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.