As soon as Santa Ana officials passed Orange County’s first rent control law in their city last month, a group of landlord interests almost instantly set out to strike it down — deploying canvassers around town to gather enough signatures and prompt an election on the issue. 

Yet supporters of the policy, which limits yearly rent increases, have said for weeks that the group targeting the law — organized under the name “Santa Ana for Fair & Equitable Housing (SAFE)” — has misled city voters into signing their petition.

California Apartment Association Senior Vice President Victor Cao, whose group initially steered the anti-rent control effort and set up a political action committee for SAFE Housing before the law passed, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

The deadline to gather all the needed signatures was Saturday. 

Though, given the weekend, City Hall had also allowed the anti-rent control group to turn in signatures today. Legally, canvassers could not gather signatures on Sunday. 

With 12,548 signatures, 10% of the city’s registered voter population, rent control foes would prompt the City Council to either strike the newly-approved policy down or put it on the ballot for an election.

One group fighting this effort, Tenants United Santa Ana, says it alone has filed three election code complaints to the Secretary of State’s office, alleging, among other things, that SAFE Housing canvassers were telling residents their petition actually sought to stop rent increases in town. 

Now Santa Ana City Clerk Daisy Gomez’s office has stepped in, telling residents in a Friday, Nov. 19 email blast it’s well aware of what’s being alleged. 

“The Clerk of the Council has also received complaints concerning the signature gatherers,” reads the email from Gomez’s office, which, among other duties, manages the city elections process. 

The email then lays out how voters can go back and withdraw their signatures from such petitions if they feel they signed by mistake, as is allowed under state elections law.

“It has been reported to me that some canvassers are telling people that the petitions (are) for the purpose of establishing rent control,” Gomez told Voice of OC in a Friday email.

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For a previous story, Cao told Voice of OC only that the group “disagrees with their (pro-rent control organizers’) allegations.”

At the start of this month, community groups like Tenants United Santa Ana and VietRISE began gathering documentation on canvassers’ activities. Around that same time, they also led a march to protest the campaign. 

One video which Tenants United shared appears to show signature-gatherers telling people outside a grocery store that their petition actually seeks to stop rental increases — to stop the City Council from “raising the rent.”

“We heard from people who said they thought they were signing to support rent control and didn’t know what they were actually signing,” said Tenants United organizer Mextli Lopez in a Friday phone interview. 

The landlord interests’ political action committee is titled, “Santa Ana for Fair & Equitable Housing, sponsored by California Apartment Association.”

It registered with the city near the end of September, according to public records.

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Council members David Penaloza, Phil Bacerra and Nelida Mendoza opposed the law during the Oct. 19 vote. Fellow council members Thai Viet Phan, Jessie Lopez, Jonathan Ryan Hernandez, and Mayor Vicente Sarmiento voted in favor of it on Oct. 19. 

Asked about the City Clerk’s Nov. 19 email laying out the signature-withdrawal process, Penaloza said, “residents should know how to withdraw their signature from any petition. I’m supportive of any city effort to inform our residents of accurate information and processes.”

“However, it could be seen as a city official using city resources to try influencing an outcome of a democratic election process which is 100% WRONG. And it wouldn’t be the first time the City Clerk used poor judgement,” Penaloza said in a text message. 

“She (Gomez) should’ve sent out a Nixle (the city’s public alert system) simply informing residents of the general referendum process and the signature removal process,” Penaloza said.

Gomez, in an emailed response on Friday, told Voice of OC: 

“The intention of the notification was neither to persuade nor dissuade petition signers, but to simply educate them on what a referendum is (the direct democracy tool to reject passed legislation) and what State law says about those who wish to remove their signatures from a petition (how to file and what entity to file with).”

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SAFE Housing has also sent out text messages to Santa Ana residents directly. One, which Tenants United shared a screenshot of, reads: 

“Want political extremists to use your home as a headquarters? This new law makes it illegal for you to prevent a tenant from organizing political rallies on your property.”

SAFE Housing’s website lists a number of testimonials from groups supporting their referendum effort, including statements from Carolyn Cavecche of the Orange County Taxpayers Association and the Santa Ana police union. 

“City leaders just forced through a new housing policy that will cost millions, taking funding from police patrols, fire safety, and youth programs … maintaining funding for public safety and education is imperative for the youth in our community and their future,” the union testimonial reads.

The city’s new rent control law caps rent increases at no more than 3%, or 80% of the local inflation rate, whichever is less, and applies only to residential buildings constructed before Feb. 1, 1995, or to mobile home spaces offered for rent before Jan. 1, 1990.

The ordinance goes beyond existing state rent control law, which effectively caps rent increases statewide at 10% annually.

And a new “just cause” eviction ordinance, approved by council members alongside rent control last month, limits the reasons a renter can be booted from their unit.


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