Sonoma County housing advocates support state bill to cap rent hikes, regulate evictions

Local housing advocates support proposed legislation in Sacramento that would enact tenant eviction protections they've long sought as part of a statewide anti-rent gouging bill.

The legislation, spearheaded by Assemblymember David Chiu, D–San Francisco, would prohibit landlords from implementing annual rent increases greater than 10%. Perhaps more importantly, the bill includes 'just cause' language that would prohibit discriminatory and retaliatory tenant evictions.

'The biggest thing that will be a win for tenants would be the just cause language,' said Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, which offers tenant rights services.

'As Californians, we have a lot of tenant rights already,' Hempel said. 'This would just strengthen those rights.'

The California Apartment Association dismissed the bill as statewide rent control that would hinder investment in home construction and only worsen the state's housing shortage.

Home renters have been hit hard by the state's housing crisis, which has been worsened by wildfires the past two years. Skyrocketing rents and an upswing in tenant evictions have displaced many Californians, lawmaker Chiu said in a statement explaining why he introduced the legislation.

Under the current state anti-price gouging statute implemented after the October 2017 North Bay wildfires, rent hikes are capped at 10% since the date of the natural disaster almost two years ago. Though the state's disaster-related, price-gouging protections have been extended several times, housing advocates expect eventually they will expire. In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom extended the rent protections until the end of the year.

The legislation, known as AB 1492, would prohibit a landlord from raising rents annually more than 7% plus the equivalent of the Consumer Price Index, which is roughly 2.5% in California. That's about 9.5% a year. The measure is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 9.

Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Sonoma County Legal Aid, called the proposed cap on rent hikes 'generous' to landlords statewide, since usually they only increase rents an average of 3% to 5% a year.

'You may find people who are opposed to this because it's not aggressive enough,' Rubinoff said. 'But on the other hand, this is a powerful step in the right direction for those of us who are advocating for tenants.'

The bill defines 'just cause' as: failure to pay rent; a breach of the lease; creating a public nuisance; or if the tenant commits a crime on the rental property, including common areas.

Supporters of the legislation said landlords still could evict tenants for reasons that are not the fault of a tenant, including instances when the property owner or family members of the property owner intend to occupy a house or apartment, or in cases when the landlord vacates a property to do significant remodeling.

Rubinoff said 'just cause' protections and rent caps go 'hand-in-hand.' She said that without the protections, a landlord could simply evict a tenant for no reason to avoid price-gouging restrictions. On the other hand, without yearly limits on rent increases a landlord bound by 'just cause' restrictions simply could raise rents high enough to force out a tenant.

Mike Nemeth, a spokesman for the California Apartment Association, said the bill lacks any guarantee lawmakers in coming years would not impose a lower cap on rent increases than the one now proposed.

'We continue to ask Assemblyman Chiu to set his rent cap in stone and prohibit future rent control laws,' Nemeth said in an email. 'Such moves would bring some stability to the marketplace and mitigate the negative impacts of AB 1482 on the current and future housing supply.'

Nemeth said the state apartment association supports existing price-gouging protections that take effect after the governor declares a state of emergency, including the one instituted after the 2017 wildfires.

'But let's not kid ourselves. Whenever rents are regulated by government, it's rent control,' Nemeth said. 'Calling AB 1482 an anti-price gouging measure is a rebranding tactic to make a failed policy like rent control more politically palatable.'

Meanwhile, Rubinoff said many cities or towns that have implemented rent control measures have some sort of 'just cause' rules. Creating statewide protections against unfair tenant evictions, 'would be phenomenal,' she said.

'When it's city by city that creates a lot of confusion,' Rubinoff said. 'These laws should be universal because the need for them is universal.'

Editor's note: An earlier version of the story misstated that the temporary anti-price gouging rules limited rent increases to 10% annually.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213.

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