Across California, cities and counties are reporting that homelessness — already at crisis levels in some communities — has only gotten worse.
In the Bay Area, Alameda County reported a 43% increase in homelessness from the last tally two years ago; Santa Clara County was up 31% and San Francisco was up 17%. The situation is just as dire for Southern California communities. Orange County saw a 43% increase in homelessness; San Bernardino County was up 23% and Riverside was up 22%.
Los Angeles County leaders are expected to announce soon that their county also saw double-digit growth in its homeless population. This, despite the county spending more than $600 million last year to ease the crisis.
Why, when counties and the state are pouring money into shelters and services, is homelessness growing? Because, even as regions are moving thousands of individuals off the streets, more people are becoming homeless, primarily because of rising rents and the lack of affordable housing.
Without question, California has to build more housing, and particularly affordable housing, whether by providing incentives or subsidies for construction. But in the meantime, if California has any hope of easing homelessness, the state has to adopt tenant protections to ensure that people living on the edge financially don’t get pushed into homelessness by exorbitant rent hikes or unwarranted evictions.
Barring landlords from gouging tenants during a housing crisis should be an easy call for lawmakers.
Yet the Assembly is waffling on two bills that would enact temporary protections that could help slow the increase in homelessness in the coming decade while California communities build much-needed affordable housing.
Assembly Bill 1482 is a statewide rent control measure designed to stop the most egregious rent hikes. The bill, by Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), would set a statewide cap on annual rent hikes at 5% plus inflation. The proposal is similar to Oregon’s first-in-the-nation law that limits rent increases to 7% plus inflation.
California lawmakers are typically reticent about rent control because of concerns that it could discourage apartment construction. And tenant protection laws always have an uphill climb in Sacramento, where property owners and real estate interests spend far more on lobbying and campaign donations than tenant groups. To ease owners’ concerns, Chiu amended the bill so it would sunset in 2030 — making it more of a crisis response than a permanent change in policy — and exempt properties built in the last 10 years from the rent caps.
Even with those concessions, the bill is struggling to get enough votes to pass the Assembly and continue on to the Senate. That’s a shame. More than 14 million Californians live in rental units that are not subject to any kind of rent control. Some 80% of low-income tenants are considered rent burdened, meaning they spend more than a third of their income on rent. Barring landlords from gouging tenants during a housing crisis should be an easy call for lawmakers.
There is also lukewarm support for a companion bill, AB 1481, that would require landlords to show “just cause” — such as a failure to pay rent or a lease violation — before they could evict a renter. The authors, Assemblymen Tim Grayson (D-Concord) and Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), have also added a 10-year sunset clause.
Apartment owners have complained the bill would add to their expenses and force them to raise rents, while also making it harder to remove bad tenants who may be engaged in illegal activity. But just-cause eviction laws don’t shield bad tenants; landlords could still proceed with an eviction if a tenant failed to pay the rent, violated the terms of the lease, caused a nuisance or broke the law. The goal is to provide law-abiding tenants with some measure of due process and protection from arbitrary or discriminatory eviction.
Both of these bills are designed to give tenants more stability and security in times of skyrocketing rents — and hopefully slow the rise in homelessness.