People who struggle to make rent and stay in their homes in Santa Ana are now on track to get stronger protections against rent increases and evictions, a watershed moment for a years-long housing debate in the densely-populated city of many tenants. 

That was the will of a narrow City Council majority in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, with some staunchly opposed council members arguing the rent control and eviction protection ordinances blindsided critics and were rushed in an opaque process. 

The initial vote came after a long night of public testimony which started Tuesday evening, where landlords and anti-rent control speakers, waiting to make public comments, got first dibs on seats inside the council chambers that night, filling it to COVID-19 capacity restrictions. 

Meanwhile, what were mostly rent control advocates — Santa Ana renters and community organizers — had to wait outdoors to speak until seating opened up later in the night.

Council members Thai Viet Phan, Jessie Lopez, Johnathan Ryan Hernandez and Mayor Vicente Sarmiento voted in favor of the policies in a first reading, which includes capping rent increases for certain buildings and mobile homes at 3% annually, or 80% of the change in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less.

Council members Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza and Nelida Mendoza all voted against the rent control ordinance, which is set to go beyond the current statewide rent control law capping rent increases at 10% annually.

Those three “No” votes meant the policies lacked the needed votes on the dais to take effect immediately as urgency ordinances, which would have beaten the Sept. 30 expiration of statewide eviction protections for renters.

The policies will instead have to come back for a second reading at a future council meeting and would take effect, if approved, 30 days after that final vote. The council’s next meeting is set for Oct. 5.

On July 10, 2021, a group of ‘Sullivan en Accion’ activists and residents from the Country Club Mobile Home Park, within the Sullivan Community marched to the property manger’s office to protest and demand fair housing.

Not all landlords will be affected, as the ordinance only applies to rental properties and mobile home parks built in 1995 or earlier. Landlords can still petition to exempt themselves from the ordinance.

The council majority’s vote includes a just-cause eviction ordinance, which would aim to restrict “retaliatory” evictions and tamp down landlord harassment of renters.

It would also require landlords to inform tenants of their legal rights when serving an eviction notice.

And, per the vote, up to $300,000 from the Revive Santa Ana Plan — a spending plan funded by federal American Rescue Plan Act money — will be allocated to the creation of an eviction legal defense fund for residents.

Council members also made last-minute modifications to the proposed policies, which included adding the legal definition of rent to the ordinance and a citation-first warning system to educate landlords who violate the new policies before being taken to court.

“More than 50% of our residents are tenants or renters,” Sarmiento said before the vote. “What we see is that many families live in overcrowded conditions, and I don’t think that’s by choice. I think unfortunately rental rates have a lot to do with that.”

“I simply think we have a crisis here in Santa Ana,” he said, as some council members voiced concern about the way housing costs in the city have outpaced the incomes of many residents.

Council members also voted to authorize staff to enter into contracts “with various service providers, contractors, and sub-recipients, who will implement and manage the ordinances,” according to the official language of the direction.

A woman carries a sign in Spanish that reads, “Housing is a right.” On July 10, 2021, residents from the Country Club Mobile Home Park, within the Sullivan Community gather to protest and demand fair housing. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

That roused pushback from rent control opponents, and council members in the minority on the issue, who criticized the council’s enacting of a policy which the city would study further, and flesh out the mechanics of, more in-depth later.

Both Bacerra and Penaloza, as well as landlords and policy critics who spoke throughout the meeting, accused the council majority of rushing the ordinance through while questioning whether the city has exhausted its other options for addressing the renter crisis. 

Namely, they questioned the amount of unused dollars allocated to City Hall to distribute to residents through rental assistance programs.

“Here we have a banana republic relying on one time funds from the feds … to add layer and layer of government cost,” Penaloza said. “It’s just, ‘I want this, I want that.’”

“​​I can’t begin to express my disappointment that we’re having this conversation at 10 minutes to one (a.m.),” Bacerra said before the vote, after stating earlier: “I don’t think this is a good course … doing it at 12:30 a.m. at night really speaks to what people have been complaining about.”

Sarmiento explained: “The reason why this was done so quickly was there was always a hope that the Governor may extend this moratorium set to expire at the end of the month and extend it to the end of this year.”

“Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case, so we knew this was something very important and urgent to many residents,” Sarmiento said. “This isn’t a new issue.”

On July 10, 2021, a group of residents from the Country Club Mobile Home Park, within the Sullivan Community marched to the property manger’s office to protest and demand fair housing. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Lopez said landlords’ calls that night for the council to turn down the ordinance have “already been implemented. We have already tried that for many years. I think it’s time to try something new.”

Advocates for the policy in public comments said that while landlords were worried about making less money, residents in the city were worried about keeping a roof over their heads. 

At one point, a group of elderly Vietnamese American residents from the Bali Hi mobile home park called to voice their support for the rent control ordinance, passing the phone around so that each could speak.

Leading up to the vote, throughout the night, some landlords opposing the measures painted the picture of a would-be endangered community of good tenants due to rent caps and eviction protections — a “socialist policy” that would merely benefit “gang members” and “bad actors.”

“I have the right to determine if I think a tenant’s bad,” said one speaker who identified themselves as a property owner in Santa Ana for more than 40 years. “If there’s a gang member coming to my property, terrorizing — just by his appearance — other tenants, I should have the right as a property owner to evict him.”

Rent control advocates, on the other hand, made certain observations about the anti-rent control crowd Tuesday night. 

“I hope the landlords and folks coming from these (home-building) companies have a good drive home to south Orange County, to the beach cities, because I can bet that a lot of them are not from Santa Ana,” said Hector Bustos, a community organizer, during the meeting. 

“As they’re driving home, in these luxury cars I saw parked in the parking lot, they’re driving home by people — by kids — who don’t have a home, who don’t have a place to live, and that’s the reality that we’re living in today,” Bustos said.

Victor Cao, a California Apartment Association lobbyist, decried what he and other policy opponents saw as a lack of public outreach regarding the law: 

“As it relates to this process, there has been a lack of community and stakeholder engagement, and while you may say rent control has been discussed in the city over the last couple of years, it seems this ordinance popped out of nowhere and it’s wholly inconsistent with major housing initiatives in the city.”

Council member Phan said “rent control is not a panacea to all the problems that we have, however it is one of the tools in our toolbox to address the calamity that face our residents …“We need to protect those currently in their homes.”

“We’re just trying to make it a little bit easier to be a Santa Ana resident,” she said.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.