A bill to protect tenant security deposits failed on the California senate floor last week. SB 603 (Leno) sought to give California tenants a protection already enjoyed by Alabama tenants – the right to recover double damages when security deposits are illegally withheld. California tenants will be justifiably outraged as they learn of the fate of this bill.
The stakes are high when it comes to security deposits. California landlords hold over $5 billion in security deposits. They decide annually whether to return over $1 billion to tenants. Improper withholding is rampant. In a recent survey, 60% of respondents reported that they had been victims of unfair deposit withholding.
Current law does not have meaningful penalties against landlords that improperly withhold deposits. Instead, landlords who illegally withhold funds either get away with it or, in the small percentage of cases where they are sued, end up being ordered to pay that which they owed in the first place.
SB 603 would have created an important disincentive to stop illegal security deposit withholding. That’s why some states, including Alabama, already impose mandatory doubling of damages. If Alabama can do it, one would think this would be a fairly easy ask of California Democrats.
Although security deposit theft is an issue that truly resonates with renters across the political and economic spectrum, apparently it does not resonate with California senators who are disconnected from the communities they serve. With the corrupting influence of landlord campaign donations, California senators of both parties sold out their constituents, in most cases, without explanation.
There were some noteworthy exceptions. 13 Democrats voted in favor of the bill:
· Senators Jim Beall (D- San Jose)
· Marty Block (D-San Diego)
· Ellen Corbett (D – San Leandro)
· Mark DeSaulnier (D- Concord)
· Noreen Evans (D – Santa Rosa)
· Cathleen Galgiani (D – Stockton)
· Loni Hancock (D – Oakland)
· Ben Hueso (D-Chula Vista)
· Hannah-Beth Jackson (D – Santa Barbara)
· Mark Leno (D – San Francisco)
· Bill Monning (D – Carmel)
· Fran Pavley (D – Agoura Hills)
· Darrell Steinberg (D – Sacramento).
These Democrats deserve credit for doing the right thing. They knew tenants in their district needed help, so they stood up to special interests and voted their conscience.
Republican senators refused to support the bill, most without explanation. Senator Cannella (R – Merced) refused to meet with tenants, even those who traveled to Sacramento from his district for a scheduled meeting.
15 Democratic senators joined their Republican colleagues and refused to support the bill. They are:
· Ron Calderon (D- Montebello)
· Lou Correa (D – Santa Ana)
· Kevin De León (D – Los Angeles)
· Ed Hernandez (D – Los Angeles)
· Jerry Hill (D – San Mateo)
· Ricardo Lara (D- Long Beach)
· Ted Lieu (D – Torrance)
· Carol Liu (D – Pasadena)
· Alex Padilla (D – Pacoima)
· Curren Price (D – Culver City)
· Richard Roth (D – Riverside)
· Norma Torres (D – Pomona)
· Lois Wolk (D – Davis)
· Roderick Wright (D – Inglewood)
· Leland Yee (D – San Francisco)
For many of these Senators, their votes do not reflect policy preferences, but instead purely political considerations. Consider, for example, Senator Leland Yee’s vote against SB 603. It is hard to imagine this vote as anything but pandering to real estate industry campaign donors as he runs for California Secretary of State.
The senators who betrayed tenants last week are relying on not being called out. They know things often fade quickly from public view, particularly votes cast in Sacramento. Senators who opposed this bill need to get an earful as they return to their districts.
There is no getting around this basic fact: a majority of California’s Democratic senators just voted to protect landlords who illegally withhold tenant security deposits. That is shameful.