Much of the message was in Spanish. 

A handful of promotoras – trained community health workers stationed at bus stops, laundromats, markets and parking lots – used the Costa Mesa public microphone on Tuesday to call for government caps on the rates that landlords in town can raise rent on people.

Rent control.

One by one, the women highlighted for City Council members the tense geographic relationship between the region’s beachside wealthy and its service workers, the latter of whom often watch their commute times, and car emissions, expand further inland with each cost of living spike.

“We’re hoping you do justice for the people you represent,” said Juana Trejo, a member of Promotores de Salud Orange County, to Costa Mesa City Council members at their Tuesday meeting.

She and four other speakers made an appeal for a city rent control ordinance in public comments that night, citing past public testimony and even possible signature-gathering activity. “Because our people deserve to live with dignity and without fear.”

After they said their piece, at least one council member took their side directly.

“This is now the second meeting in a row where we had people from the community come to speak about that issue,” said Councilmember Manuel Chavez during early comments. “I think it’s important that as we look at the housing element, as we look at housing in Costa Mesa, we have every option on the table, including rent stabilization.”

Council members didn’t formally discuss rent control that night, and there was no vote at the end of the meeting to schedule one for the future, with most on the dais taking a swing at the topic indirectly. 

Some council members questioned whether there was adequate outreach about the city’s rental assistance program, or the existing nonprofits out there like Public Law Center, that could provide tenants with legal aid. 

“I do want to make sure we’re getting information out about existing rental assistance and relief programs we have out there and some of those legal resources, because we do know there are landlords who do take advantage of some of the rules sometimes,” said Councilmember Andrea Marr. 

Others honed in on wages.

“We can’t forget about the 47% of our community that are considered low-income, so we really need to do better to try and get people to develop skills and interests and increase their earning potential,” said Councilmember Jeffrey Herlan. “More important than housing itself, we need people to be more self-sufficient.”

The rent control discussion brings up a question that cities throughout the state have grappled with: Should local governments step in and cap rents so working class people don’t have to move further from the coast, where their jobs are often located? 

Speaking with a translator over the phone, 53-year-old Alfredina Ramirez said rising rents have kicked her and her family around different apartments in town. 

They had recently moved over two streets, from an apartment Ramirez said she lived in for 27 years. At the beginning, she couched her rent to be in the neighborhood of $600. By the time she, her son and husband left, that number was up to around $2,000.

“For some people, that’s their whole paycheck,” she said in a Wednesday phone interview.

Ramirez is a housekeeper at the Balboa Bay Club but is out on medical leave for her arthritis, and is a member of the hotel worker union known as UNITE HERE Local 11. 

It’s been hard having to raise a family, she said. Paying rent is always the priority, she added, and sometimes at the expense of food, having to “make do” with what they have and “sacrifice things here and there.”

She said alternatives to rent control aren’t stopping the rising rents, and she has friends who say that if their rents continue increasing at the current rate, “they will have to leave.” 

“It would hurt the community.”

The idea of a coastal and working-class community endures in cities like Oxnard, Harbor City and more locally, Santa Ana, which showed in 2021 that the political will for rent control existed in OC, even in a council-approved rental cap beyond that of the state’s.

But it also landed Santa Ana in the thick of a court battle with landlords, who in a recent lawsuit called the city rent control policies an unconstitutional form of government intervention.

A spokesman for the organization that’s suing – and whose lawsuit called the Santa Ana law “constitutionally confiscatory” – says the rent control conversation has “ramped up” significantly since the existing statewide rent control law passed in 2019, which he cast in a more landlord-collaborative light.

“And we certainly understand why,” said Chip Ahlswede of the Apartment Association of Orange County.

The price of living “has gone through the roof these days,” Ahlswede said. “Just like it’s going up for property owners.”

“One of the things we keep seeing in those rent control conversations is the exclusion of everybody but proponents for rent control laws,” Ahlswede added. “The conversation has to happen with everyone, otherwise it will be unfair, just like in Santa Ana, where we’re having to file a lawsuit.”

State law caps annual rent increases at 10%. 

In Costa Mesa, recent moves to relax development and density restrictions – and pave the way for a more populous and congested, but perhaps more affordable town – already chafed existing homeowners with City Hall. 

One resident and critic of the Measure K deregulated development law, Mary Spadoni, said rent control proponents won’t find help from the current council. 

“I have a lot of compassion for (the renters) and the rent and the costs and what not, but my dear residents, this council is not going to be the one to quell your problem with rent control … they did (Measure) K, that made the developers drool over Costa Mesa,” Spadoni said during public comment, calling for “alternatives to these crazy and planning and zoning issues.”

Another speaker praised the strides of Measure K in public comment: “And now that you did the courageous thing and you passed measure K, I ask what’s next?”

“The City of San Diego is currently kind of the housing champion of California. They’ve done regulatory reforms … code section changes … Can we take that title from them?”

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