Costa–Hawkins Leaves Gaps in Rent Freeze

Grassroots movement could place its repeal on 2018 ballot

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*Name changed to protect identity.

After Santa Cruz City Council voted unanimously in favor of an emergency rent freeze on Feb. 13, about 22-24 percent of renters in Santa Cruz were immediately protected from rent hikes higher than 2 percent, at least until this fall. The others — those renting multi-family units built after 1995, single-family homes or certain condominiums — are left unprotected due to the Costa–Hawkins Rental Housing Act.

Passed in 1995, Costa–Hawkins mandates these structures cannot be protected, regardless of local rent control measures. Additionally, for cities that enacted rent control before 1995, Costa–Hawkins retroactively exempts rentals built after rent control began.

Illustration by Lizzy Choi

Low-income families are more likely to live in older houses and apartment buildings, so those most affected by high rents are often protected by rent control. In a college town like Santa Cruz though, it is student renters, among others, who slip through the cracks. Abby Jones*, UC Santa Cruz fifth-year and tenants’ rights organizer, is one such student. She lives in the illegal back house of a crowded single- family home.

She and her housemates faced rent increases of about $1000 two years in a row, first when the lease expanded to include the back house and then again with no additional changes to the lease. Because Costa–Hawkins exempts single-family homes from the rent control ordinance, this could continue to happen to her.

“I want to stay in Santa Cruz to continue organizing, but if my rent goes up I won’t be able to afford to and that’s extremely upsetting,” Jones said. “Or I’ll have to continue living in conditions that are really not acceptable.”

City Council member Sandy Brown, who voted in favor of the rent freeze and just cause emergency ordinances, said there are many renters the city can’t protect because of Costa– Hawkins restrictions. Because of Santa Cruz’s housing make-up — which is comprised of over 70 percent single- family homes — renters have fewer multi-family units available to them and are particularly affected by Costa– Hawkins.

“We are limited by state law about the units to be covered. […] We’re confined by the Costa–Hawkins Act, so let’s repeal it,” Brown said.

She also said the repeal of the act would mean all buildings it currently exempts from rent control would immediately be protected — no additional vote or ordinance necessary.

Last year, assembly member Richard Bloom proposed Assembly Bill (AB) 1506, which aimed to overturn the act, to the state legislature. Assembly member Mark Stone, who represents portions of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and Monterey counties, was among the bill’s supporters.

“Costa–Hawkins forces numerous statewide limitations and exemptions on local governments, hindering their ability to meeting the community’s housing needs. AB 1506 returns the power to make such decisions to the local level, where it belongs,” Stone said in a statement.

Despite support from tenants and some legislators, AB 1506 was rejected in a state assembly committee in January this year. Legislators often face pressure from landlord groups, like the California Apartment Association (CAA), to prevent rent control measures, said founder of Santa Cruz Tenants’ Association and tenants’ rights organizer Cynthia Berger.

The CAA opposes rent control and related legislation on the grounds that it will discourage people from building new rental units and exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the statewide housing crisis, according to the association’s website.

Now, tenant organizers are picking up the fight to repeal Costa–Hawkins through a petition for its repeal to appear on the 2018 California ballot. Michael Weinstein, a Los Angeles- based activist, is funding efforts to acquire the 366,000 signatures needed by June 28 to do so. Berger is optimistic about the possibility of ending Costa– Hawkins-mandated restrictions.

“The limits of the Costa–Hawkins Act preclude millions and millions of tenants from being covered by rent control,” said Berger, the founder of the Santa Cruz Tenants’ Association and organizer with the Movement for Housing Justice (MHJ). “And now that 50 percent of Californians are renters, we are going to overturn that, one way or another.”

Berger explained that while the MHJ, a coalition of local tenants’ rights organizations, is supportive of the movement to repeal Costa–Hawkins, they are not actively petitioning for it. The local housing movement has another item on its agenda — putting a permanent rent control ordinance for the city of Santa Cruz on the November ballot. MHJ must collect 8,000 petition signatures by May 15 to do so.

Petitioners for the statewide Costa–Hawkins repeal in Los Angeles and the Bay Area are on schedule to receive the 366,000 signatures needed for that ballot measure, so Berger is confident in the decision for Santa Cruz organizers to focus on the local movement for now.

UCSC student Abby Jones still finds the current fight for rent control important, despite the areas it falls short in.

“I support rent control because, it’s not perfect obviously, because of state restrictions,” Jones said, “but it will offer some protection for renters in Santa Cruz who are constantly in unstable housing situations.”

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Laretta Johnson is co-editor in chief at City on a Hill Press. Before this, she wore many hats within City on a Hill, starting as a copy editor and working as copy chief, opinions editor, city news editor and campus news editor (at different times) over the past year and a half. She sees journalism that helps people understand things, whether it’s a portion of a complicated bureaucracy or the way systems of power function within the UC, as a way to help facilitate change. Beyond the walls of the Student Media Center, Laretta can be found riding her bike around town, cooking food with her 11 housemates, journaling, going on long neighborhood walks or convincing herself one more cup of coffee isn’t a bad idea.