Santa Cruz Freezes Rising Rents

City Council and local organizations move to protect renters

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The Santa Cruz City Council approved an emergency ordinance on Feb. 13, effective immediately, which puts a temporary freeze on residential and commercial rental rates from rising over 2 percent and establishes a requirement for just cause in tenant evictions.

The emergency ordinance was introduced to protect renters from landlords spiking rent in reaction to possible permanent rent control measures. These measures are advocated for by many renters’ rights organizations like Movement for Housing Justice (MHJ).

Over 100 people, including both renters and landlords, attended the City Council meeting Tuesday evening. Rent control advocates rejoiced at the announcement of the emergency rent freeze ordinance.

“It’s very exciting to see the community come out in strength here. It’s exciting, in a way, to see the landlord side come out in strength as well. It means that we’re doing something […] that’s going to improve the lives of tenants and make it easier for us to live here and not have to struggle under crushing rents. If it wasn’t effective the landlords wouldn’t be coming out,” said MHJ organizer and UC Santa Cruz alumnus Zac Hershfield.

City Council passed the rent freeze clause unanimously with five votes. Chris Krohn and Cynthia Mathews, the other two members of the council, were not eligible to vote because they are also landlords, which presents a conflict of interest.

Because the issue of just cause eviction affects over half the population, all council members were allowed to vote on this issue in the second vote of the evening.  This measure passed 5-2, with Mathews and Mayor David Terrazas dissenting. Krohn, who could only vote on the second portion, supports both aspects of the ordinance.

“It’s the beginning of a conversation. It puts the owners of property on notice that things are really in a crisis and they’re not facing up to that,” Krohn said. “A rent freeze would get some breathing room for tenants, a just cause eviction ordinance would stop people from being put out arbitrarily, because that’s what’s happening right now.”

The rent freeze applies to rental units built before February 1995, which makes up 22-24 percent of rentals in the city. The freeze excludes businesses that rely on transit occupancy, medical facilities and government buildings.

The ordinance also requires a just cause for eviction in all residential rental units. This means tenancy cannot be terminated except for in restricted situations, including faillure to pay rent, breach of lease, failure to give access after a written notice or an owner’s decision for them or their close family relative(s) to live in the unit.

Rent control has long been a topic of debate and contention in Santa Cruz, as 56 percent of Santa Cruz’s residents are renters. Of that group, 67.5 percent spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing alone. Between 2013 and 2016, Santa Cruz wages increased by 4.8 percent.

Within the same time, according to the Zillow Rent Index, rental prices increased by 41 percent ­— making Santa Cruz the third most expensive city in the country.

“With rents at $1,900 for a studio, $2,400 for a one-bedroom and $3,200 for a two-bedroom, something is terribly wrong in our city,” Krohn said. “This situation is affected by way-high UCSC dorm rents, pressure from Silicon Valley tech workers looking for housing in [Santa Cruz] and well over 500 vacation rentals that takes rooms and apartments and houses out of the local market.”

About 18,000 students are currently enrolled at UCSC and housing is generally only guaranteed for a student’s first two years ­­— leaving nearly half the student body looking for local housing.

“The university growing does have an impact on people’s ability to find housing here. […] I don’t think that the university as an entity is taking responsibility for the impacts of its growth,” said MHJ organizer and UCSC alumnus Zac Hershfield.

Kate Orchard, a fourth-year community studies major, lives with 14 other people, most of whom are also students or alumni. She attended the City Council vote on rent freeze and said she noticed rent control organizers staying outside during the meeting, allegedly because they feared eviction from their landlords if they were seen attending. Orchard also spoke of landlords who attended to voice their opposition.

“There were a lot of landlords who spoke that all had the same narrative which was that they are such good landlords,” Orchard said. “The thing is they […] didn’t read it or they were not being honest about their thoughts because they want to raise the rent as much as they can.”

For now the temporary rent freeze will protect renters, but rent control organizers hope this is the beginning of something more permanent. A grassroots movement, organized by MHJ, is working to place a permanent rent control item on the Santa Cruz ballot in November.

If successful, the moratorium will remain in place until the vote, after which it will either be replaced with a new rent control ordinance or be discarded altogether. If the proposed rent control measure does not make it to the ballot, the temporary protections will end Sept. 1.

MHJ is petitioning to put a permanent rent control solution on the November 2018 ballot. If the rent control petition collects 8,000 signatures, the proposed measure would set the limit for how much landlords can increase rent per year to the consumer price index, or the change of the cost of living over time.

MHJ launched its kick-off event  on Jan. 11 by training 100 volunteers and positioning them in 20 different locations throughout Santa Cruz to collect signatures for the petition.

“The council is not going to do anything that the community isn’t going to push them to do. […] And we’re going to keep building this movement and we are going to fight for students, we’re going to fight for low-income workers, we’re going to fight for middle-class workers and teachers and nurses and bus drivers,” Zac Hershfield said. “That’s who we’re here for. And the City Council and the rest of the city is going learn that.”

By the end of 2-hour event, MHJ gathered 1,000 signatures, which is one-eighth of the number of signatures needed. The group has until June 2018 to collect the remaining 7,000 signatures necessary to get rent control on the November ballot.

Additional reporting by Alonso Hernandez.