In a highly successful legislative session for renters, the Governor signed into law every bill supported by Tenants Together this year. Starting January 1, 2013, California law will prevent unfair nonpayment evictions after ownership changes (AB 1953, Ammiano), require at least 90 day eviction notice for any tenant evicted after foreclosure (AB 2610, Skinner), prohibit landlords from imposing online only rent payment rules (SB 1055, Lieu), require landlords to notify tenants of foreclosure filings (SB 1191, Simitian), and bar landlords from requiring their tenants to declaw or devocalize their pets (SB 1229, Pavley). In a state capitol where renters’ rights are so often ignored, times appear to be changing.
Several factors are at play. First, the tenant movement is getting its act together. In no small part because of the emergence of Tenants Together, the voices of tenants and local activists across the state are unified in an unprecedented way. Second, the real estate industry is suffering the same fate as the Republican party: the extremists are hurting the clout of the moderates. Third, the housing crisis and economic conditions have brought into focus tenants as sympathetic, innocent victims of circumstances often outside their control.
Tenant Movement Grows
There are 15 million renters in California, a million more than at the last census. The foreclosure crisis continues to convert homeowners to renters at a rapid rate. As tenants find common cause with other renters across the state, legislators who ignore this constituency do so at their own peril.
Perhaps the single biggest turning point occurred in 2008. Mega-landlords sponsored a ballot measure to eliminate rent control and other renter protections across the state. Voters crushed Proposition 98 at the polls by a whopping 21-point margin. In poker jargon, the landlords went “all-in” and lost. They have not recovered. Prop. 98 underscored the popularity of tenant protections and sparked the rebirth of California’s tenant movement.
Tenants Together formed on the heels of this decisive victory for tenants. Since that time, our young organization has built a solid and growing base of members and allies who take action to support renters’ rights. We have seen legislators’ votes change when our members take action. Our members successfully mobilized on the tenant bills that passed this session.
Extremist Landlord Groups are Losing Clout
Much like the split in the Republican party between Tea Party and mainstream conservatives, landlord groups in California are divided between those that are rabidly anti-tenant and those that are more interested in helping landlords than hurting tenants.
The leading anti-tenant group in California is the California Association of Realtors. They have a knee-jerk opposition to any law that protects tenants and are among the last to come on board even if compromise is reached between tenants and more moderate landlords. Meanwhile, real estate agents across the state are routinely harassing tenants. Whether in the halls of Sacramento or at front doors across the state, no single group has done more to hurt California renters than realtors and real estate agents.
Extremist landlord groups have reduced landlord clout in Sacramento. Perhaps the low point was when the Apartment Owners Association (AOA) referred in their newsletter to tenant activists as terrorists. No landlord group condemned the statement. Meanwhile, year after year in the halls of the Capitol, extremist landlord groups misrepresent pending bills at every turn. By so doing, they sacrifice credibility with legislators, committees and staffers. Their gamble is that what they lack in credibility they will make up for in campaign donations, but that’s not a recipe for long-term success.
All of this played out in this legislative session. Realtors and landlord extremists misrepresented bills as usual, but unlike in prior years, their efforts failed to stop good bills, like AB 1953 (Ammiano) from being signed into law.
Foreclosures, Rising Rents, and a Poor Economy Create Unprecedented Sympathy for the Plight of Renters
I have never heard the phrase “innocent renters” used so much as it has been in recent years.
The foreclosure crisis has brought focus to the fact that banks and predatory investors evict tenants for no reason, highlighting the need for “just cause for eviction” laws to stop these arbitrary evictions. Tenant advocates exposed these unfair evictions early on, prompting media coverage and legislative action. The Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, signed by President Obama in 2009, helped change the national discourse by identifying tenants, including those outside public or subsidized housing, as worthy of federal protection. Tenants Together passed anti-eviction laws even in some of the most conservative regions of the state.
Rent control, popular among voters but regularly criticized by the real estate industry, has fared well recently. Skyrocketing rents in a weak economy have brought into focus the difficulties faced by renters and highlighted the vital role of rent control in promoting housing stability. Despite a media campaign to urge the U.S. Supreme Court to abolish rent control, landlords lost big when the Court refused a New York landlord’s invitation to overturn decades of precedent upholding rent control.
The media still does not provide sufficient coverage of tenant issues, but what has changed is that the coverage that does exist generally portrays tenants in a positive light. Tales of bad tenants have largely been replaced by stories of tenants abused by banks and vulture investors.
In Sacramento, a similar shift is occurring. Despite the ridiculous caricatures of tenants in Sacramento by landlord lobbyists, fewer legislators are buying the lies. Some, like Assemblymember Isadore Hall (D-Los Angeles), are more than happy to regurgitate false landlord talking points, but the fact that they are failing to derail tenant protection bills is a significant sign of improvement.
We still have our work cut out for us. Tenants are losing their homes, their security deposits and their health because of banks, predatory investors and slumlords. But for now, it’s time to celebrate our legislative victories
and get ready for the next fight.
Dean Preston is the Executive Director of Tenants Together, California’s Statewide Organization for Renters’ Rights. For more information about Tenants Together, visit www.TenantsTogether.org