Santa Ana entered a new era when its elected leaders last month enacted the first citywide rent control ordinance in Orange County, sparking immediate opposition from a statewide landlord interest group.
Now, voters may get to decide the future of Santa Ana’s recently-approved law aimed at helping poor families keep their housing.
That’s if the California Apartment Association is successful in collecting enough signatures to put the rent control question on the ballot.
Opponents argue the Santa Ana City Council majority hastily approved the new ordinance with little public outreach, binding landlords’ hands and inviting unintended consequences to the city’s housing scene. The new law will take effect Nov. 19.
The ballot measure push, however, has itself come under the microscope from community groups that have since organized to protect the rent control ordinance, who say signature-gathers working to place it on the ballot are misleading voters around town.
One video the group 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.”
In a late Wednesday email, California Apartment Association Senior Vice President Victor Cao said he and his team “disagrees with their allegations.”
Mextli Lopez, an organizer at Tenants United, said the group has already filed one complaint to the California Secretary of State about three different instances of the alleged tactics and is working on filing more.
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. Santa Ana’s poverty rate has for years stood higher than that of California and the U.S. as a whole, where more than half of its 300,000-plus residents were estimated to be renting in 2019.
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. It also, for example, requires landlords to help pay for an evicted tenant’s relocation under certain circumstances.
Groups opposing these policies now hope to collect enough signatures for what’s called a referendum.
The California Apartment Association says it’s steering the charge.
Weeks before council members finalized the laws, a new political action committee titled “Santa Ana for Fair & Equitable Housing, sponsored by California Apartment Association” registered with the city near the end of September, according to public records.
The committee’s name now appears under at least one online blog posting by the Association, updating people on its efforts to gather signatures and asking for donations to the PAC.
The committee’s petition for the referendum would need signatures from 10% of the 125,479 total registered voters in town — that’s 12,548 signatures.
And proponents have until Nov. 20 to collect the signatures, though they “can be filed next business day on Monday, November 22nd,” said City Clerk Daisy Gomez in a Wednesday email.
“This is the democratic process — letting the voters make informed decisions on major policy issues for their community,” Cao said in a Wednesday written response to several questions.
Critics have attacked the Santa Ana rent control and eviction ordinances on a number of points.
One is that it goes beyond the state’s current rent increase cap and, therefore, goes too far.
Another criticism is that it was rushed through with little public outreach. Some also argue landlords won’t see a reasonable return on their investment.
Cao, in his written statement, said the council “has ignored the fact the city’s voters have rejected rent control four times and approved these ordinances between 2:00 AM – 3:00 AM in the morning.”
He said the city “ignores the fact that there were two failed attempts at securing signatures from a minimum of 10% of registered voters and two instances where Santa Ana voters rejected statewide ballot measures for local rent control.”
Activists’ most recent attempt ended in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, turning in a fraction of the signatures required to put the question on the ballot.
The California Apartment Association has gone as far as calling Santa Ana’s policy “the most extreme rent control ordinance in California.”
“If by extreme, they really mean we have the most protections for tenants, then sure,” said Councilmember Thai Viet Phan in a Wednesday phone interview. “If extreme means we’re finally protecting mobile home park residents, many of whom are seniors on fixed incomes, then that’s what we’ll call it.”
She added: “But to me, what it really means is that we have the most responsive rent stabilization ordinance for our community.”
During the Oct. 19 council meeting, Phan and Mayor Vicente Sarmiento agreed with critics that the measure isn’t the sole cure to the city’s housing affordability crisis, but a tool to help fix the situation.
Sarmiento said many residents in the Latino majority city are immigrants and immigrant communities thrive when they stay together.
Rent control, he said, was a way of ensuring that.
The rent control law doesn’t apply to residential buildings constructed after Feb. 1, 1995, or to mobile home spaces offered for rent after Jan. 1, 1990.
Landlords can still petition for an exemption from the law if they can prove that hiking rent on people beyond the allowable amount will provide a “fair and reasonable return” on their property.
The final say on those appeals falls to City Manager Kristine Ridge, who will consider petitions within 60 days of receiving a completed application. Landlords can access the petition template when the law takes effect.
Councilmember David Penaloza, a critic of the council’s decision in October, said he has a number of questions City Hall hasn’t answered about how the law will be enforced and how enforcement will be paid for.
“How is it going to be funded? I know there were suggestions made from the council dais — what exactly is that funding source? I don’t know. You can’t just wave a wand, snap your fingers, and then rent control is underway,” he said in a phone interview.
He also took issue with one part of the council’s vote on the law, which directs staff to continue studying the policy: “That’s something we should have done first.”
There were also concerns, voiced publicly by Penaloza during the Oct. 19 council meeting, about a phone conversation he said he had with the mayor indicating possible violations of the state’s public meeting transparency law around the course the council charted in hearing and voting on the rent control ordinance.
It led to a public tussle between Penaloza and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho during the council meeting, over whether Carvalho had any serious legal concerns.
Carvalho ultimately declared she did not.
Penaloza, on Wednesday, insisted those concerns first came from Carvalho, not him.
Weeks earlier, during the second meeting on the rent control law, the concerns prompted Penaloza, along with the other two rent control opponents on the dais, Nelida Mendoza and Phil Bacerra, to walk out of the council chambers.
The city council ended up having three public meetings debating rent control between September and October.
Phan disputes claims that the council moved in the dark.
“First of all, rent control was a resident-led effort,” she said. Community advocacy groups and supporters had for years campaigned, albeit unsuccessfully, to get the item placed for council consideration and approval or onto a ballot measure,” she said.
“We had probably more public comments on this item than any other item that’s ever become before me in the last year. We’ve had more debate and public input on it than any other item I can recall,” Phan said.
Penaloza said the issue is best left to voters:
“I think any big policy change like that — if the voters get a chance to decide, that’s the best outcome.”
Though he also expressed concern over the accusations that referendum supporters were misleading voters into signing their petition.
“There have been allegations of tactics being used that aren’t appropriate,” he said. “That’s not okay either.”
Meanwhile, proponents of the law are now working to defend what they spent years advocating for.
Lopez, of Tenants United, said members of the group and others have gone out to counter the signature-gathers, carrying signs rejecting certain talking points and providing people with information on how to withdraw their signature — “not super close to tables and canvassers, but within visibility.”
“We’re fully aware it’s within their right to collect signatures. However, we’re disagreeing with the tactics being employed,” Lopez said.