Hernandez & Romero Estrada: Rent Stabilization is Human Stabilization

At the February 6, 2018 city council meeting, community member Abel Ruiz shared a heartfelt public comment about his family’s experience being priced out of Santa Ana due to increasing rents. He put the conversation in the right context when he said, “we’re talking about rent stabilization, but it’s actually human stabilization.” Abel spoke about the hard decision his family had to make to move out of Santa Ana when their rent was suddenly raised over $200 a month, and the spiraling consequences that destabilized his family – the distress of being separated, his parents having to relocate and acclimate to a new environment in Oklahoma, leaving social and support networks behind, the financial insecurity of moving and having to look for employment.

Abel’s story is emblematic of the imminent threat of destabilization that immigrant Latino families, and other low-income communities of color, are facing in communities throughout California. While Santa Ana’s residents struggle with skyrocketing homes and rental prices, local elected officials continually turn a blind eye to the needs of their constituents. While the cost of housing in Orange County goes through the roof, wages are stagnant or even declining for the working class. And of all monthly expenses, rent tends to be the largest expense for the low-income and working class.

Tenants are an important part of our community that deserve policies that will protect them. Tenants make up the majority of Santa Ana residents; about 56% of residents rent in the city (American Community Survey, 2016). Moreover, Santa Ana is one of 22 big U.S. cities that became renter-majority in the past decade, according to a new report from online rental-search firm RentCafe. While the majority of Santa Ana residents are tenants, many of them struggle to pay their rent. About 2 of every 3 of Santa Ana’s tenants are rent-burdened, which means that they pay more than 1/3 of their income to housing. In many neighborhoods, such as the Lacy neighborhood, which is situated adjacent to the Downtown Business District, the percent of rent-burdened residents is even higher, which means they have less money for other expenses like health insurance, food, and other basic needs.

Housing costs continue to rise faster than wages in Orange County. In order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at market value in Orange County, people have to make an hourly wage of $30.92. Incomes, meanwhile, aren’t keeping up. As a result, it takes over two full-time minimum-wage incomes to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

The gap between wages and housing costs forces people to choose between essential needs. Imagine having to choose between completing your monthly rent, paying for your health and medical needs, or food and childcare. City officials cannot remain inactive to the increasing cost of housing and housing instability many tenants face.

As of now, apartment owners can raise rents as much and as often as they see fit so as long as they provide the proper notice of change in terms. They can also evict tenants without explanation as long as they provide “proper” notice, which is a 30-day written notice.

Tenant protection policies, such as rent stabilization (also referred to as rent control), are a crucial step in solving our housing crisis, which continues to leave more families in a cycle of poverty or at risk of ending up on the street. A rent stabilization policy in California is a systematic response to the erratic increase in housing costs that cannot be resolved nor negotiated between landlords and tenants. A common misconception is that rent control freezes rents and places unfair restrictions on landlords, placing the burden of the cost on them. In actuality, rent stabilization policies stabilize the cost of rent over time by setting a cap on how much a tenant’s rent can be raised each year. It allows for incremental rent increases that are more just and fair to residents, while ensuring landlords a fair rate of return on their investment. Rent stabilization would apply to buildings built before 1995, and exclude certain rental units, such as those in condominiums and single-family homes. Under such a policy, landlords will still be able to increase rents to account for the costs of upkeep and the rate of inflation, but they’re prevented from drastically increasing rents at a whim or simply because they can profit more from emerging market demands.

Yet, rent stabilization policies are frequently rejected outright. Landlords are, understandably, not eager to give up the opportunity to increase their profit margins if new tenants are willing to move in and pay more than long time tenants, nor are residents in a place to negotiate lower rents when they know others are willing to pay much more. That is why elected officials must take responsibility to stabilize rents in an effort to stabilize communities and prevent long-time working class residents from being priced out of the city or onto the streets. Nevertheless, –they tend to cave in the face of opposition, lobbying and misinformation by property owners landlords, and developers. Case in point: during the February 6th City Council work study session, the City cited anecdotal evidence and unfounded claims about rent control policy failures. A few offered platitudes about how building new housing would solve Santa Ana’s housing unaffordability crisis, and argued – wrongly – that rent control would disincentive the construction of affordable housing and drive up the cost of rents.

Evidence is clear that building more market-rate housing as THE solution will not and cannot solve an urgent and increasing housing crisis. While new construction is necessary and part of the overall solution, it is a long-term one that will not solve immediate needs fast enough. Building affordable housing 5, 10, or 15 years from now will not alleviate the rent burden that is leaving more families homeless and double and tripling up in a single unit today, nor will we build enough housing for people who are spending most of their income on rent. Therefore, there is also a clear need for tenant protections like rent stabilization and just-cause eviction laws. Renter protections must be part of the short-term solutions of the larger overall strategy to address housing needs. The reluctance of the Santa Ana City Council to stand up for working, Latino immigrant families as they struggle to remain housed and in Santa Ana is a clear example of ineffective leadership and representation at its worst.

The City of Santa Ana must heed to one of the core principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [themselves] and of [their] family, including food, clothing & housing.”

Santa Ana can be a leader in Orange County for higher standards of renter protections. It’s clear that renters are vital to the social fabric of Santa Ana. Without the city’s social, economic, and racial diversity, Santa Ana wouldn’t be the city we know and love. Santa Ana must work towards creating a more equitable, just and fair environment that allows people to stay in their homes without the fear or worry of being pushed out so that all of its residents can thrive.

OCCORD’s mission is to bring workers, families and community partners together to organize and advocate for good jobs, strong neighborhoods and an inclusive democracy in Orange County.

For more info and to support the work of improving the lives of community members in Orange County, please visit our website at www.occord.org

Joese Hernandez, Community Organizer, OCCORD and Karen Romero Estrada, Research & Policy Analyst for OOCORD.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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