Sacramento’s Rent Control Fight Is About Power, Not Process

December 09, 2019 21:49

By C.R. Mills

Sacramentans may or may not be allowed to vote on a powerful local rent control measure in 2020, depending on a variety of uncertain legal and political outcomes. Two things remain certain at this point, however: City politicians funded by landlords are doing everything in their power to keep rent control off the ballot, and they’re being dishonest about why they’re doing it.

Some background: Last year, a coalition of community organizations and unions decided to put a rent control measure on the citywide ballot after attempts to have the City Council pass one failed. The effort came in the face of dramatically increasing rents and evictions, trends the City’s leadership appeared comfortable not acting on.

Rent control advocates succeeded in their campaign, gathering signatures from tens of thousands of Sacramentans who agreed that voters should decide how to best protect tenants in the city. 

The pro-rent control coalition that worked to qualify the ballot measure split up, however, when Mayor Darrell Steinberg and City Council members decided to pass a much weaker version of rent control in exchange for killing the ballot measure. The weaker version capped rent increases at 10 percent -- double what the ballot measure would have capped them at. In addition, the City Council’s version replaces a democratically elected Rent Board to mediate disputes between tenants and landlords with a Council-appointed Board and reduces protections for tenants evicted without cause.

When the City Council passed the weaker version of rent control, many of the groups involved with the ballot measure said they’d give up on their fight as a result. However, some groups -- including the Alliance of California for Community Empowerment -- didn’t want to give up and continue to push for the stronger version of rent control to appear on a future Sacramento ballot.

Why wouldn’t Sacramento’s elite want voters to decide on how to best approach rent control? If voters rejected the ballot measure, the version of rent control already passed remains in place -- if voters approve the ballot measure, the will of the people will be heard, and tenants would enjoy stronger protections as a result. 

In addition, it’s clear the problem of rising rents is nowhere near being solved. Stories of college students being forced to drop out due to rising rents, area seniors being evicted from mobile home parks as rents rise, and full local homeless shelters dominate the headlines. Why rob the electorate of a chance to fully address an obviously dire problem impacting the lives of residents? 

Reading through a recent Sacramento Bee editorial and follow-up article, it’s clear the Mayor and City Council want the city to believe the entire issue is about process

Those trying to keep rent control off the ballot argue a member of the original ballot measure coalition agreed to pull it after the City Council passed their weakened version. Then, that person changed their mind. 

The level of angry vindictiveness over a simple change of heart, evidenced by Councilmember Steve Hansen collaborating with the Bee and sharing personal texts with the paper to support his case, is so out of proportion with the alleged crime that it’s clear another motive must be at work.

That motive is power, not process. 

To be clear: Hansen, the Bee, Steinberg, and other decision-makers aren’t angry about someone changing their mind. They’re furious about not being allowed to make closed-door decisions on a crucial issue without any oversight. They don’t want voters to decide how to best tackle rent control -- they want to decide, and the idea that they could be prevented from this has sparked their outrage.

The ballot measure offered a clear path for organizing and expressing working-class pain felt due to a housing market that values landlords and speculators over the actual residents of the City. The weaker rent control measure that city leaders passed provided an opportunity to siphon off residents’ anger. By claiming at least something had been done, Hansen and Steinberg could successfully silence a citywide debate over what protections tenants actually deserve. 

As an added bonus, abandoning the ballot measure allowed City leaders to escape taking a side during a public rent control campaign: Would they support tenants or the landlords that donate heavily to their campaign? Standing with the California Apartment Association instead of the city’s renters wouldn’t look good, especially when they’re being paid to do so.

Sacramento’s city leaders now face a choice similar to the choice the Democratic Party had after losing the 2016 presidential election: Do they look in the mirror and honestly ask themselves why so much working-class anger exists, and try to determine how best to address it? 

Or do they spend months and perhaps years making arguments about process (e.g. the Russians bought the election) that fail to address the root cause of the crisis: an unchecked rental housing market that is destroying people’s lives.

As the rent control debate moves forward, don’t let city leaders’ “process” arguments fool you. This is about power -- who has it, and how it’s wielded -- not process. And the voices of the people of this City are being silenced as a result, while working-class residents continue to be forced out on the street because they can’t afford the rent.