What started as whispers years ago in Orange County, rent control has now grown into loud calls with residents and advocates showing up to various city council meetings across the region and demanding rent caps. 

The push comes as counties across California face a worsening housing unaffordability crisis, with demand for living spaces far surpassing the supply – especially low income housing. 

Calls for rent control are also being made by community groups and activists who formed an alliance during the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to get public health interventions into Orange County’s hardest hit neighborhoods.

[Read: COVID Forged a New Generation of Community Activism Across OC]

As a result of that organizing push, their attention is also turning to living conditions for many residents – high rents, overcrowded housing and a host of apartment maintenance issues as inflation rises and the cost of living soars. 

“Since the pandemic we’ve seen a lot of our community members struggle,” said Jinkyung Park, a spokeswoman for the Buena Park-based community group, Ahri. 

Park said Ahri, which typically helps residents with immigration and legal issues, saw a need for housing policies.  

“This year, we decided that we really want to do more of an organizing effort in housing compared to our previous years,” she said in a phone interview. 

Most recently, Buena Park City Council members expressed support for some form of rent control at their meeting late last month – something stricter than state law which puts a maximum cap of 10% increases.  

[Read: Rent Control Could Come to Buena Park]

OC’s first city to enact rent control, Santa Ana, is currently facing a lawsuit over the caps. 

​​[Read: OC Landlord Group Moves to Sue Santa Ana to Overturn Rent Control

The Apartment Association of Orange County filed a lawsuit in February, arguing that the city’s rental registration board is biased against property owners and the law itself is preventing landowners from getting a fair return on their investments. 

Chip Ahlswede, spokesman for the association, said while the group doesn’t support rent control efforts, they’re willing to work with Buena Park officials, tenant organizations, activists and other people in the city to come up with a measure that benefits all parties. 

“We didn’t see that in the city of Santa Ana,” Ahlswede said in a phone interview. “In Buena Park, as they’re moving forward, they made a commitment to meet with the industry as well as the tenants rights groups and I commend them for that effort.” 

The Buena Park entertainment corridor on Beach Boulevard. Credit: NATALIE CARTWRIGHT, Voice of OC

Chapman University professor Mike Moodian, who researches local Orange County political issues, said the recent local rent control efforts are unprecedented.

“I have not seen rent control gain the type of traction that it’s gaining right now in recent memory,” Moodian said in a phone interview. “It is increasingly expensive to live in Orange County and the public policy research that I’ve done shows that people are really dismayed at the high cost of living in Orange County.” 

He said much of it stems from a shifting political dynamic.

“Politically, Orange County is much more different now than it has been in recent years,” Moodian said, adding Democrats have an edge in countywide voter registration.

“It’s a purple county.”

There’s also been a vocal push from residents and community health workers in Costa Mesa for rent control measures – many who say they’re not sure how much longer they can afford to live in the area they work in. 

[Read: Calls for Rent Control Intensify in Coastal Orange County’s Costa Mesa]

Some Huntington Beach residents have called for rent control measures on their mobile home parks – similar to mobile home park seniors living in Anaheim, who landed state protections after two years of activism. 

[Read: OC Mobile Home Park Seniors Win Rent Relief After Two Years of Activism]

Is Rent Control Effective?

As the push for rent control gains momentum throughout Orange County, questions are rising over how effective the measure could be. 

According to a 2019 Stanford University study examining the effects of San Francisco’s rent control law, the caps helped residents short run, but ultimately led to increased rents and a diminished rental housing supply. 

“In sum, we find that impacted landlords reduced the supply of available rental housing by 15 percent. Further, we find that there was a 25 percent decline in the number of renters living in units protected by rent control, as many buildings were converted to new construction or condos that are exempt from rent control,” researchers wrote.

Former UC Irvine Department of Economics Chair, professor Ami Glazer, said rent control policies can lead to landlords delaying critical maintenance because they can’t recoup the spending through rents. 

Using a hypothetical local example of cities with no rent control, Glazer also noted the policy could further impact housing’s already large supply and demand gap. 

“If fewer people can find places in, say, Irvine because the rent control reduces the supply, more people will look in Costa Mesa, which increases rent in Costa Mesa,” Glazer said in a phone interview. “So some of the problem is if individual cities do it, it shifts the higher prices to other cities.” 

Ahlswede said he’s seen people living in rent-controlled units become stuck in apartments in Los Angeles as rents around them increase beyond their means.

“They got to a point where they could never move because what their budget and lifestyle were wasn’t adjusted to the market,” Ahlswede said, adding that if someone had to move for family or health emergencies “could be crippling.” 

Susan Cheng, organizing director for Ahri, said while rent control won’t solve California’s housing crisis, it will help people stay in their apartments and could curb increases in homelessness. 

“I think rent control is not the sole answer to everything. We do need more housing and we do need to figure out the long term process of how we solve this housing shortage,” Cheng said in a phone interview.

Apartments in Orange, Calif., on March 28, 2023. (CREDIT: Jack Sundblad/VOICE OF OC)

“We also met with family members who turned their living rooms into rooms because they were trying to pay rent,” Cheng said. 

At their meeting last month, Buena Park City Council members voiced the idea of having the proposed rent control policy apply to buildings older than 15 years so they don’t hamper new construction. 

Park said the proposed measure shouldn’t discourage badly needed new housing construction. 

“It will take like 15 years for the rent control to be activated in the new housing stock, so the policies can definitely be designed to include new constructions and renovations so investors could also make a profit,” she said. “We want to make sure everyone can still live in Buena Park.” 

Struggles in Building New Housing 

City councils throughout Orange County are wrestling with building new housing while dealing with residents’ concerns of overdevelopment in their neighborhoods. 

Many new developments take years to get off the ground after a series of city planning commission meetings and approval processes before city councils finally vote on the project. 

State officials have mandated that Orange County cities zone for more than 180,000 new homes – with 75,000 of those units intended for very low and low-income families. 

“We are in unprecedented weird times right now,” Ahlswede said. “On one hand I look at that stuff, and say this is not how we’re supposed to plan – this is not how we’re supposed to do this stuff. But on the other hand, what are we supposed to do?”

The median cost of a home in Orange County in February was $955,000, according to Redfin.

And the median rent from 2017 to 2021 was just over $2,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  

About 320,000 people – 10% of OC’s 3.2 million residents – live in poverty, according to the bureau. 

“It’s a tough problem – it’s hard to come up with a solution other than to increase the housing supply,” said Glazer, the UCI economist.

Moodian, the Chapman University professor who’s an expert in local politics, said housing unaffordability is a dilemma every city council faces in Orange County.

“This is not the Orange County of the 1960s and 1970s where massive tract homes are being built in the suburbs to lure people from the defense industry,” he said. “One has to be wealthy in order to afford a home in Orange County and at the same time rent costs continue to go up.”

Moodian also noted developments of market-rate housing can push out existing residents because it drives rents up.

“We see this in areas of Santa Ana and elsewhere. It’s this constant battle taking place where there are developers and public officials who want to develop land, then at the same time you have residents living in those areas who can’t afford to live there any more,” he said.

A street vendor in Downtown Santa Ana on Thursday, Sept. 8, operates her food stand even as temperatures were above 100 degrees. Credit: DANIEL PEARSON, Voice of OC

So far, about half of OC cities don’t have a state certified plan mapping out where their share of mandated homes will go.

[Read: Half of Orange County Lacks State Approved Housing Plans as HB Reignites Debate on Mandates]

Those mandated plans have been facing pushback from some officials throughout Orange County, who say the goals and timeframe are unrealistic and unfair.

It’s a recent flashpoint in Huntington Beach, where city council members are engaged in a court battle over the state’s mandated housing policies. Officials say the process of assigning the number of new homes was flawed and have criticized it as Sacramento overreach. 

Last week, a majority of city council members decided to throw out their state mandated housing plan – potentially opening the city up to hefty fines and a loss of local control.

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a lawsuit against Surf City for failing to adopt the housing plan. 
[Read: California Sues Huntington Beach for Failing to Adopt a Housing Plan]

The move could set them up for hefty fines and even court-ordered developments. 

[Read: What Happens To Cities That Defy California’s Housing Mandates?]

Meanwhile, Park said Ahri isn’t stopping its organizing efforts in Buena Park anytime soon. 

“We have so much support from partner organizations like Chispa from Santa Ana …  and definitely the community – they definitely came out and shared a lot of their personal stories about their struggles with paying rent. Those stories cannot be ignored anymore.”

Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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