As all eyes were turned toward the big-ticket races in the House and Senate on Tuesday night—as Georgia, Florida, and Texas tiptoed toward history and then hit retreat—activists in cities around the country had their sights set on their own hard-fought prize: a suite of housing initiatives that had the ability to bring relief to millions of renters. Indeed, the mid-term elections were a critical test for this country’s growing tenants’-rights movement, which has emerged as a vibrant political force in recent years as renters and their allies work to combat exorbitant housing costs, rampant gentrification and widespread homelessness.
From California to New York to Texas to Illinois, tenant activists had worked feverishly over the last few months to build support for a slew of new renters’ protections and affordable-housing policies. On election night they had ample reason to celebrate. In Austin, Texas, voters approved an enormous $250 million bond that will fund an ambitious program of public land acquisition and affordable housing development in the city. In Chicago, residents passed three separate resolutions that effectively call on the state government to rescind Illinois’s long-standing ban on rent control. In San Francisco, housing advocates pushed through Proposition C, a measure that will raise taxes on wealthy businesses and provide roughly $300 million each year to provide services and housing to the city’s homeless population. And in New York, Democrats took control of the State Senate for the first time in a decade, immediately lifting the prospects of New York’s Upstate/Downstate Housing Alliance, a tenants’ coalition that aims to expand and strengthen New York’s rent-stabilization laws during the coming legislative term.
These and other victories are all significant, but they arrived alongside a string of high-profile losses, particularly in California, where powerful real-estate interests spent tens of millions of dollars to block the expansion of rent control in the state.
In Santa Cruz, a ballot initiative that would have established modest rent control protections in the city failed by a considerable margin after state and national real-estate groups, including the National Association of Realtors, raised more than $750,000 to block it. Tenants in National City, California suffered a similar loss when a local pro-rent-control initiative went down at the polls on Tuesday. The most noteworthy defeat for the housing justice movement, though, was the failure of Proposition 10, a marquee statewide ballot initiative that would have repealed California’s Costa-Hawkins Act, which severely restricts the ability of local governments in the state to establish expansive rent control protections. Opponents of Proposition 10, including the private equity firm Blackstone and the Chicago-based real-estate investment trust Equity Residential, raised more than $70 million to sink the measure.
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As tenants across the country continue to organize to stem rising rents and ubiquitous evictions, these losses underscored the principal foe that stands in their way: the real-estate industry.
“Losing obviously sucks,” says Christina Livingston, the executive director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and one of the principal backers of the Proposition 10 campaign. “But real-estate companies have now exposed themselves as the folks who will put up millions of dollars to make sure tenants don’t get protections. It is incumbent upon us as organizers to make sure everyday people know that. We need to work to make corporate money, landlord money, toxic.”
Tackling the political power of the real-estate industry, in other words, is a prerequisite if the housing-justice movement is to expand rent control, promote new public-housing development, and fulfill its other ambitions in the United States today.
Stacey Falls is a high-school chemistry teacher in Santa Cruz, California, and she has watched with horror as her breezy ocean-side city becomes an increasingly hostile place for working people.
She says she knows a janitor at the local university who can’t afford a home in town and sleeps on a friend’s floor during the workweek. She says she knows a woman who lost custody of her child because her rent was raised $800 and she was forced to move into her van. Falls herself has seen a $200 rent increase each year for the last four years. It has climbed, she says, by 37 percent.
“People say to me all the time, ‘If you can’t afford to live here you should move.’ And yeah, I get it, living here is not a God-given right,” Falls says. “But you, Mr. Landlord, you need nurses and teachers and people to pick up the garbage and people to work in your restaurants. You actually need low- and middle-income workers. Who else is going to teach your kids chemistry? Not you. Moving out of town is not a solution.”
After the 2016 elections, Falls and other tenants and allies formed a local group called the Movement for Housing Justice to fix the problem. They wanted to solve the city’s affordability crisis by establishing a slew of new tenant protections, including just-cause-eviction protections and rent control, in Santa Cruz. Earlier this year, they embarked on an intensive effort to gather signatures and put these protections on the ballot during November’s local election.
“It almost killed me,” says Falls of collecting the necessary signatures. “I would go to work from 7:30 in the morning until 5 at night, and then go canvass from 5 until 8, and that is all I did for the entire month of April.” In the end, Falls and her fellow tenant activists convinced roughly 11,000 people to sign on to their initiative—more than enough to get on the ballot. But the struggle wasn’t over. The Yes on M campaign, as the pro-rent-control effort was called, soon ran up against a much more imposing obstacle—the real-estate industry.
In the summer and fall of 2018, as Election Day drew near, a forceful opposition campaign funded by state and national real-estate groups swamped Santa Cruz’s homegrown effort to pass new tenant protections. As of early October, opponents of the ballot initiative had raised at least $500,000 to block the effort, with roughly $200,000 coming from the powerful Chicago-based National Association of Realtors. Falls’s scrappy pro-rent-control group, on the other hand, had raised around $40,000.
The funding discrepancy made a powerful difference. While her group tried to earn public support with an intensive door-knocking drive, Falls says that Santa Cruz residents were inundated with a deluge of anti-rent-control mailers that painted measure M as a bureaucratic power grab that would do nothing to address its homelessness problem. “Santa Cruz Can’t Afford Measure M,” read one mailer. “Please vote NO on Measure M.” Falls received nearly a dozen such mailers at her own home in the last couple months alone. Industry groups and their local allies also ran an aggressive online-advertisement effort and papered the town with signs and banners that urged people to vote “No on M.”
In the end, measure M was defeated, with roughly 65 percent of Santa Cruz residents voting no.
“The money allowed them to spew disinformation,” says Falls, of Measure M’s real-estate industry opponents. “I feel beleaguered. I feel like the situation for renters is pretty desperate. I feel distressed that the majority of voters don’t care about the plight of renters.”
The election in Santa Cruz is a microcosm of what happened statewide in the fight over Proposition 10. In that struggle, workers, tenants, and health-care activists with organizations like ACCE and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation teamed up to rescind the Costa-Hawkins Act, a California law that prohibits rent control in buildings built after February 1995, among other provisions. Proposition 10, if passed, would have empowered local California cities and counties to establish robust new rent-control laws in their communities.
The supporters of Proposition 10 pieced together a coalition that included unions and environmental organizations as well as the ACLU of California and raised more than $25 million for the campaign. They ran television, radio, and online ads and organized an expansive door-knocking drive in major cities around the state.
Ultimately, though, they were badly outspent. Wall Street firms and real-estate giants like Blackstone, Essex Property Trust and Equity Residential, in alliance with the California Apartment Association, bundled more than $74 million to defeat the measure. Under the auspices of the “No on Prop 10” campaign and related efforts, the landlords and developers blanketed California’s airwaves with ads in English and Spanish that confusingly claimed the proposition would worsen California’s housing crisis by driving up rents and that it would hurt seniors, veterans, and many others. Proposition 10 failed by a roughly 30 point margin.
For supporters of Prop 10, the loss reinforced the need to take on an industry that too often flies under the radar. Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College and a long-time tenants’-rights advocate, says the real-estate industry’s relative anonymity helps hide its enormous influence.
“The real-estate industry is not dominated by a handful of big corporations. There are tens of thousands of developers, and the really big ones…aren’t well known to the general public, because they don’t make consumer products or relate directly to most Americans. And they don’t advertise,” he says. Real-estate interests, nevertheless, are “really active politically, at all levels of government, but they are not viewed as ‘big business,’ even though, when you add up all their campaign contributions and political clout, they are a real heavyweight player.” Indeed, in 2016 alone, landlords, developers, and other real-estate concerns spent roughly $250 million to influence American elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (The oil-and-gas industry, by comparison, dished out around $100 million that year in election spending.) In 2018, meanwhile, real-estate interests spent more than $85 million lobbying at the federal level.
This is the power that tenants are up against as they try to make their communities more humane and affordable in the face of an ever-growing housing crisis.
“I think there is a real need to unmask the role of the real-estate industry,” says Francisco Dueñas, the housing-justice-campaign director at ACCE, who says that Prop 10 supporters held regular protests outside the offices of landlords during the campaign. “We are going to continue that work and focus peoples’ attention on the effects of corporate landlords and their involvement in politics and their impact on the lives of tenants.”
Indeed, the afternoon after Prop 10 lost at the polls, roughly 100 tenants and housing activists affiliated with ACCE, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Los Angeles Tenants Union occupied the lobby of Blackstone’s office in Santa Monica, California, to protest the company’s involvement in Prop 10’s defeat. The police ultimately drove them out of the building.
Across the country, in New York City, housing-justice activists also staged a protest against Blackstone in support of their California allies. Last Wednesday afternoon, scores of tenants marched into the lobby of Blackstone’s Manhattan offices, chanting, “Steve, Steve, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side.” It was a reference to Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, who is a staunch supporter of Donald Trump.
Cea Weaver, the policy and research director at New York Communities for Change, was one of the organizers of the Manhattan protest. She says that her organization and its allies in a statewide housing-justice coalition called the Upstate/Downstate Housing Alliance are taking notes from Prop 10’s failure as they prepare to wage a high-profile political fight of their own next year. In 2019, the New York tenants movement hopes to pressure the new, Democrat-dominated legislature in Albany to strengthen and expand New York City’s rent-stabilization regulations to the entire state. It will likely be a bruising brawl, and housing-justice organizers expect to face severe push back from politically connected real-estate interests.
“The lesson for me from Prop 10’s failure is that real-estate industry will pull out all the stops,” says Weaver. “The need for the landlord industry to be exposed for what they are doing is critical.”