A rental sign in front of an apartment complex in central Fresno
A rental sign in front of an apartment complex in central Fresno.
(Larry Valenzuela / CalMatters/CatchLight Local)
Civic Life

Renters’ rights: California advocates chip away at landlords’ political influence

As groups representing landlords and real estate pour millions of dollars into political coffers to influence housing policy, tenant groups are celebrating recent victories.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

When state Sen. María Elena Durazo introduced a bill in March to bolster the California Tenant Protection Act, she called for lowering the cap on rent increases to 5%, while closing loopholes landlords use to evict tenants when there’s no “just cause.”

By the time her “homelessness prevention” bill moved to the Senate floor on May 31, negotiations and compromise had watered it down. The rent cap provision was gone and several other provisions were significantly curbed.

That the bill lost some of its strength disappointed renters’ rights groups that had made the proposal their top priority. But the measure still passed the Senate. And other pro-tenant legislation, such as a bill by Assemblymember Matt Haney to limit security deposits, also is still alive this session.

Those victories are evidence, advocates say, that renters are gaining influence in the Capitol. Though groups representing landlords and real estate continue spending millions on lobbying and supporting candidates, tenants rights groups are starting to chip away at their influence.

“It’s still an uphill battle for tenants in Sacramento,” said Shanti Singh, legislative director for the Tenants Together coalition. “But, at the same time, you do see the tide turning.”

The shift comes as housing and homelessness crises touch every corner of California, injecting a sense of urgency into potential state legislation.

Does that urgency counteract the rental industry’s influence?

Housing and tenants’ rights groups published a joint report in May quantifying the lobbying footprint of the California Apartment Association, one of the largest groups representing landlords.

Big spenders

The report used data from the California Secretary of State to show that since 2017, the apartment association has spent:

  • Nearly $7 million directly lobbying state lawmakers;
  • More than $140 million in political committees it controls, to affect state and local candidate races and ballot measures;
  • Another $86 million in “blended” political committees it doesn’t necessarily control.

Advocacy and renters’ groups don’t come close to matching that kind of political cash. Some prominent tenant organizations in California survive on at most several million dollars of revenue a year, according to tax documents.
“You’re talking about a fight between a U.S. battle cruiser versus a dinghy,” said Assemblymember Alex Lee, a Democrat from Milpitas.

In other ways, landlords have long been well represented in the state Capitol. In 2020 alone, a quarter of California’s legislators were landlords.

Renters, on the other hand, don’t have nearly the same presence. Currently at least five state lawmakers rent their homes. They make up a new renters caucus that includes Assemblymembers Haney, Lee, Isaac Bryan and Tasha Boerner, plus Sen. Aisha Wahab, all Democrats.

“Renters almost have zero influence in the state legislature, based on the amount of money that is being spent on … elected officials,” said Wahab, who represents Fremont. “We can’t compete.”

Lopsided influence in Capitol

Tenant advocates say lopsided political representation and the landlord and realtor lobbies’ financial power are leading to slow progress on tenant protections and weakened efforts to resolve homelessness.

For instance, the California Apartment Association recently told lawmakers Durazo’s proposal for stronger tenant protections and lower rent caps was unnecessary because it would amend the California Tenant Protection Act, which also was the result of much debate and compromise before it passed in 2019.

That tenant protection law requires landlords to have “just cause” before most evictions, and it sets a cap on rent increases for tenants at 5% annually plus inflation, up to 10%. Durazo’s bill would have strengthened it.

Debra Carlton, spokesperson for the California Apartment Association, said in a statement the Legislature has been increasing regulations on the rental industry, which restricts housing production and hurts mom-and-pop landlords.

California state workers say salaries lower than what they could make in the private sector were historically offset by...

“I don’t know that we’ve seen anything in the last decade or so that we would tally, if you will, as a complete win for the rental housing industry,” she said. “That just doesn’t happen in this Legislature.”

The apartment association also noted in its statement that the state already extended pandemic-era tenant protections multiple times in recent years, further hurting landlords.

“There is no justification for SB 567,” the association said of Durazo’s bill, “especially when hundreds of rental property owners have tenants who have failed to apply — or who failed to qualify — for rental assistance and who have gone three years without paying the rent.”

Renters’ reality checks

Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat, countered that a near recession and the pandemic do justify her bill, because many tenants were pushed to the brink of eviction and homelessness and so need more protections.

Her proposal passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Sen. Tom Umberg, its chairperson, added a condition that Durazo negotiate certain changes before the Senate voted for it.

Durazo said the changes to her proposal are not unusual.

“Having said that, of course there are enormous economic interests in opposition by the apartment association and the Realtors,” she said. “I’m not going to deny that reality.”

Umberg, a Santa Ana Democrat, said there wasn’t enough support in the Senate Judiciary Committee to pass Durazo’s bill with its lower rent cap, but there was support for creating better enforcement mechanisms for the original tenant protection law.

“While I didn’t support the original [Tenant Protection Act], I did think that once we had a law on the books that we had to have a mechanism to enforce that law,” he said.

Carlton defended the apartment association’s lobbying and spending.

“Just like all politically active groups and individuals, we have historically supported lawmakers who understand and support the rental industry,” she said. “Lawmakers understand that over-regulating the market is not going to encourage housing production and is not going to encourage small owners to stay in the business.”

In recent years large corporations and equity investors have bought growing shares of residential rental property throughout the country. The advocates’ study points out some of these large investors are represented on the apartment association’s board of directors.

Carlton added that the association has spent more time defending existing protections for landlords and the rental industry than on sponsoring new legislation.

Is tide turning?

Renter-friendly legislation has been gaining momentum.

After California adopted the Ellis Act in 1985, letting landlords evict tenants if the landlord doesn’t want to rent units anymore, lawmakers added amendments requiring property owners to pay relocation assistance to displaced tenants.

Lawmakers also tried several times to amend its eviction provisions. Most recently, Lee proposed adding a holding period, so landlords must own a property five years before they can invoke the law to evict tenants.

Lee said he withdrew his bill because it didn’t have enough votes to pass the Assembly.

Realtor groups still spent $1.1 million in 2022 trying to unseat him, Lee said. During his first reelection campaign, real estate groups sent mailers calling Lee a “Socialist Democrat who lives with his mom.”

In 1995, lawmakers passed the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act to halt the spread of rent control laws in cities throughout California. The law prevents communities from imposing rent controls on units built after 1995 and lets landlords reset rental rates on rent-controlled units once they become vacant.

Lawmakers tried but failed multiple times to change the law. Recently a measure by Wahab, a Democrat from Fremont, failed in the Senate 15-16, with nine abstentions.

Wahab noted lawmakers did not debate the bill.

“Not a single word was mentioned in opposition on the floor at all,” she said. “Does housing not merit a full, robust conversation?”

Though the bill failed, advocates saw a silver lining: It’s one of the few times lawmakers had to publicly record votes on a bill related to the Costa-Hawkins law.

“They had not been put in that uncomfortable position for a very long time,” Singh said. “Obviously we would have preferred that it passed, but it’s still a sign of progress.”

Political talking points

The debate may not be over. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which has tried before to get the Costa-Hawkins rent control exemptions repealed, is collecting signatures for another try to get it on the ballot.

State Sen. María Elena Durazo announces her tenant protection bill at a news conference
State Sen. María Elena Durazo announces her tenant protection bill at a news conference in March alongside renter advocates and residents in Los Angeles.
(Alejandra Reyes-Velarde / CalMatters)

In 2019, when lawmakers passed the California Tenant Protection Act, it was considered the largest expansion of tenant protections in recent decades.

Amy Schur, campaign director for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Institute, said voters now are prioritizing homelessness and housing rights groups have become better organized.

“Politicians are both concerned about the issue and concerned about their chances of reelection if they don’t address it,” Schur said.

San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu agreed, saying when he authored the 2019 tenant protection act, the housing crisis had not yet spread throughout the state. Chiu, a Democrat, represented San Francisco in the state Assembly from 2014 to 2021.

“I asked people, ‘What are we going to do about the housing crisis?’ and I got a lot of stares,” he said.

Now, California has more than 170,000 homeless residents, and housing prices and rents have soared. The pandemic also revealed greater needs for tenant protections, Chiu said.

Schur described increased efforts to organize tenants and building coalitions among housing justice groups in recent years. Last fall about 30 tenants rights organizations held their first Zoom retreat to discuss plans and strategy. Durazo’s proposal arose as one of their top priorities.

Before legislative committee hearings, tenant groups mounted a “Herculean” on-the-ground effort, Schur said, to inform communities about the bill and when their representatives would vote on it. At least 800 tenants rallied at the state Capitol to support the bill a day before the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on it.

CalMatters data journalist Jeremia Kimelman contributed to this report.