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TACKLING A ‘CRISIS:’ Activists launch ballot measure to allow cities to control rents

LOS ANGELES — Local officials joined leaders in Oakland and Sacramento April 23 to ramp up efforts to prevent skyrocketing rent prices from going any higher.

The groups in the three cities have proposed a ballot initiative they would like to qualify for the Nov. 6 ballot that would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, a state law enacted in 1995 that severely limits the ability of cities to control rents on housing.

Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Councilman Mike Bonin joined several dozen housing advocates, labor leaders, community activists and other officials to endorse the California Local Rent Control Initiative during a news conference and rally outside City Hall.

“I’ve always believed that those who live closest to a given block or a street know what’s best. Local government should have control over their own city,” Garcetti told a crowd of several hundred.

Bonin, who represents much of the west side of Los Angeles on the City Council, said every day there are people and families being displaced by rising rents in the city.

“This is a crisis of epic proportions in Los Angeles, and people come to us, they come the mayor, they come to the members of the council and they sorely wish that we could wave a magic wand and make this stop,” he added. “We do not have a magic wand, and in so many cases we have a toolbox that is missing an essential tool, and we need this tool back from the state of California.”

Among the groups supporting the ballot measure are the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which has already contributed $1.7 million to the initiative; ACLU-Southern California, Justice House, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

Juan Cesar Rubalcava, a representative for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, said the ballot measure would give local authorities more leverage to reduce rents in their cities

“At the local level, the challenge is to establish rent control in the cities where there isn’t any,” Rubalcava said in an email response to a question. “Residents who in the past may not have seen the need for it, or didn’t really think about it, they’re suddenly realizing how urgent the need for rent control is. In Los Angeles, they can only increase the rent three percent every year.

“That’s because of existing rent control law. But in so many other cities in the Los Angeles area, landlords can increase the rent however much they want, and there’s no law that stops them. It’s a scary possibility and a very real possibility. That’s why so many residents from Long Beach to Pasadena are starting to advocate for rent control protections.”

Not everyone wants to jump aboard the rent control train. The Coalition for Affordable Housing, which launched the ballot initiative, is facing a major pushback from Californians for Responsible Housing, which is sponsored by the California Apartment Association.

“This ballot measure will pour gasoline on the fire of California’s affordable housing crisis,” said Tom Bannon, CEO of the California Apartment Association. “It will do exactly the opposite of what it promises — instead of helping Californians, it will result in an affordable housing freeze and higher costs.”

The Costa-Hawkins Act prohibits local communities from setting limits on rent increases for residences either built after 1995, or after a city enacted rent control, which the city of Los Angeles did in 1978. It covers single-family houses and multi-unit buildings.

Walt Senterfitt of the Los Angeles Tenants Union enjoys living in Los Angeles. But, he said it is time to rectify the rent control problem the city has.

“I am proud to live in Los Angeles, which is diverse and filled with culture,” Senterfitt said. However, with the housing affordability crisis in full swing, I know many who have left the city because they can no longer afford to live here. Los Angeles can’t be a place purely for the privileged. We must protect renters from being kicked out of their homes by unreasonable rents.”

It’s not just in Los Angeles. Municipalities across Los Angeles County are being affected, Rubalcava said.

“Tenants are fighting for rent control in Long Beach, Inglewood, Pasadena, Glendale, Pomona, in unincorporated Los Angeles and in Santa Ana,” he added. “That so many cities are fighting for rent control is no coincidence. As these cities gain protection for their renters, residents of other cities are going to see that, and they’re going to want the same kind of protection, too.”

More than 565,000 signatures have been collected for the ballot measure — more than enough to place the issue before voters, according to backers of the initiative.

City News Service contributed to this story.