SACRAMENTO — An effort to expand rent control in California died Thursday in a legislative committee after four hours of testimony as hundreds of landlords and renters raucously chanted from the hallway outside.
The bill would have repealed a 1995 law known as the Costa Hawkins Act that prohibits cities from adopting rent control on properties built after that year and enacts other restrictions. Supporters including tenant groups argued more rent control would help renters struggling with ever-rising costs. But opponents, including landlords, argued it would stifle badly needed construction.
That's the view common among economists and the four committee members who opposed the bill. Each expressed skepticism that more rent control was the way to solve California's housing woes.
"I, too, believe the root cause of this crisis is a failure to build enough affordable housing to keep up with our growing population," Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood of Healdsburg said.
An estimated 1.5 million Californians lack access to affordable housing, and about a third of renters pay more than half of their income for housing. Assemblyman Richard Bloom, a Santa Monica Democrat and the bill's sponsor, said those renters need a break before they're pushed out of their homes altogether.
"Millions of Californians are barely getting by each month," he said, while noting his bill was "not a silver bullet" to end the housing crisis but a critical tool. It would not have mandated cities to adopt rent control policies, but it would have removed a key barrier that prevents rent control on new properties.
Fifteen California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have some form of rent control, but it applies to just a fraction of properties. From 2005 to 2014, median rent increased 25 percent, according to the California Housing Partnership.
Outside the hearing room, hundreds of members of the public shouted chants in favor of their side as they waited for their turn to file into the committee room and share their views.
Amanda Carles of Cotati, California, was one of them. The 71-year-old retired home care worker rents a duplex that she shares with her daughter who has Down syndrome. She used to pay $1,200 a month for it, but the rent went up to $1,400 recently under new ownership. She said the new owners plan to steadily raise it until it reaches the market rate of $1,900, she said, forcing her to consider going back to work to afford the payments.
"I can't afford to move either," she said.
But landlords like Pete Shen said expanding rent control isn't the option.
Shen, from Salinas, California, wore a yellow T-shirt handed out by the California Apartment Association in protest of the repeal effort. He manages about 50 single-family homes and acknowledged the rent has gone up in recent years. A home that rented for $1,700 three years ago goes for about $2,100 a month now, he said.
Those increases are necessary to keep up with rising maintenance costs, he said. He leases his properties on a month-to-month basis, and if a tenant can't afford the increase he tries to find them a different spot.
Bloom and Assemblyman David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat, said they hope the bill's failure won't end the discussion on rent control going forward. The Legislature passed more than a dozen bills last year aimed at tackling California's high housing costs and lack of affordability, but they could take years to make a difference.