Nothing Protects Tenants Better than Adding Supply

By guest author Cathy Reisenwitz
September 2, 2019

Many Californians are clamoring for more tenant protection legislation. Lawmakers are currently considering AB1482, which aims to limit rent hikes and unfair evictions. Last year, California tenant advocates failed to pass Proposition 10, which aimed to expand rent-control.

Earlier this month, Alameda landlords Margaret and Spencer Tam made news for attempting to evict 87-year-old Holocaust survivor Musiy Rishin in order to replace him with higher-paying tenants. Then in late August police arrested a Mountain View landlord and her friends after they staged a violent home invasion in order to scare a family out of the home they were renting.

Keeping low-income families in their homes is a worthy goal. Displacement separates families from their jobs and social support systems. It exacerbates poverty and increases homelessness.

More than 16,000 households in San Francisco depend on rent control to stay in their homes. Ending it immediately would consign every low-income family in SF to either homelessness or crushing commutes. But keeping it going traps families in apartments which may or may not suit their current needs and raises rents (by a small amount) on average.

Rent control is a Band-Aid solution to the growing, nationwide problem of rent burden. Incomes among the bottom half of earners haven’t grown since the Great Recession. Rents, meanwhile, are skyrocketing across the US. They’re growing fastest in the cities that are creating the majority of new jobs.

Rents are increasing because high-demand cities aren’t building enough new homes. Rent control attempts to keep long-term residents in their homes, but rent control without new supply creates a huge gap between market rate rents and what low-income families pay.

This disparity pits landlords against rent-control tenants. Unfortunately, when landlords go up against tenants, they nearly always win. For example, landlords are nearly always represented in wrongful eviction cases, whereas tenants can rarely find a lawyer. And where they can’t prevail in court, they can always make life miserable for tenants by cutting off power like the Mountain View landlords. Or failing to maintain the property in the instance of the Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people in Oakland in 2016. Rent control also tends to benefit older, wealthier tenants who are better able to fight evictions and don’t have to move as often for work or family changes.

Limits on when and why landlords can evict tenants are supposed to protect them from displacement. But until market rates come down, landlords will be strongly incentivized to remove tenants who pay far below-market rates and replace them with market-rate tenants. And they’re likely to often prevail, as the above cases show. Unfortunately, even the strongest tenant protections can’t do the job of a housing market where landlords compete for tenants and not the other way around.

Rent control and tenant protections in San Francisco raise rents less than 10% on average, according to Stanford Researchers. They’re the only thing keeping low-income tenants in their homes in SF. But they alone will not be enough to keep low-income renters safe. The only thing that will work for all families, long-term, is to build more housing.