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The Pasadena Tenants Union is not giving up the rent control fight

Photo by flickr user Kevin Stanchfield licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Alhambra , CA United States

Residents from many California cities have been pushing for rent control amid the state’s affordable housing crisis. In November, Californians will vote on a statewide ballot measure to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which limits rent control ordinances to older buildings, among other restrictions. One group fighting for this is the Pasadena Tenants Union, who came up a couple of thousand signatures short of getting a rent control ordinance on the November ballot. But the group intends to continue fighting for the residents they’ve met on their rent control drive who are struggling with affordable housing. We spoke with the Pasadena Tenants Union’s Nicole Hodgson on what’s next for them, locally, regionally and statewide.

Can you give me a quick history of the Pasadena Tenants Union?

We started in November 2016. Tenants, homeowners and one landlord met just to discuss the housing crisis, because we were seeing neighbors’ U-Hauls on our streets, buildings being emptied and just concern about that. For those of us who are tenants, our personal experience is getting 5 percent, 10 percent or 20 percent rental increases. Your neighbors that you’ve known for 20 years are all of a sudden having to leave because of the rent increases.

So we started out just really engaging renters and tenants in the community. There really wasn’t a voice coming directly from the tenants regarding the housing crisis. And as we kept on doing door-knocking and outreach and monthly meetings, the one solution that kept on being repeated is, “We need rent control and just-cause [eviction]; we need these protections.” And from there, it was really coming together and looking at what would be the best fit for our city. We decided collectively in bringing in coalition members and endorsements and supporters for a ballot initiative for rent control and just-cause. That was the best avenue. In the State of the City, our mayor addressed that no one on the City Council supported rent control and just-cause. That might change in the future. We always keep an open-door policy.

What are the next steps for the Pasadena Tenants Union, since the Pasadena rent control measure didn’t make it onto the November ballot?

Our next steps are that the tenants union is continuing advocacy for tenants to be able to stay in their units. That goes back to the heart of what tenant unions are about — for folks and buildings to discuss their concerns and come forward with a plan to make sure they’re able to stay in their homes. What that could mean is negotiating with their landlords, if their rent has increased or if they received a 60-day notice and so forth. There’s that piece, which I refer to as the grassroots heart, making sure people can stay in their units.

The other piece is continuing to advocate for rent control and just-cause eviction for the City of Pasadena, either by City Council or a future ballot initiative. Because it’s still the number one affordable housing option that you have to keep people in their units. And then there are other pieces because so much is going on in the L.A. County area and then statewide with the repeal of Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act.

So it’s three things — local, regional and statewide. Those three things we’re still moving forward with and still engaging the community and discussing about the housing crisis and trying to figure out solutions for folks to be able to stay in their homes. Pasadena recently had their homeless study come out and there’s an increase in first-time homelessness, directly linked to the housing crisis and the rental increases and so forth.

The arguments I’ve heard against rent control are that it incentivizes landlords to be unscrupulous by rebuilding their homes, since rent control is imposed on older buildings. What do you think of that?

That’s not rent control. That’s the Ellis Act. That’s a law that was passed by the real estate industry statewide. So you have a strong rent control policy and just-cause eviction and then you’re going to have the real estate lobby coming in and trying to find ways to chip away at it. The Ellis Act really started for folks that really wanted to take their units off of the market. And each city can create their own Ellis Act protection, saying a certain amount of units — how many can be converted and so forth into condos. So that’s something you can implement.

[Another myth is] that just-cause [eviction] causes properties to go into disrepair. Right now, just walking around the City of Pasadena, the buildings are in horrible disarray and these are with folks getting these increases of $300 to $1,000. I’m talking about railings falling off. One canvasser went out to a building, knocked on a window, didn’t realize it was plexiglass and the plexiglass just fell forward. We’re talking about buildings in so much disarray and tenants in so much fear of asking for repairs. Because as soon as you do that, you either get a response of, “Well, just move.” Two, you get a 60-day notice to vacate because you’re causing trouble. Three, you get a rental increase.

The Pasadena Unified School District supported this rent control measure.

They did because they’re unfortunately seeing the disenrollment of their students, because the exodus from Pasadena is so high because of the rental costs. So we’re seeing families having to move to Lancaster, Palmdale and do the commute back to work in Pasadena. We’re also seeing families being split up. So the parents, one is able to stay with a relative, couch-surfing to have the child stay until the end of the year. Another parent has to move out or leave a child with a grandparent. All these things are just causing families to be separated in many ways. It’s pretty painful to watch.

If Costa-Hawkins is repealed, have you given any thought to how it would change the rent control ordinance you were advocating for?

It’s another piece that we would be able to look at. And we’re not at this time able to say, “This is what we can include in the ordinance.” We want to have all shareholders as part of that discussion as we move forward. So there would be tenants, homeowners and landlords as well. Right now it means units built after 1995 could possibly be covered by rent control. It means single-family rental homes and condos and accessory dwelling units could possibly be covered under rent control. It also means exploring vacancy control [which imposes rent control on a unit after the original tenant moves out]. Now whether or not those things get implemented, it’s a dialogue with the community. But it gives more local control. When people say that with rent control people focus on building new properties rather than maintaining older ones — it eliminates that. It eliminates the Stanford [rent control] study’s claims and all those other claims that rent control doesn’t work.

If people wanted to organize or learn more about rent control in the San Gabriel Valley, what would you tell them?

There is a strong tenants union movement happening in L.A. People are welcome to come to our monthly meetings. L.A. Tenants Union is also a great source. There’s also huge stuff happening in the county with unincorporated cities. We’re trying to work with the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on a rent control and just-cause policy. For us, that would be Altadena, East Pasadena.

The other piece, if you’re new to organizing, there is a state Affordable Housing Act, which is about repealing Costa-Hawkins. We wouldn’t all of a sudden have rent control, but what it does is it gives multiple cities more control of how they want to implement a rent control and just-cause policy. For folks who want to start organizing, if they Google Affordable Housing Act, there are different ways you can engage with that. Reach out to the PTU or L.A. Tenants Union. We work in collaboration with that movement. And that’s really helpful for new organizations. How do you organize with just a volunteer base, where people aren’t getting paid and have multiple jobs and multiple life responsibilities?

But the one piece of advice I would give is just start. Meet your neighbors, just start talking.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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