California politicians have spent the last year wringing their hands over the state’s worsening homeless crisis. But when it came time to act — to take real steps to protect people from losing their homes because of an exorbitant rent increase or an unwarranted eviction — lawmakers were missing in action.
Last week, the Assembly let a bill die that would have required landlords to show “just cause” — such as a failure to pay rent or a lease violation — before they could evict a renter. An anti-gouging bill designed to stop excessive rent increases was so watered down that it will be practically ineffectual. Other efforts to let cities expand rent control and track evictions were quietly killed.
This is an outrageous abdication of responsibility at a moment when homelessness is getting worse across the state. From the Bay Area to Southern California, counties have reported double-digit increases in the number of people living in cars, tents, shelters and on the streets — spurred, almost everyone agrees, by a lack of low-income housing, unaffordable rent hikes, unjustified evictions and a lack of comprehensive tenant protections.
Certainly California has to build more housing, and particularly affordable housing, whether by providing developers with incentives or subsidies for construction. But it will take years to construct enough housing to meet demand and to bring down prices. In the meantime, California has to do much more to ensure that people living on the edge financially don’t get unfairly or arbitrarily pushed out of their homes.
Nowhere is the growing humanitarian crisis more visible than in Los Angeles County. Over the last year, officials have spent $600 million to build homes and shelters, and to provide services; they have housed a record number of homeless people. Yet numbers released this week showed that homelessness is up 12%. Why? Because even as we house people, more people are becoming homeless — often for the first time.
Roughly one in three units in Los Angeles County is covered by some kind of rent control, according to a 2018 analysis. That leaves the majority of renters with no protection if a landlord wants to jack up the rent or boot them out. A few local governments around the state are beginning to take steps to protect tenants by enacting temporary rent caps and just-cause eviction laws, and by funding lawyers to help tenants fight unjust evictions.
But those efforts are limited — both by local politics (renters may be the majority in many cities but they lack homeowners’ political sway) and by state law, which bars cities from extending rent control to apartments built after 1995, as well as houses and condos.
To appease the powerful real estate interests who, apparently, control Sacramento, Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) was forced to weaken his anti-rent gouging bill. It will now cap annual rent increases at 7% plus inflation and last just three years.
That’s better than the status quo, but it is far from sufficient. State lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom need to get serious and do more than pay lip service to tenant protections.