Soaring Bay Area rents spark growing calls for rent control
By Matthew Artz
Posted: 04/12/2015 02:01:59 PM PDT54 Comments | Updated: 5 min. ago
Angela Hockabout is photographed with one of her two kids Nate, 5, at the house of her mother in-law in Alameda, Calif., on Friday, April 3, 2015. The Hockabouts family moved into her mother in-law's house after getting a $450 rent increase at their former home in Alameda. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) ( RAY CHAVEZ )
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Andre Wiley, a teacher and new father, talks about his two-bedroom apartment... ( Laura A. Oda )
Four decades after tenants won rent control in some of the Bay Area's biggest and most left-leaning cities, the movement is creeping back to life in the suburbs, spurred on by a runaway rental market that has priced out blue collar workers, young families and seniors.
Rent control advocates have made their case in council chambers across the Peninsula as well as in Alameda, Richmond and Fremont, where officials are unaccustomed to rental housing politics.
Although state law limits rent control to older, multiunit apartment buildings, supporters say that paired with eviction protections, rent control could still safeguard tens of thousands of low-income tenants at risk of displacement, as such laws already do in three of the Bay Area's most progressive cities -- San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley.
Angela Hockabout is photographed at the house of her mother in-law in Alameda, Calif., on Friday, April 3, 2015. Angela and her husband with their two kids moved into her mother in-law's house after getting a $450 rent increase at their former home in Alameda. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) ( RAY CHAVEZ )
"It's probably the most powerful tool we have," said Karen Chapple, a UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning who is working on a project mapping displacement in the region.
Tenant advocates have found a receptive audience in Richmond, but they have had to temper their demands in wealthier cities -- where political leaders say that regulating the rental market is an expensive proposition that will depress property values and lower the quality of rental housing stock without benefiting all tenants.
Even Mountain View Councilman Lenny Siegel, who led that city's failed rent control ballot initiative 34 years ago, is refusing to back rent control advocates this time around for fear of dividing an emerging coalition in favor of more housing construction.
"To me, rent control is really a Band-Aid," Siegel said. "The more fundamental problem is that cities here allow astronomic growth in employment, but it's always difficult to get housing projects through."
Still, with Bay Area rents rising an average of 44 percent since 2010, the re-emergence of rent control more than a quarter-century after a city last enacted it, speaks to the breadth of the Bay Area's housing crisis.
While the biggest cries of displacement continue to come from well-organized tenant lobbies in San Francisco and Oakland, tenant advocates say those most at risk of being forced from their homes are people like Andre Wiley, a teacher working two jobs to support his wife and 7-month-old son.
Had Wiley lived in one of Oakland's 60,000 rent-controlled apartments, his rent would have gone up no more than 4 percent over the last two years. Instead his landlord in Union City raised the rent 35 percent, from $1,440 to $1,975 -- for a no-frills two-bedroom unit.
"When my wife and I found out, we went to the manager and said, 'What's going on?' We're good tenants,' " he said. "They keep blaming it on the property company in Arizona."
Andre Wiley holds his 7-month-old son, Amir, with his wife, Sanae Wiley, in their two-bedroom apartment in Union City, Calif., on Friday, April 3, 2015. Andre Wiley, a teacher, says his rent has increased 35 percent over the last two years and he is now thinking about moving to the outskirts of the Bay Area. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group) ( Laura A. Oda )
Unable to save money or find a better deal nearby, Wiley is considering giving up the apartment, located across the street from one of his jobs, for a cheaper home in the Central Valley.
"If they had rent control in Union City that would make all of our lives much better," he said.
With help from progressive faith-based organizations, rent control campaigns started coalescing last year in San Mateo, Redwood City, Burlingame and Mountain View. But they haven't gotten much traction. San Mateo County supervisors agreed to have rent control studied, while making clear they don't support it.
Opposition is also entrenched among elected officials in Fremont, where "there is no appetite for a rent control conversation at all," said Allison Lasser, executive director of Congregations Organizing for Renewal. The faith-based nonprofit hasn't ruled out taking the issue to voters if council members don't address it, but that could be a tough sell in a city with more homeowners than tenants.
For now, Richmond might be the only city ripe for rent control. Even though rents remain comparatively low, Vice Mayor Jael Myrick is asking the city's left-leaning council to approve a 45-day moratorium on rent increases and evictions that would set the stage for a rent control debate.
Andre Wiley holds his 7-month-old son Amir in he and his wife's two-bedroom apartment in Union City, Calif., on Friday, April 3, 2015. Wiley, a teacher, has had his rent increased 35 percent over the last two years and is now thinking about moving to the outskirts of the Bay Area. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group) ( Laura A. Oda )
"We do expect displacement to happen if we don't do anything, so this is our opportunity to get ahead of it," Myrick said.
Mayor Tom Butt, pointing to the housing issues that plague Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, is against the proposal. "If you want to do something for renters, why would you emulate the places that have the highest rents in the Bay Area?" he said.
Laws restricting rent increases gained favor in the late 1970s following the passage of Prop. 13, which capped property tax increases and consequently triggered a vigorous tenants' movement.
Of the seven Bay Area cities with rent control, San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and East Palo Alto have relatively strong programs that sharply limit rent increases and forbid evictions without just cause. Hayward and Los Gatos limit rent increases to 5 percent per year, and San Jose, which lacks eviction protections, prohibits annual rent increases above 8 percent.
All of the municipal rent control laws were weakened in 1995 with passage of a state law, known as the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, that ended rent control on vacant units, single-family homes, condos and new construction of any kind after the law took effect.
The fact that a significant number of tenants no longer benefit from rent control has made it harder to organize a grass-roots movement, said Jennifer Martinez, executive director of the San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action.
In Alameda, where there is little political support for rent control, tenant advocates have put the issue on hold while they work with landlords to roll back major rent increases.
"We're trying to leverage that fear of rent control to get whatever gains we can get in the short term," said Angela Hockabout, who started the Alameda Renters Coalition two years ago after she and her family received a $450 rent increase that forced them to move in with her mother-in-law.
One of her biggest allies is Don Lindsey, a prominent property owner who has talked colleagues into reducing rent hikes that threatened to displace residents and unite support for rent control. Lindsey can make a compelling case. He owns a rent-controlled Oakland unit with a long-term tenant who is paying only $560 a month -- about one-third of the market rent.
"We've been very successful telling owners to slow down and try to be a little more understanding of people who are renting," he said. "We don't want the government controlling rents in Alameda."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.