Get Ready For a Rent Control Shakeup

It’s (nearly) official: Californians will get to vote on repealing the 23-year-old Costa-Hawkins law in November.

San Francisco’s rent control laws — which dictate that every multi-unit house built before 1979 is rent-controlled — could be overturned in November. (Courtesy Image)

San Francisco is a different city than it was in 1995. In the past 23 years, Twitter, Salesforce, and Uber were founded, we had a dotcom crash and two recessions, and the city’s population boomed from 746,000 to 885,000. But in a city that’s always evolving, one thing has stayed the same: our rent-control laws. In November, California voters will finally have an opportunity to change that, through a repeal of Costa-Hawkins.

The 1995 state law prohibits cities from applying rent control laws to condos, single-family homes, or anything built after that year, unless a city had a prior date set — in which case that was made the legal standard. For San Francisco, that’s 1979. Thanks to Costa-Hawkins, our city government has no power to change that law.

A second provision bans local enforcement of “vacancy controls,” which would bar landlords from their current tactic of immediately increasing rents on apartments to market rates as soon as tenants move out. In San Francisco’s case, that allows building owners who find a way to evict a long-time tenant to then double or triple the unit’s rent, without consequences.

For the past few months, tenants’ rights activists have pulled long hours to rally behind a statewide ballot measure proposal called the Affordable Housing Act, sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and the Eviction Defense Network. While San Francisco has been largely focused on June’s mayoral election, in the rest of the state advocates have been getting enough signatures to get the proposal on the November ballot. This Monday, they announced that 588,542 signatures have been collected from California voters who want to repeal Costa-Hawkins, fare more than the required 402,000.

It was no small feat, and it comes with the support of some big players. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke at a rally celebrating the signature-gathering Monday.

“Local government should have control over its streets, and Sacramento took that power from us,” he said. “It is time for us to take it back. You have my full support. Let’s pass this, and give the power back to the people.”

More than 15,000 signatures were collected in San Francisco County, but if the Affordable Housing Act passes in November’s, the future of the city’s rent-controlled housing stock remains unclear. As we witnessed with cannabis legalization, just because the state approves something doesn’t mean we handle its enforcement well. Months of six-hour-long meetings clogged up City Hall — and arguments still abound — regarding what neighborhoods can have marijuana dispensaries, and how many. In a city mired in a dramatic housing crisis, one can only imagine how politics will intervene in creating a brand-new housing policy.

And the possibilities are nearly endless: The date for rent-controlled buildings could be bumped forward, perhaps 20 years to 1999. Or, the year could change on a rolling basis, with a standard rule that any home built more than 15 years ago is rent-controlled. There’s an option to cap how much landlords increase their rents once a tenant moves out — perhaps only 15 percent, for example. Or, local laws could be established based on neighborhoods, the income of potential tenants, or a landlord’s history of complying with building-inspection requirements like earthquake retrofits. This would also be a great time to slide in a proposal that cites or fines property owners who leave available units vacant for long periods.

But one thing is certain: We need to start thinking about what San Francisco’s rent controls look like, now. The Board of Supervisors has a habit of not reading legislation until it hits their desks, creating last-minute, messy policies that fall short of creating radical change. As affordable-housing developments are mired in years-long approval processes, the conversations over how to regulate the potential addition of thousands of already-built rent-controlled units should be well underway.

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
nsawyer@sfweekly.com |  @TheBestNuala

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