Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Skip the Appetizer: Start with Rent Control rather than Rent Moratorium

By Dean Preston, Tenants Together Executive Director

Calls for rent control are on the rise, as they should be.  The era of landlord self-regulation is a proven failure.  The only hope of stemming mass displacement and rent gouging for many communities across California is by regulating rents and evictions through rent control.

As excited as I am to see the growing movement for rent control, I’m concerned by one trend: focusing on moratoriums as a first legislative demand, rather than insisting on permanent rent control.  In Richmond, Santa Rosa, and San Mateo, rent increase moratoriums have been proposed and rejected (In Richmond, the City Council subsequently passed rent control). It’s a tough loss for your campaign to bear right at the outset. Activists are calling for moratoriums in other cities, including the City of Alameda, in which a petition quickly gathered over 1000 signatures for a rent moratorium.

We are regularly contacted by activists in California cities who want rent moratoriums in their communities. It’s usually not the best place to start. 

There are three problems with moratoriums.  First, a moratorium, also known as an urgency ordinance, generally requires a 4/5 vote, rather than a simple majority, of the City Council in California cities.  This is nearly impossible to obtain given the power of the real estate lobby.  Even votes you might think you have lined up too often succumb to the pressure of industry lobbyists. Second, moratoriums are by definition temporary.  They last 45 days, and then can only be extended if the City Council renews the moratorium.  At most, if renewed twice, the moratorium can last up to 2 years. Third, and perhaps most importantly, virtually the same controls can be obtained by a regular rent control ordinance that requires only a simple majority of the council. It might be hard to pass rent control, but trying to pass a moratorium is even harder. Not only can cities pass rent control laws, but they can make the rents rollback to stop rent increases in anticipation of rent control.

Despite this, there are circumstances in which a moratorium might make sense. 

Scenario I: You have the votes for rent control and a moratorium is needed to protect tenants while the details of the ordinance are worked out.

Scenario II: The moratorium vote is merely an organizing vehicle to build momentum for a permanent law through the council or through the ballot. There is a purpose to losing, like getting councilmembers on record in support or against regulation of rents. Tenants are aware that the moratorium may be lost, but is part of a longer-term organizing strategy. The key is to galvanize renters toward permanent rent control, while being careful not to discourage renters if the requisite 4/5 vote cannot be achieved.

The bottom line is that proposing a rent moratorium can be useful in certain circumstances, but should rarely be the starting point for a rent control strategy at the local level. The high vote threshold, limited impact, and alternative of permanent rent control suggest that activists and sympathetic political leaders should focus on adopting comprehensive rent control laws, rather than short-term moratoriums that are nearly impossible to obtain in most communities.

For help organizing for rent control in your community contact Dan Harper, Organizing Director with Tenants Together, at dan@tenantstogether.org.

Download our Rent Control toolkit

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