For more than three months, Gabriela Mercado has crisscrossed Richmond, California, a working-class and immigrant city that sits on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay. She hits the streets, talks to strangers, and knocks on doors in support of an old-school solution to towering rents across the region. She is part of a coalition of workers, tenants, and progressive politicians pushing an initiative on the November 8 ballot that would create the first new rent-control law in California in nearly 30 years. Mercado says her commitment to the cause comes from personal crisis.
In early 2015, the owner of Mercado’s apartment complex increased tenants’ rent by as much as $200. It was frightening, she says. Many of the resident families made only minimum wage and couldn’t absorb the new costs. After an organizing drive and a partial rent strike, the increase was rolled back, but not completely. Mercado, who has worked at Chuck E. Cheese’s and as an office janitor, says she was forced to find additional income. Doing so meant she spent less time with her daughter.
“I am involved because of what we went through,” she says. “Because it is unjust what they did to us.” She wants rent control so her family “won’t have to worry about the rent suddenly going up again.”
At a time when the real-estate market is aflame with speculation, Richmond residents like Mercado are revitalizing tenants’-rights activism in the Bay Area. And they are no anomaly. On November 8, the small cities of Alameda, Mountain View, Burlingame, and San Mateo will also vote on ballot initiatives that could establish rent and eviction controls of varying stringency. Landlords, led by the powerful California Apartment Association (CAA), are determined to snuff out these efforts, and they have spent serious money on a counter-campaign. The initiatives, after all, could be the beginning of something significant. The state’s once-vibrant tenants’ movement, dormant for decades, finally seems ready to return to California politics and put its power on display.
Richmond’s rent-control drive comes in the midst of one of the most crushing affordable-housing crises in Bay Area history—a disaster comprised of cratering post-recession home-ownership rates and rocket-fueled rent increases, suspicious arsons and mass evictions, breakneck gentrification, and sprawling tent encampments huddled under highway overpasses. It started in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, where the tech boom first exploded, and soon seeped into surrounding cities like Oakland, Alameda, and others.
The dry data too suggest major social disruption. Since 2010, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the average asking price of Bay Area rental units has increased by 66 percent, or approximately $1,000, to more than $2,500. San Francisco and San Jose are the two most expensive rental markets in the country, according to Zillow. Rent in Oakland, meanwhile, has spiked 71 percent in little more than three years.
People in Richmond also see the housing crisis coming their way, says Gayle McLaughlin, city councilwoman, former mayor, and Local Progress member. And they are determined to do something about it.
“Our residents are largely working-class, and our community cannot thrive and maintain itself with these kinds of rent increases,” says McLaughlin. “What I have seen happen and what will happen further is that people will be forced out—forced out of our city. They will be homeless, their kids will have to be taken out of schools, families will have to double up.”
McLaughlin’s political party, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), is well-known in the Bay for its bold policies and unlikely victories. It has waged high-profile electoral battles against Chevron, which owns a massive refinery in the city and is deeply involved in local politics. It has pushed for minimum-wage hikes and taxes on sugary drinks. It has vociferously resisted oil-by-rail shipments to regional ports. Now, as part of a broader community coalition, the RPA is fighting for rent control.
The RPA first pressed—and passed—a rent- and eviction-control ordinance in Richmond’s City Council in 2015, but it didn’t live long. The California Apartment Association torpedoed the law after rallying its troops, gathering signatures and using a petitioning procedure to block the ordinance’s implementation. RPA, and its partners, countered: They collected their own batch of signatures and got a rent-control initiative on this year’s ballot.
Because of state law, the initiative is constrained in scope. It will peg annual rent increases on units built before 1995 to the percentage increase of the Consumer Price Index, thus linking rent hikes to inflation. Any units built after that year will not be affected. The initiative also seeks to protect tenants from unjust eviction. If it passes, landlords will no longer be able to give tenants an eviction notice without cause. A rent board will be established to oversee enforcement.
Powerful people are opposed to the proposal, of course. Richmond Mayor Tom Butt has come out against it, calling it “poorly drafted.” The California Apartment Association meanwhile, is vigorously resisting the regional initiatives. According to Joshua Howard, a CAA senior vice president, the organization has spent at least $1 million on TV spots, radio ads, and the like to block rent control in the Bay Area.
“We want the voters to understand that we do face a crisis in Northern California and we do need to protect the diversity and character of our communities,” he says. “But these ballot measures do not address the underlying problem.” To truly fix the problem, he adds, more affordable housing must be built.
Gayle McLaughlin agrees with that last sentiment. New housing for “low-income and very low-income people” is desperately needed, she says. In the meantime, she argues that rent control will help clot the hemorrhaging of working-class residents. She also notes that rent regulation would be much more effective if California officials repealed the Costa-Hawkins Act of 1995, a landlord-backed state law that severely limits municipal authority over rent policy. The law bans rent control on buildings built after 1995, and also prohibits vacancy-control measures across the state, among other provisions.
In other words, if activists really want to make change it will have to take place at the state level. That, says Peter Dreier, an urban- and environmental-policy professor at Occidental College, will require a powerful tenants’-rights movement, like the one that thrived across the state in the 1970s.
“There’s a lot of anger and outrage about rising rents all over the state at the grassroots level, and there are a growing number of local groups trying to organize around it,” he says. “I would say the tenants’ movement is the sleeping giant of California politics.”
Thanks to relentless organizing in small cities like Richmond, the giant is starting to stir.