The fate of Orange County’s only citywide rent control law is shaping up to be a battle in Santa Ana, as cities like Buena Park and Costa Mesa have publicly floated the idea this year.

On Tuesday, a narrow City Council majority took the first step toward approving new protections to Santa Ana’s landmark tenant law, adopted in 2021, from future changes to the town’s political winds. 

Under the new ordinance, approved in a first reading and subject to a later and final vote, future City Councils would require a supermajority approval – five out of seven votes – to amend the law, which caps rent increases at 3% annually. 

Council members also directed city staff to draft a ballot measure that would ask voters to either reaffirm or deny the original, council-approved rent control ordinance during the November 2024 general election.

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 also petition to exempt themselves from the ordinance if they can prove it prevents a fair return on their property. The city has not received any complete petitions, according to City Hall spokesperson Paul Eakins.

Opponents to rent control, council members Phil Bacerra and David Penaloza called the other side’s efforts “a waste of time” that night , saying a future council majority could simply repeal the supermajority vote requirement if they pleased, by a smaller majority of four votes.

Pro-rent control council members called their measures a necessary step to ensuring residents who work full-time for minimum wage jobs are protected from hundreds of dollars in rent increases, at a time when landlord advocates are challenging the rent control law’s constitutionality with a lawsuit.

“I have had to borrow money to afford rent payments from friends because I did not have it and my parents didn’t have it … talking to residents, I learned more about the fact that folks don’t buy food or their medication, because folks are trying to afford rent,” said one of the original policy’s chief proponents, Council Member Thai Viet Phan on Tuesday.

“This is not a waste of time. This is standing up and saying it is important to us to do everything we can to support a policy that is keeping thousands of families in the City of Santa Ana from being on the precipice of homelessness.”

Later that night, Mayor Valerie Amezcua requested a future council discussion on her concerns that the city’s rental unit registry requirement – created to support the rent control law’s implementation – required too much “personal” information from landlords and tenants. 

Meanwhile, Bacerra and Penaloza leveled allegations of backroom policymaking against pro-rent control council members, saying the proposals before them that night didn’t reflect council directions from previous meetings. 

“I firmly believe there are conversations happening and policies being made behind closed doors,” said City Councilmember David Penaloza before the vote, saying he hoped that City Attorney Sonia Carvalho “is paying close attention” to the pro-rent control council majority.

In a rare move from a city attorney, Carvalho publicly rebuked Penaloza and Bacerra’s claims.

She said there was clear council direction – albeit parceled between different meetings – to discuss the voting options in front of them that night, which included requiring supermajority approval of amendments to the rent control law.

“There could have been confusion on our part. I had multiple people in our office review — there could have been confusion. But I want you to know one thing: You know I take this job very seriously, and if you’re accusing me of meeting with your colleagues and somehow going around the backs of minority members of this council, it is 100% absolutely wrong,” Carvalho told Penaloza. 

“You don’t trust that to be true? Then you should ask me to leave. I have always given you good, objective advice. I do not get involved in your politics. You do your job, you get your votes. I do my job and give you legal advice.”

In response, Penaloza kept interjecting, “perception is reality.” 

“Well, there is no reality there,” Carvalho replied. “I did not talk to your colleagues, you can ask them right now. I did not speak to your colleagues. The advice you’ve been given tonight is the best advice I can give to this municipal corporation. That’s all I can tell you.”

Pro-rent control Councilmember Jessie Lopez shot back and accused Penaloza of “projecting” his “insecurities” onto the council majority. 

Penaloza, Bacerra and Amezcua are supported by the most controversial interest group in town, the police union, which has for years faced scrutiny for consolidating political control over City Hall through hundreds of thousands of dollars of political campaign spending during city elections.  

[Read: Santa Ana Officials: Police Union Boss Threatens to ‘Burn the Place Down’ to Boost His Pension]

The result has been a pattern of police chiefs and city managers departing City Hall after facing police union opposition, as well as the union’s successful unseating of former Council Member Ceci Iglesias, a Republican who criticized the union over enhanced police officer salaries in a working class city with the highest sales tax in OC. 

It all happened under the police union’s former embattled leader, Gerry Serrano, who City Hall officials accused in recent years of threatening to “burn the city to the ground” in his quest for a pension boost that they deemed improper. 

That brought Serrano into direct conflict with City Manager Kristine Ridge and Police Chief David Valentin through lawsuits, in which Serrano accused them of impropriety. Valentin announced his retirement this year.

After going against police union pay raise demands in December, 2022 — and voting to slash Serrano’s full-time release from police work — Lopez is facing a union-backed recall election this November. One fueled, in part, by her support for rent control.

The police union political backdrop thus spilled over into the rent control discussion. 

“Don’t sit here and project your actions and your insecurities, whatever you have going on, onto me,” said Lopez, who compared opponents’ concerns that night about the costs of a ballot measure to the costs being incurred by the city to respond to police union lawsuits.

A chorus of voices around the dais rose up at once, to which Mayor Amezcua said, “We’re not going to do this.”

“I welcome the public to (file a Public Records Act request for) my text messages, my emails and phone calls,” Lopez said toward the end of the discussion. 

“I have made my position very clear from the very beginning. I don’t need to be working around, trying to influence something the council majority has already given direction on.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter. Contact him at or on Twitter @brandonphooo.

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