Chronicle and L.A. Times Distort Rent Legislation

by Sara Shortt on July 10, 2009

The San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times have gone on the attack against Chris Daly’s “renter’s relief” bills which – although passed by the Board of Supervisors – Mayor Gavin Newsom threatens to veto. The Chronicle asked why the Supervisors would “pick this moment to pass a silly package of bills,” while the LA Times opposes the bill because it “forces private businesspeople to engage in social welfare.”

It seems that both papers are taking such a strong stance, because they truly don’t understand it. The Chronicle claims the legislation would “ban landlords from increasing rent to more than 33 percent of a tenant’s income.” The LA Times says it would “forbid the landlords of rent-controlled buildings from raising the rent.” They both seem to want the public to believe all landlords would be suddenly restricted from raising rents.

Yet, the legislation does not ask all landlords en masse to cut their rents. It does not require a rent rollback (even though landlords gladly gained 25% rent increases throughout the dot com years) or even a blanket cap on rents. All it requires is that if a renter faces an unexpected crisis, such as the loss of a job or a furlough that results in decreased wages, he or she can be granted an exemption from that year’s allowable rent increase (which this year is a minimal 2.2%).

The Chronicle calls the bills “silly” and claims they are unnecessary, since “rents are softening and vacancy rates are expected to increase.” We need to remember, however, that we are talking about ridiculously over-inflated rents and an extremely tight vacancy rate – so that even if there is finally a tip towards balance, rents are still hardly affordable to most San Francisco renters.

Even if there is a gradual lowering of rents, as the Chronicle claims, it is of little consequence to low- and moderate-income renters who are struggling in this economy. What matters to renters is actual affordability. Affordability is determined by the intersection of two factors: rent costs and income. While rents may be finally leveling off in San Francisco (although if you’ve looked for a place lately, it sure doesn’t seem that way), wages are rapidly decreasing and local unemployment is now at a high of ten percent.

When it comes to affordability, there has been no relief for San Francisco renters. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development calculates our “fair market rent” at $1658 for a 2 bedroom. This places us at number two on the list of least affordable rental housing markets in the US.

A renter would have to earn $31.88 hour to afford this amount. This is far more than what most San Franciscans can afford. For renters who are disabled or seniors earning close to $907 in SSI benefits, rents are even further out of reach. These households can only afford $272 per month, yet the one bedroom, fair market rent is $1325. Maybe this helps explain to the Chronicle why the Board picked this moment to pass the bills.

As for the L.A. Times, why shouldn’t we demand that private industry help meet the community’s needs, especially when it means helping to protect our most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens from homelessness and displacement? After all, private business had the biggest hand in creating the very economic crisis that has led to the hardships endured by our city’s lowest-income renters.

This legislation did not simply come out of the blue. It was written as a deliberate response to the increasingly difficult circumstances tenants are finding themselves in during the recession. SF renters are losing their jobs, seeing their wages cut back and even falling into homelessness, because of the reckless and heartless practices of the private sector. Who better than the private sector to step in and take away just a bit of the pain?

The L.A. Times thinks relief for renters should be provided by the government and not private industry. Yes, government has a role to play. But they have proven themselves unwilling or incapable of filling the vast need that exists for affordable housing in San Francisco. We have a waiting list of nearly 14,000 for a pool of 7,300 Section 8 vouchers that are currently in use. For decades, the federal government has abdicated its responsibility to provide affordable housing.

City governments are in no position to pick up the slack. San Francisco is currently facing one of the most severe budget deficits ever. And funding for affordable housing development has also fallen prey to the “wretched economy,” with much of its financing based on tax credits and private investment.

The L.A. Times’ characterization of the legislation as a welfare bill is dead wrong, and simply a tactic to scare off the many middle class renters who might otherwise support it. This bill will serve more than low-income renters. A tech worker who suddenly loses their job due to downsizing would be able to share housing costs with a roommate, rather than lose his/her home. A government worker facing a furlough due to budget cuts would not have to worry about the additional burden of a rent increase of more than eight percent.

This measure is nothing but fair to all parties involved. In order to accommodate a renter who is at risk of losing their home because they have fallen into hard times, we are asking that a landlord forgo their 2.2% rent increase until their tenants get back on their feet. This would not seriously hurt a landlord’s profit margin, yet it could mean the difference between a roof and the streets for those who benefit.

Anyone who thinks it’s a “silly” thing to ask for in these dark times must have a heart of stone.

Sara Shortt is Executive Director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.

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