature.
By Mark Kreidler, Capital & Main
This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.
One of California’s largest constituencies carries almost no weight within the halls of power in Sacramento. Assemblymember Matt Haney, who walks those halls on a regular basis, wonders if that has to be the case.
As he should.
After all, he’s one of them.
“Renters as an organized political force are more outmatched than the numbers would suggest,” Haney told Capital & Main. “For being nearly half the state, they don’t have much leverage at the legislative levels — and not just state, but local.”
Haney, a freshman Democrat from San Francisco, is among the 17 million Californians who live in rental properties (in his case, a one bedroom apartment in the city’s Tenderloin district, for which Haney pays $3,200 a month). If 17 million renters sounds like a lot, it is: The figure represents 44% of the state’s 39 million residents. Yet when Haney arrived in Sacramento, he asked around and discovered that he was one of only three nonhomeowning renters among the 120 senators and assemblymembers working at the Capitol.
Their three-person collective decision: Form a caucus.
The Renters’ Caucus is the first of its kind in the state and the smallest such group at the Capitol. Haney, who was elected as its chair, jokes that if it does its job well, “We may be able to double our membership.” But behind the easy laugh is a sober assessment of the outlook for renters up and down the state — and the need for a more closely organized legislative effort to represent them.
“It’s a huge issue everywhere,” said Haney, who was previously a San Francisco supervisor and a pro bono tenant rights attorney. “Some of the issues impacting renters — like eviction protection and financial assistance — really shot onto people’s radars during the pandemic, but there’s so much more to be done.”
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The pandemic pulled back the curtain on the vulnerabilities of many of those in California who rent the place where they live. With the state losing more than 2.7 million nonfarm jobs in March and April of 2020 alone, millions of residents were thrown out of work. Many of them, living little better than paycheck to paycheck, quickly found themselves in arrears on their rent.
That is hardly shocking. According to a report by the California Budget & Policy Center, more than half of renter households in the state were spending in excess of 30% of their total income on rent — what economists call “housing cost burdened.” One in four was spending more than 50% just for living space.
Lower income families, of course, bear the brunt of that type of burden. Per the center, two in three California households with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line are renters, and six in 10 of the lowest income renters pay more than half of what they make to the landlord. (California has the nation’s second highest average rent, after Hawaii.)
Beginning in September 2020, the state Legislature passed four measures aimed at protecting renters from eviction during the pandemic and making billions of dollars available in rent relief. But the eviction protections expired this summer, with thousands of households still waiting to hear whether their applications for financial help had even been approved.
For many renters, the months since have been filled with dread. In July, Attorney General Rob Bonta issued legal guidance to local law enforcement on how to move against “self-help evictions” by landlords — things like changing the locks, shutting off electricity and removing tenants’ belongings. At the time, Bonta said that nearly 1.5 million renters were at risk of eviction, “struggling to put together next month’s rent as the cost of living continues to rise.”
Under California law, the only kind of legal eviction is via court case. But Haney said tenants often aren’t aware of their rights, since they’re far less likely to have access to legal help than are the owners of their properties. That is a scary proposition in the current climate, with rents on the rise and COVID relief ending. “There was a huge increase in eviction notices as soon as pandemic-related protections expired,” Haney said.
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In Los Angeles County, where more than half of residents rent, the idea of protecting and enhancing their rights isn’t new. L.A.’s renters are the second most cost burdened in the country, according to a recent report, and Los Angeles housing groups have pushed for a tenant bill of rights, among other things. But without strong directives from the state Legislature, the issues remain largely local — in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and other markets where housing costs are racing away from tenants’ ability to pay.
“We have 5.89 million renter households in California, and I’m one of them,” said Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles), one of the caucus members. “Many of our neighbors are one crisis — a car accident, a medical condition — away from becoming unhoused. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Bryan, Haney and Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San Jose) organized with the permission of Democratic leadership. In a statement announcing the caucus, the legislators mentioned as one of their goals repealing the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, a law on the books since 1995 that limits what individual cities can do to control rents. They also want to reform the Ellis Act, which establishes conditions under which building owners can evict tenants under the premise of getting out of the business of renting.
Though tenant rights in California often appear to be patchwork and dependent upon local leadership, the sheer number of renters in the state suggests a potential power base. Certainly, some members of the Los Angeles City Council see it that way.
The explosive leaked audio of a conversation among three councilmembers and a county labor leader, which led to one resignation and public calls for more, got heavy into the topic of renters and their potential power as a bloc. At one point, then Councilmember Nury Martinez remarked that keeping Councilmember Nithya Raman’s proposed district intact “solidifies her renters district, and that is not a good thing for any of us.” Added Ron Herrera, then president of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, “She wants to rile up the renters to create a base.”
In time, renters may indeed coalesce in a way that produces more political clout. For now, the challenge is to regularly place renter issues in front of those who may be able to authorize some level of enhanced protections and rights on a statewide, not local, basis.
“It’s a really small caucus, but this is still very good news,” said Doug Smith of Public Counsel, which does pro bono legal work on behalf of lower income residents of Los Angeles and is part of a coalition advancing tenant rights issues there. “This is a way to draw more attention to the issues we’ve been working on — and it creates a space for policy discussions. I think it’s promising.”
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The challenge is as obvious in Sacramento as it is anywhere else. Roughly a quarter of the state legislators are landlords themselves, and the second-largest contributor to the California Democratic Party over the past quarter century is the pro-landlord lobbying group California Association of Realtors.
On the other hand, “We’ve gotten plenty of support from legislators who are homeowners,” Haney said. “It’s not a zero-sum game. It isn’t like homeowners who are not renters don’t care about the issues. After all, lots of their constituencies do, and in many ways these are simply constituency issues.”
As the smallest caucus in the party — the Latino Legislative Caucus is among the largest with 30 members, including Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon — it is yet to be seen what the Renters’ Caucus will be able to achieve. The signs of progress are likely to be incremental: The group recently discovered a fourth renter, Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Hovarth (D-Encinitas), who quickly joined it.
“As our caucus continues to grow, we can collectively tackle the major issues facing renters,” Alex Lee said. “The power imbalance is tipped in corporate landlords’ favor. But we will change that.”
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