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Santa Ana activists rally against efforts to overturn rent control

Activist Idalia Rios speaks on a bullhorn during a Tenants United Santa Ana rent control demonstration.
Activist Idalia Rios speaks on a bullhorn about rent control policy with fellow activists during a Tenants United Santa Ana rent control demonstration in Santa Ana on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer )

Rent control advocates at Mariposa Park in Santa Ana fastened ropes around buckets in turning them into makeshift drums slung over their shoulders ahead of a planned march on the Apartment Assn. of Orange County. On Monday evening, they readied protest signs and made stump speeches through a bullhorn to all within earshot.

In the two weeks since Santa Ana City Council passed the measure set to curb rent hikes to 3% annually on older apartment complexes and mobile home parks, activists found themselves in a unfamiliar position: defense.

Just three days after the Oct. 19 vote, the California Apartment Assn. announced that they were leading a referendum signature gathering effort on the new rent control and just cause eviction laws.

“Instead of celebrating the victory of City Council passing rent control, we continue fighting,” said Idalia Rios, an activist with Vecindario Lacy en Accion, before the crowd. “We know that people power matters more. This years-long fight won’t be in vain.”

Mextli Lopez, a volunteer activist with Tenants United Santa Ana, followed by vowing to deliver an open letter addressed to the California Apartment Assn. and the Apartment Assn. of Orange County at the end of the march, one that accused canvassers of using “misleading and outright incorrect information” in violation of election code law when approaching registered voters for their signatures.

The letter even claims that canvassers have presented themselves as pro-rent control advocates to help their cause.

“Hopefully, we will be able to get the state attorney general and the secretary of state to look into the lies and deception that is going on in Santa Ana by the Apartment Assn. in order to gather as many signatures as they need in a short amount of time to repeal our ordinance,” she said. “We know that it’s actually illegal what they’ve been doing. We’re going to demand that an investigation take place.”

Activists with Tenants United Santa Ana begin their march on the Apartment Assn. of Orange County.
Activists with Tenants United Santa Ana begin their march on the Apartment Assn. of Orange County.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

About 40 demonstrators marched down Fourth Street as Santa Ana Police Department patrol cars slowly crawled behind the crowd. Activists arrived to find the Apartment Assn. of Orange County closed and its exterior business sign covered up. They quickly claimed the organization did so in anticipation of the march and any possible media coverage.

David Cordero, executive director of the Apartment Assn. of Orange County, didn’t respond to those claims, but did criticize Santa Ana City Council for what he deemed a “rushed” vote without “meaningful outreach” to the community or rental-housing providers.

“Santa Ana for Fair and Equitable Housing is collecting signatures so the voters can ultimately decide if these policies are right for Santa Ana,” he said. “This is the democratic process — letting the people decide what they want for their community. Hostile efforts to stop the people from having a say and blocking voters from expressing their desire and right to have a free and fair election are shameful and contrary to our country’s values.”

Gilbert Sanchez, a Santa Ana resident who attended both the march and past City Council meetings where rent control was discussed, recalls an encounter with a canvasser two weeks ago outside a Target store. The man claimed just cause eviction protections wouldn’t allow landlords to boot tenants who played loud music.

“That’s where I stopped him,” he said in arguing that not to be the case. “As soon as I told him I went to the council meetings, he dropped me like a hot potato.”

Santa Ana for Fair and Equitable Housing, which is sponsored by the California Apartment Assn., has until Nov. 20 to collect 12,500 signatures, which is about 10% of all registered voters in the city. If enough qualifying signatures are submitted by deadline, City Council can either consider repealing the ordinances themselves or send them before the voters.

The council would have to decide whether to have the referendum vote slated for a special election or during a general election cycle. During the interim period between the verification of submitted signatures and the referendum election, there would also be a stay on rent control and just cause eviction protections.

A rent control supporter bangs on a drum during a demonstration in Santa Ana.
A rent control supporter bangs on a drum during a demonstration in Santa Ana.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, a Santa Ana councilman who voted for both ordinances, attended Monday’s demonstration but didn’t address the crowd. In an interview, he noted having seen filmed encounters residents and activists have had with canvassers and asked Santa Ana City Atty. Sonia Carvalho to respond to allegations of election code violations while also reaching out to state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta over the matter.

Should the petition qualify, Hernandez doesn’t plan on changing his vote and doesn’t expect three other colleagues supportive of rent control, including Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, will, either.

“The need and the demand for rent control is real,” he said. “This isn’t snap-finger politics or just the progressive thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. It’s just a matter of making sure that we do everything that we can to combat the lies and deceit in the community.”

A day after the demonstration, the issue of rent control briefly turned back to City Council.

Councilwoman Nelida Mendoza asked staff to consider a future presentation on the advantages and disadvantages of the policy during the Nov. 2 meeting.

“I would like to see about getting neutral experts in the area of urban planning to give some information to the public,” she said. “I know that the issue has already passed so it doesn’t have anything to do with voting. It’s more to inform the public of benefits, disadvantages and unintended consequences of the rent control issue.”

At the end of the meeting, Sarmiento addressed the canvasser controversy by directing Carvalho to look at remedial measures in cases where some referendum signatures may have been gathered illegally.

“People can be easily misled into signing something that isn’t clear and isn’t represented well,” Sarmiento said. “I respect everybody’s right to be able to gather signatures so long as they’re gathered legally.”

The mayor also commended the City Clerk’s office for working on a template form letter for registered voters in the city who may seek to have their signature rescinded if they felt a canvasser misled them.

Santa Ana’s rent control law, the only of its kind in Orange County, is slated to go into effect on Nov. 19.

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