Op-Ed: How Real Rent Control Could Actually Ease Tensions between Tenant Rights Groups & YIMBYs

Joseph Smooke, Dyan Ruiz | 08/22/2018
Sonja Trauss (center) at SB827 rally outside SF City Hall
Photo Credit
Jospeh Smooke. Rally at City Hall in April 2018 on proposed state law SB827, Sonja Trauss is in the center

Every few years, a Proposition appears on our California ballots that reminds us why we vote and that we really do have a chance to make a difference. Proposition 10, called The Affordable Housing Act, is truly exciting. Why? If passed this November, it would repeal Costa-Hawkins, the 1995 law that limits rent control across the State.

Repealing Costa-Hawkins means that for the first time since 1995, cities like San Francisco would be able to pass real rent control to cap its skyrocketing rents. Not only will repealing it mean the possibility of moderating the financial burdens of living in one of the most expensive housing markets in the world, repealing Costa-Hawkins could be the start of cooling the animosity between pro-development advocates on one side such as YIMBYs (Yes In My BackYard), and tenant rights advocates on the other.

Per San Francisco’s rent stabilization program, which has been in place since 1979, every time a unit is rented, or a new building gets built, a new market rent standard is established. Units built after that year and new tenancies in any building can be charged rent at whatever level landlords want to charge and tenants are able to pay. 

Landlords with long term tenants who have stabilized rent often seek to evict tenants with what are called “no fault evictions.” The tenant has done nothing to violate the terms of their lease, but the landlord still wants them out. 

If the landlord succeeds in getting rid of their long term tenants, they can raise that unit’s rent by moving in new tenants. The fact that this is legally possible under Costa-Hawkins-- not just in San Francisco but across the state-- has led to mass displacement and neighborhood instability.

Build, Build, Build really equals Gentrification, Displacement, Destabilization.

But Is Something Else Possible?

Ever since their founding, first as the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (BARF) in early 2015, the SF YIMBYs have antagonized elected officials and community organizations and anyone who disagrees with their objectives by repeating the incessant call of “build, build, build” as their simplistic solution for ending the affordable housing crisis. 

No matter how much it will cost to buy or rent from that new development, even if it’s priced for a luxury buyer or renter, they believe any new development will bring prices down for everyone else. This is because YIMBYs think that their approach will add a much needed boost to the housing “supply”, supposedly bringing balance to an oversimplified understanding of the economic principles of supply and demand.

The YIMBYs’ economic theory contradicts most people’s lived experience. San Francisco prices continue to climb with each new condo and apartment building even though nearly 50,000 new units of housing have been approved by SF’s Planning Department. Regardless, YIMBYs continue to advocate for building housing everywhere including tearing down existing, occupied low density neighborhoods in San Francisco, and building new, higher density apartment buildings on top of that destruction.

ED of Housing Rights Committee, Fred Sherburn-Zimmer speaks at (anti) SB827 in April 2018
ED of Housing Rights Committee, Fred Sherburn-Zimmer speaks at (anti) SB827 in April 2018

Meanwhile, tenant advocates see landlords displacing tenants every day. New luxury apartment buildings command higher and higher rents. Owners of existing, older buildings see the rents being charged in those new buildings and they become eager to capitalize on what real estate professionals call “new comparable market values.” 

Costa-Hawkins and San Francisco’s rent stabilization program exempt new apartment buildings from any type of price controls. Therefore, to tenant advocates, new apartment buildings mean gentrification caused by escalating prices and evicted tenants who have to move out of the City because they’re priced out.

These realities pit these two factions of housing advocates against each other. YIMBYs want to make it easier for developers to build new housing because they think this will bring prices down. Tenant advocates want to protect existing residents from the gentrifying and destabilizing impacts of new, expensive buildings.

If there was real rent control, the discussion between housing factions could have a chance to completely change.

If there was real rent control that applied to all buildings-- old and new-- rent control that caps prices for existing as well as new tenants, the discussion between housing factions could have a chance to completely change. 

For instance, let’s paint the picture that the YIMBYs have been able to fulfill their fantasy of upzoning all of San Francisco so sites that currently only allow 3 or 4 units now could have 10 units. If those 3 or 4 units are occupied, which nearly all of them are, but the landlord wants to tear that small building down so they can build a larger 10 unit building, tenants would be displaced while this demolition and new construction takes place.

But what if those tenants could have a real, guaranteed, price controlled “right-to-return” that was held accountable by the City? Right now, there is no guaranteed right to return that’s held accountable to any City agency. And there’s no rent control on that new building. So, under the current system, tenant advocates fight any rent stabilized building from being altered or demolished. 

If the system were changed, there might be a chance for discussion between pro-growth, pro-developer YIMBYs and tenant advocates about how to build new, larger scale developments in a way that respects current tenants and has price controls.

Big Money is Pouring into Fighting the Repeal at the State Level

While passing real control does open up possibilities, the YIMBY's pro-development agenda is still very problematic. YIMBYs continue to push for new, larger, more expensive developments across California through a barrage of legislation fronted by State Senator Scott Wiener (D- San Francisco/San Mateo) to undermine local, democratic land use approval processes and escalate the scale of development around the state.

These efforts to “build, build, build” are happening despite the fact that the State Legislature was incapable of repealing Costa-Hawkins. The failed legislative effort led to the need for tenant advocates to create Proposition 10 and bring this critical issue to California voters. 

The statewide divisions over Proposition 10 are clear. Nurses, teachers, tenant organizations, the CA Democratic Party, and various organizations across the state are supporting Proposition 10. Opposition includes a No on Prop 10 group that includes mostly Chambers of Commerce, taxpayers associations, property owners, builders and even the NAACP.

Tenant advocates from Chinatown CDC at (anti) SB827 in April 2018
Tenant advocates from Chinatown CDC at (anti) SB827 in April 2018

The rationale given by the NAACP is especially troubling because it sounds like the YIMBY’s typical, fear-mongering position. An SF Chronicle article says the president of the California NAACP, Alice Huffman, “agreed with arguments that allowing stricter forms of rent control would discourage housing construction and therefore hurt low-income tenants.” This thinking reeks of a YIMBY belief in trickle-down housing. Build for the rich (i.e. market-rate housing) and everyone will benefit.

The YIMBYs have been beating on this drum for some time now and have engaged in insider lobbying for less restrictions on residential development. The head of the California YIMBYs, Brian Hanlon, is writing bills for Senator Wiener like SB827 that would deregulate real estate development throughout the state especially in vulnerable communities. So, you have the YIMBYs and developers lining up on the same side of the policy argument to deregulate residential construction, even if this destabilizes communities.

A Twist! Politics of Rent Control in San Francisco

There’s a bit of a twist in the statewide plot around Proposition 10, however, and of course that head scratcher could only happen right here in San Francisco.

BARF and YIMBY leader, Sonja Trauss, is running for Supervisor of the area of San Francisco where most of the City’s new development is happening, District 6 (The Tenderloin, South of Market, Mission Bay and Treasure Island). Current Supervisor Jane Kim is termed out this year.

Trauss is running against San Francisco School Board Commissioner Matt Haney and former SF Planning Commissioner and former San Francisco director of SPUR (San Francisco Planning & Urban Research) Christine Johnson.

Trauss has argued for more luxury housing as a solution for bringing housing prices down. Real estate developers’ argument against Proposition 10, as noted above, is that once Costa-Hawkins is repealed, cities around California will pass more stringent rent control laws, and this will stop new housing development. So, it would appear that Trauss might come out against Prop 10 because developers think that it will slow or maybe stop housing development.

What do Candidates running in the most development heavy SF neighborhoods think of repealing Costa-Hawkins?

[people. power. media] reached out to all three candidates for Supervisor of District 6. We never heard back from Christine Johnson or her campaign staff, but we did get very clear statements from both Matt Haney and Sonja Trauss. Here’s what they had to say about Proposition 10:

From Matt Haney:
“This [Proposition 10] is one of the most important state ballot propositions that we've seen in recent history. Overturning Costa Hawkins will allow San Francisco to control skyrocketing rents and prevent rampant speculation. When it passes, we will have the opportunity to expand rent control to new developments, many of which have been in D6. And we will also be able to place stronger rent caps and vacancy controls to avoid speculation and limit incentives for displacement. I am in full unequivocal support, and will hope to lead in expanding rent control once the Proposition passes.”

From Sonja Trauss:
“I am excited about the Prop 10 Costa-Hawkins repeal because of the opportunity it provides for California to make Rent Control laws at the state level. The first rent control laws were passed locally in the late 1970s in CA cities. 40 years later, only 15 CA cities have rent control out of almost 500 cities, towns and counties. Most tenants in CA have no protections at all. State wide tenant organizing could extend Just Cause and Rent Control protections to the rest of the state.”

These responses might seem encouraging to San Francisco tenants. But, you may be wondering, why is the YIMBY candidate so supportive of rent control not just in San Francisco but across California?

On the cynical side, you could see it as a tactic for appealing to the majority of voters who are renters simply as a ploy to attain political office. On the optimistic side, you could see that there is a rationale for a YIMBY candidate to support rent control as a way to bridge the divide between pro-development YIMBYs and tenant advocates, as described above.

Lara Foote Clark shouting at tenant advocates at (anti) SB827 in April 2018
Lara Foote Clark shouting at tenant advocates at (anti) SB827 in April 2018

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez reported in the SF Examiner that the endorsement discussion about Proposition 10 was divisive at the YIMBY caucus. According to the YIMBY Action website, they still have not gone public yet with their endorsements, but there was a strong push from their Executive Director, Laura Foote Clark, to sidestep the whole issue entirely by not taking any position. 

This sense of conflict is completely absent from Trauss’ stated position on Proposition 10. This YIMBY conflict and the continuing push to deregulate development by the California YIMBYs and Senator Wiener should be a huge red warning flag behind Trauss’ statement of support for Proposition 10.

No Tenant Protections even if Prop 10 Passes

Although it’s good to know where the candidates stand on Proposition 10, and on rent control, we need to keep in mind that even if Prop 10 passes, that just creates the possibility for real rent control. There still won’t be vacancy control, or price control on new tenancies, and there won’t be any price control on new units.

In order to get those levels of tenant protections, we would need to create a new rent control program and either get that passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors or put it on the City’s ballot and get it passed through the electoral process. 

Why is this important? If a candidate for Supervisor of District 6 who prioritizes new luxury housing development wins, we will see accelerated gentrification and displacement throughout San Francisco. Christine Johnson, by the way, is also very much pro-development, and Johnson and Trauss have joined forces to campaign together. 

Tenant advocates from Chinatown CDC at (anti) SB827 in April 2018
Tenant advocates from Chinatown CDC at (anti) SB827 in April 2018

Until Costa-Hawkins is repealed at the state level and San Francisco City Hall passes real rent control with strong tenant protections and enforcement-- it’s extremely dangerous to put a YIMBY at the helm of the District from which land use and tenants rights policies emanate. YIMBYs will continue to ideologically pursue deregulation of housing development at both the state and local levels regardless of the level of tenant protections of rent control we have. 

A candidate’s statement of support for rent control, although optimistic and hopeful, needs to be seen in the context of the whole system of ideology that they represent. Proposition 10 is absolutely important for renters across California because it will give tenants hope that they will be able to attain real rent control.

But the danger lies in the fact that Proposition 10 may not pass-- there is that chance with any election. And even if it does pass, localities passing strong rent control programs may take some years. In the meantime, the YIMBYs continue to pursue deregulation of development and only “trickle-down” price relief to renters.