The vast majority of Pasadena voters want rent control and protections for tenants against unfair evictions.      

That’s the clear finding of a recent poll conducted by David Binder Research, one of California’s most reputable pollsters.

The scientific survey conducted earlier this year reveals that 69 percent of Pasadena voters want the Pasadena City Council to adopt a rent control law that would put an annual limit on the amount a landlord can raise the rent. An even larger number of voters — 82 percent — support a local law to prevent landlords from evicting tenants without a just cause, such as not paying rent, destruction of property, or exhibiting loud or violent behavior.

More than three-quarters (81 percent) of renters and more than half (55 percent) of homeowners embrace rent control. Even more — 88 percent of renters and 74 percent of homeowners — want the City Council to adopt a just cause eviction law.

The poll found that an overwhelming majority of voters in each City Council district wants the City Council to adopt these two measures. Support for a law to limit landlords’ annual rent increases ranges from 58 percent in District 6 (represented by Steve Madison) to 80 percent in District 5 (Victor Gordo). Support for a just cause eviction law ranges from 74 percent in District 7 (Andy Wilson) to 90 percent in District 5 (Gordo).

The poll also found widespread support for both measures across all demographic groups. For example, 78 percent of 18-38 year olds, 68 percent of 39-54 year olds, 61 percent of 55-73 year olds, and 62 percent of voters over 74 support rent control. It also found strong support among white (65 percent), Latino (78 percent), Asian (74 percent) and African-American (76 percent) voters. The poll revealed that 78 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of those with no party preference, and 37 percent of Republicans support rent control. The level of support for a just-cause eviction was even higher among each of these groups.

The poll, sponsored by Pasadenans Organizing for Progress (POP), surveyed a representative sample of 700 registered voters in Pasadena. “CLICK HERE TO VIEW CHARTS”

Sleeping Giants

Last year, tenant and community groups put Proposition 10 on the statewide ballot. It would have repealed the Costa-Hawkins Act, passed in 1995, which prohibits cities from adopting strong rent controls. Under the current law, landlords can raise rents to market levels whenever a tenant leaves voluntarily or is evicted. Proposition 10 would have returned power to cities by allowing them to set their own rent control rules.    

The real estate industry spent $75 million to defeat Proposition 10, most of it used to perpetrate a confusing propaganda campaign designed to scare homeowners and confuse tenants. Even so, about 55 percent of Pasadena voters supported Proposition 10.

But the defeat of Proposition 10 may have backfired by unleashing a dramatic revival of tenant activism at the local level across California.

That local activism is creating pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature to address the housing crisis. One bill that is gaining momentum is AB 1482, an “anti-rent gouging” measure that, similar to a new Oregon law, would make it illegal for landlords to raise rents more than 7 percent, plus the Consumer Price Index, in one year. It also includes a provision that would only allow landlords to evict tenants with “just cause.” Housing activists consider the bill too moderate —— the CPI averages about 2.5 percent in California, it exempts buildings constructed in the past 10 years, and it would expire in 2023 — but they view it as an important first step. In early July the Assembly passed the bill, with Pasadena Assemblyman Chris Holden in support. The Senate will soon vote on the bill and housing activists are hoping that Sen. Anthony Portantino will cast a “yes” vote.

But Pasadena officials shouldn’t avoid dealing with the housing crisis by waiting for the state government to act.

Cities still have the authority to pass tenant protection policies that can provide more security and stability to vulnerable renters and protect the existing inventory of affordable rental housing. Unlike Proposition 10, the Binder Research poll was not confusing. It asked voters two straightforward questions: Do you want the Pasadena City Council to adopt a rent control law and just-cause eviction law?

Of course, the fact that Pasadenans overwhelming support these two policy ideas doesn’t mean that the City Council will adopt them into law. For that to happen, public opinion has to be transformed into political activism.

It won’t be an easy fight. The real estate industry — including landlords, developers, bankers and contractors — is the largest contributor of campaign donations. Not one of the Pasadena’s City Council members is a tenant. Some own rental property. Some may have swallowed the real estate industry’s propaganda that tenants’ rights laws are a bad idea.

Local politicians haven’t felt much pressure because renters have not been well-organized. Their voices have rarely been heard in the corridors of political power and in the media.

But that is changing. Tenants are now the sleeping giants of American politics. Around the country, renters — middle class as well as poor — can’t afford to buy a home. Faced with the prospect of being long-term renters, they have their backs against the wall. They’ve become better organized and bolder, voting in larger numbers, and engaging in protests and even civil disobedience to highlight their grievances.

Tenants’ rights have become hot-button issues in a growing number of cities and states. Oregon recently passed a statewide rent control law. Tenants in New York City won a major victory that strengthened the local rent control law. Housing advocates in Washington State, Massachusetts, Illinois and elsewhere are gaining momentum for rent control.

We haven’t seen such an upsurge of tenant activism in California since the late 1970s. Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Berkeley, Oakland, West Hollywood, and San Francisco have long had some form of rent control and just-cause laws, but a growing number of cities have joined them, including Beverly Hills, East Palo Alto, Emeryville, Glendale, Hayward, Maywood, Mountain View, Palm Springs, Richmond, San Diego, San Jose, Thousand Oaks, and Union City.

Some of these victories occurred in the past few months. After four years of organizing, the Uplift Inglewood coalition recently persuaded the Inglewood City Council to pass a permanent rent control law along with a just-cause eviction policy and tenant relocation ordinance.  Rents are capped at 5 percent per year. In Culver City, the City Council voted 4 to 1 to adopt a one-year rent freeze and to consider permanent caps on rent hikes.  The Long Beach City Council recently passed a tenant relocation ordinance that requires landlords to pay tenants up to $4,500 when she/he increases rents more than 10 percent or the renter is evicted without cause. Alameda adopted a just cause law and permanent rent control. Hayward adopted mandatory rent mediation and expanded its just cause protections. Other grassroots campaigns are underway in Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Concord, El Cerrito, Santa Barbara, Glendale, Santa Ana, San Diego, and other cities to adopt or strengthen tenant protections.

Victims of Gentrification

Pasadena is ripe for a revival of tenant activism. In fact, it has already begun, which isn’t surprising, given the magnitude of the housing crisis.

Over half (56 percent) of Pasadena residents are renters. They are a diverse group. Among them, 39 percent are white, 28 percent are Latino, 18 percent are Asian, and 13 percent are African American. As prices skyrocket, it has become more and more difficult to buy a home, particularly so for blacks and Latinos because of years of bank redlining and predatory lending. The homeownership rate for African Americans (32 percent) and Latinos (33 percent) is much lower than for Asians (46 percent) and whites (51 percent). Homeowners have twice the household income compared with renters — $115,074 to $55,752.

Pasadena is one of the most expensive places to live in California. The median price of a single-family home in Pasadena increased from $680,000 in 2013 to $960,000 in 2018, an increase of 41.2 percent. During that same period, the average price of a single-family home increased from $919,599 to $1,239,966, a 34.8 percent increase. Many current homeowners who purchased their homes a decade or more ago could not afford to buy the same home today.

In the past five years, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment has increased from $2,139 to $2,695, according to Zillow. That amounts to a 26 percent increase — much faster than increases in incomes. A family needs to earn $108,000 a year to pay a $2,695 monthly rent without spending over 30 percent of its income — the rule-of-thumb among housing experts. (This doesn’t even include utilities). But three-quarters of Pasadena’s renter households have incomes below $100,000. The American Dream of homeownership is out of reach for most of them.

High rents make it almost impossible for tenants to save money for a down payment. More than half (52 percent) of all Pasadena renters pay over 30 percent of household incomes just to keep a roof over their heads. A whopping 95 percent of renters with household incomes under $35,000 spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. Many Pasadena renters spend more than half their income on rent, plunging many full-time workers into poverty and, for the most vulnerable, homelessness.

The housing developments approved by the city have exacerbated this situation. According to city data, only 18 percent of the 5,311 new housing units approved by the City Council since 2002 are within reach of low-income and moderate-income families. Most are luxury condos and expensive apartments targeted for high-income residents. For example, in the new 201-unit Avila apartment complex on Walnut Street, 171 units are market rate. Rents for two-bedroom apartments range from $3,680 to $4,300 a month.

Many Pasadena landlords evict families in order to cash in on gentrification. On any given block, the appearance of new luxury housing means that your once-affordable street is about to become unaffordable.

These human tragedies happen all the time in Pasadena. One recent example is Nathaniel Cooke, who has been a Pasadena city employee for the last 35 years and whose family has been in Pasadena for four generations. He’s been a model tenant, paid his rent on time, and even helped improve the property by providing outdoor maintenance for free. But he recently received a 60-day eviction notice and will be moving to another community and have to commute to his job in Pasadena.

“Landlords should not be allowed to evict tenants without just cause,” Cooke told the City Council in May. “If we had real protections for tenants in Pasadena, this would not be happening to my grandsons and me.”

Another victim of Pasadena’s housing crisis is Victoria Baker, who has lived in her apartment on East Washington Boulevard for 22 years. In June, Davis and the other tenants in the 16-unit building were given eviction notices and told to leave their apartments within 60 days.

“How do they expect us to move?” Baker said. “I have a job where I’m able to sustain. But having to leave where I’m at (and move to an apartment) where rent is going to be $1,800, $2,000 — it’s kind of hard.”

Rent control is a popular and effective policy to prevent displacement and maintain affordable homes for tenants. Rent control does not freeze rents. It allows landlords to increase rents on an annual basis, typically based on increases in the Consumer Price Index. It also allows landlords to recover the costs of capital improvements. It simply stops landlords from gouging tenants to take advantage of the severe shortage of affordable housing. The landlord lobby and developers who seek to protect soaring real estate profits perpetuate the myth that local rent control would slow down new housing construction, but evidence from cities around the country with rent control shows that it has no impact, because it exempt newly built housing.

Today’s skyrocketing rents hurt the local economy. Tenants who spend too much of their income on rent don’t have much left over to spend in local stores and other businesses. So rent control is pro-business. If it was smart, the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce would support rent control.

The Pasadena Unified School District has lost many students because parents can’t afford rising rents and have had to move to other cities. The housing crisis hurts students because unstable housing — and frequent moves — means that they have to frequently change schools and suffer from the emotional trauma of eviction.

Pasadena certainly needs to expand the supply of affordable housing. To that end, city officials should strengthen the “inclusionary housing” law to require developers of market-rate apartments or condos to incorporate at least 25 percent of the units for low- and moderate-income occupants, like janitors, retail clerks, nurses, and school teachers. They should also identify a permanent revenue source for the city’s affordable-housing trust fund and require all developers to build mixed-income housing.

But we cannot simply build our way out of this severe housing crisis. It will take years to build enough affordable housing to make any serious inroads. Meanwhile, rising rents and evictions are an immediate crisis for thousands of families. The City Council should put a priority on safeguarding the existing inventory of affordable rental housing and protect renters from arbitrary evictions and displacement. 

Time to Organize

Several local groups — including Pasadenans Organizing for Progress (POP) and the Pasadena Tenants Union (PTU) — are now organizing to get the city to adopt rent control and just-cause eviction laws. Under the banner of the Pasadena Tenants Justice Coalition, They’ve begun enlisting the support of faith-based congregations, community organizations, civil rights and civil liberties groups, and labor unions to support the cause. Indeed, the issues facing renters and union members — hotel workers, janitors, security guards, garment workers, day care workers, nurses, grocery workers, and grocery store clerks, as well as nurses, school teachers and municipal employees — overlap. A pay raise can be quickly wiped out by a rent increase. An eviction notice can threaten their families’ stability.

What’s needed now is a multipronged effort to push city officials to adopt policies that the overwhelming majority of Pasadenans already support. The citywide coalition could:

1. Sponsor a citywide town hall on Pasadena’s housing crisis, bringing together tenants and homeowners who want the city to adopt laws to make sure that Pasadena is an inclusive and affordable city.

2. Put a human face on the housing crisis. At least one tenant should tell show up at every City Council meeting to tell his or her story about rents, conditions, and evictions, and one homeowner should be there to voice support for rent control and just cause eviction.

3. Organize a massive voter registration drive among renters. POP and PTU could work with the League of Women Voters, PUSD, PCC, and Caltech to register high school and college students. They could work, with clergy groups to register people after religious services, with labor unions to register their members who live in Pasadena, and with the civil rights groups to target black and Latino renters. They also need to go door-to-door registering and organizing tenants in apartment buildings.

4. Make tenants rights an issue in the upcoming mayoral and City Council elections. Send a questionnaire asking all candidates to answer “yes or no?” about their support for rent control and just-cause eviction. Follow that up by sponsoring a candidates forum on the issue, and then educate the public about their stances on these critical issues. Voters need to know which side which side they are on — the real estate industry or local residents?

5. Level the political playing field. Demand that all candidates for mayor and City Council agree to reject campaign contributions from developers, landlords, real estate investors, and bankers, who all have a stake in rising rents and luxury housing.

6. Run a slate of candidates for local office on a tenant rights and affordable housing platform. 

7. Engage in protest, rent strikes, and civil disobedience, when necessary, to draw attention to desperate human tragedies created by the city’s failure to address the housing crisis.

8. Every year, identify Pasadena’s best and worst landlords. Give an award to the best landlords, protest at the offices and homes of the worst landlords, and push the city to do a better job of getting irresponsible landlords to fix health-and-safety code violations. 

Pasadena is a city of enormous wealth and outrageous income disparities, as described in the recent report, “Pasadena’s Tale of Two Cities” report. It is time for local philanthropists, including the Pasadena Community Foundation, to strengthen our democracy by investing in grassroots organizing to make city a more livable and just city, and to help give working families, including renters, a stronger voice in local affairs. And it is time for local officials to take action on the biggest problem facing Pasadena — its housing crisis —with bold policies to make Pasadena the progressive city it claims to be.

 


Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. He is the coauthor (with Mark Maier) of the “Pasadena’s Tale of Two Cities” report.