History of the Rent Control Debate in California
The earliest period of rent control in California and across the U.S. was during World War II. With levels of vacancy declining from highs of the Great Depression, and new construction essentially coming to a halt due to the diversion of resources for the war effort, the federal government implemented emergency price controls in 1942. This covered wage and price controls for consumer goods, and also included rent control. The program was phased out beginning in 1951, and while some states, like New York and New Jersey, implemented their own rent control laws, California did not.
It wasn’t then until the 1970s that California witnessed a resurgence in tenant activism and calls for rent control—now at the city scale. Today, of the 14 cities in California with some form of rent control, 12 enacted their laws during this period, including Alameda, Berkeley, Beverly Hills, East Palo Alto, Hayward, Los Angeles, Los Gatos, Oakland, Palm Springs, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Monica and West Hollywood. Many more fought for rent control and lost, in an increasingly contentious battle between organized landlords and tenants on the issue. This includes Santa Cruz, where tenant movements tried three times in the late 1970s and early ’80s to get rent control ballot measures passed, but were unsuccessful each time.
Successful campaigns tended to happen in cities with strong coalitions between organized tenants and their allies, including labor unions, faith-based organizations, neighborhood alliances, and student organizations (the voting age dropped to 18 in 1972). Many of these local coalitions had their beginnings in the social movements of the 1960s. Ironically, their efforts were catalyzed in 1971, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, by their erstwhile adversary, President Richard Nixon. Nixon passed temporary national wage and price controls, including rent controls —the first since WWII. The goal now was to contend with hyper-inflation, which was driving up home prices, rents, and property taxes, as well as the cost of goods and services. These controls were phased out seventeen months later, in January 1973. But housing activists sought to extend them. Organizers in Berkeley took the lead on this, gathering signatures to place an initiative to continue rent stabilization on the June 6, L972 ba1lot. When this won, in 1973, Berkeley became the first rent-controlled city in the state since WWII.
Aside from Nixon, another of the drivers of these early movements was the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. Prop 13 is a state-wide ballot initiative that amended the California constitution to reduce property taxes for homeowners and corporations and limit future increases by requiring a 2/3 majority for any new tax to be passed. Its sponsors, Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, as well as members of their broader “tax revolt” movement, assured renters during the campaign that they would also benefit, since the lowered cost of operating rental property would be passed on to them in the form of lower rents. In some cases documented in Los Angeles, explicit promises were made in exchange for renters’ votes for Prop 13.  Yet, immediately after its passage, þroperty owners chose to take advantage of increasing demand for housing amidst restricted supply, and began raising rents at an even greater rate than before.
In response, many cities passed temporary rent control measures to require that landlords’ tax savings be shared with tenants. These were often then followed by permanent rent control ordinances. This includes passage by voter initiatives or ballot measures in San Francisco (1979), Santa Monica (1979), East Palo Alto (1986, 2010), and Berkeley (1980). It also includes passage by city council ordinance, including in Beverly Hills (1978), Los Angeles (1978), Hayward (1979), San Jose (1979), and West Hollywood (1985) passed both through ballot measures and City.
Opposition Gets Organized
Opposition to rent regulation has an equally long history in California, and to some extent nationally. Soon after its passage, legal challenges to the 1973 Berkeley ordinance were launched by statewide landlord organizations, who sought to overturn local laws like this one, lest they gain traction and spread more broadly. Their efforts succeeded in delaying implementation of Berkeley’s law, but also lead to a consequential ruling. In Birkenfield vs. City of Berkeley, the California Supreme Court held that Berkeley’s measure was unconstitutional due to its interference with landlords’ ability to make a fair return on their investment. In so ruling, however, they also enshrined the principle that local rent controls could be constitutional if they met certain criteria, including fair returns.
Realizing they could win a local battle but lose the larger regulatory war, organized landlords came up with a new goal: to declare rent control a matter of exclusive state concern and to forbid California’s local governments from passing rent control laws of any kind. And if this didn’t work, they aimed to prevent cities from having jurisdiction over the provisions of these laws, such as vacancy control and eviction protections. Landlords began organizing statewide, under the auspices of the California Apartment Association [CAA] and the California Realtors Association [CRA], representing landlords and real estate interests, together with local Chambers of Commerce, business coalitions, trade unions, individual landlords, and elected officials.
One of their early victories was the “The Ellis Act,” a state law passed in 1985 that allows landlords who are “going out of the rental business” to evict tenants —often en masse—and take their buildings off the rent control rolls. In principal, this law can be used by building owners who wish to cease being landlords. In practice, it is commonly been used to “flip” rent controlled buildings, selling them to new owners at higher costs once long-term tenants are gone. Landlords have also been found to use the Ellis Act to harass tenants, i.e.: threatening them with eviction unless they leave, then decontrolling their units.
Meanwhile, opponents took aim at vacancy control. A bill they authored passed both the Assembly and the State Senate in 1976, but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown, then in his more liberal “Governor Moonbeam” period. State legislation that would require vacancy decontrol was introduced at nearly every legislative session for the next twenty years, but was held in committee by state senator and majority leader David Roberti, a strong rent control supporter.  Roberti stepped down in 1993. The legislation, called Costa Hawkins, would finally pass in 1994.
Costa Hawkins represented opponents’ most sweeping victory, and “effectively shut down the rent control movement statewide.”  The law prevents rent control from being applied to single family homes or units constructed after 1995. It also allows for “vacancy decontrol,” through which owners can return units to “market rates” once a rent-controlled tenant leaves. Since its passage, the law has been very effective in both limiting the effectiveness of rent control and de-controlling hundreds of thousands of units statewide.
Costa Hawkins was also a key part of a 2009 court decision, Palmer v Sixth Street Properties, which struck down a Los Angeles requirement that developers include affordable rental units in new apartment buildings as part of local inclusionary zoning laws. State courts sided with plaintiffs, saying that these rules violated Costa Hawkins by mandating lower rents for post-1995 units. This had the further effect of weakening inclusionary zoning laws state-wide. A bill signed by Governor Jerry Brown in September 2017, however, reversed this decision, restoring the ability of California cities and counties to compel developers to include affordable units in new rental projects. In 2008, an effort to overturn all forms of rent control in the state was rejected by voters.
The Growing Rent Control Movement
With the rapid escalation of the housing crisis in recent years, the political tide has begun to turn for rent control in California. As Alisa Belinkoff Katz explains, “the current moment features a “perfect storm” of affordable housing shortfalls, rising rents, and declining incomes that began in the early 1990s and has gained momentum to this day.” Meanwhile, unlike the earlier periods of rent regulations in the 1940s and 1970s, in which largely middle-class renters were affected, housing today is unaffordable for almost half of middle-income renters and nearly all those who are poor, which in turn has exacerbated the epidemic of homelessness on our streets. With this new and much broader base of renters affected, tenant organizing has surged. Local and statewide coalitions, Tenants Together and Renters United Network, have formed in an effort to create a network of tenant organizations and build support for tenant protections both locally and statewide. Elected officials have become more sympathetic to the issue.
There were early signs of this shift in November 2016, when new ordinances were passed in Richmond and Mountain View—the first in over 30 years—while Oakland and Berkeley also voted to strengthen their existing measures. The momentum continues to build, with over a dozen new local rent control measures across California being proposed or on ballots for November 2018. This includes our own Measure M in the City of Santa Cruz, put on the ballot by newly formed Mobilization for Housing Justice and Students Uniting Renters. as well as measures put on the ballot by tenant movements in Glendale, Inglewood, Long Beach, Mountain View (to defend rent control passed in 2016), Pasadena, National City, Pomona, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Ana, Santa Rosa, and Unincorporated L A County.
One of the most significant victories for pro-rent control movements was actually getting Proposition 10, the effort to overthrow Costa Hawkins, on the November ballot, after numerous efforts in recent years failed. Rent control is “strongest” and most effective when paired with just cause evictions policies. Yet Costa Hawkins, primarily through the vacancy decontrol provision, limits the effectiveness of both policies. As was intended, throughout its 20-year history Costa Hawkins has helped erode the power and reach of rent control wherever it exists. The fact that there are so many rent control measures on the ballot statewide, despite Costa Hawkins, is another victory for the pro- movement.
Yet it is far from sure these measures will pass. A recent poll out of UC Berkeley finds 60 percent of likely voters in California support rent control in some form. Nonetheless, the opposition is organized and extremely well-funded. Through lobbying bodies such as the California Apartment Association, as well as the National Apartment Association, and international real estate investors, landlords seek to block tenant protections statewide, as well as any attempts to amend or overturn pro-owner legislation like Costa Hawkins, spending billions to fight local and statewide measures.
Whatever happens, the upcoming elections will be a watershed moment for rent control across the state. On the Nov 2018 ballot measures page, we briefly outline Santa Cruz and California-wide measures to introduce tenant protections now, and provide links for more information.
What are: rent control, rent review boards, and just cause eviction protection?
What support services exist for tenants?
Who would be covered?
Why regulate rent?
Econ 101 arguments and responses to them
The growing rent control movement
City of Santa Cruz Measure M
California Proposition 10
1. On failure of rent control to pass in Santa Cruz, see discussion in William Domhoff and Richard Gendron, The Leftmost City; Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz. Westview Press, 2009. See author discussion and related media. On broader efforts to pass rent regulations statewide, see W. Dennis Keating, Rent Control in California. Responding to the Crisis (Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley 1983) As Keating notes, between 1977 and 1983, the “voters of 22 cities [rejected] 27 proposed rent control initiatives.” Among those cities that then avoided rent control: Pasadena (1977), Santa Barbara (1978), Santa Cruz (1979), Long Beach (1980), San Diego (1980).
2. See fascinating history of how this played out in neighborhoods in Los Angeles, like West Hollywood and Santa Monica, in: Alisa Belinkoff Katz, “People are Simply Unable to Pay the Rent: What History Tells Us about Rent Control in Los Angeles.” UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy, October 2018.
3. Stephen Barton, “The Success and Failure of Strong Rent Control in the City of Berkeley, 1978 to 1995” in W. Dennis Keating, Michael B. Teitz, and Andrejs Skaburskis. Rent Control: Regulation and the Rental Housing Market (New Brunswick: Center for Urban Policy Research, 1998)
4. See Belinkoff Katz, 2018 ibid, 9.
5. Manuel Pastor, Vanessa Carter, Maya Abood, “Rent Matters: What are the Impacts of Rent Stabilization Measures?” Los Angeles: University of Southern California Dornslife Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. October 2018, 9.
6. Barton, 1998, ibid, 92.
7. Barton, 1998, ibid.
8.Belinkoff Katz, 2018 ibid, 3
9. Belinkoff Katz, 2018 ibid, 12
10. For a full list of cities with rent control, partial control, and mobile home rent control in California, see: https://www.caltenantlaw.com/RCcities.htm