By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – Apparently, there’s rent control. And then there’s rent control.
That was made abundantly clear Tuesday when a new Sacramento rent control ordinance was unveiled, and then quickly approved, at a Sacramento City Council meeting.
The council acted after reports in 2017 showed Sacramento had the highest rent increases for a metropolitan area in the nation. Or close to it.
But the ordinance became law with stiff opposition from the very people who wanted rent control. But not just any rent control.
Faced with a grassroots-organized city charter amendment that would firmly rein in draconian rent increases, and other gross abuses by landlords, the City of Sacramento was forced to sit down and compromise.
Council members met with proponents of the already-qualified measure that had garnered 44,000 plus signatures, or 20 percent of eligible city voters. The grassroots effort was headed for the 2020 ballot.
And generally, initiatives, if qualified, usually go to the ballot, absent some legal challenge. However, under a state law authored by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg – more than ironic since he supported an ordinance to kill the approved measure – municipalities can meet with proponents of initiatives and cut a deal.
And that’s just what the city did.
That’s why the Sacramento City Council jammed the ordinance on the ballot Tuesday, and then quickly approved the “Rent Control” ordinance – with only one dissent and one abstention. It attempts to mitigate out-of-control landlords.
But it’s not close to what the tens of thousands of Sacramentans thought they were getting when they signed petitions, said opponents Tuesday.
The new compromise ordinance would limit rent increases to six percent plus the Consumer Price Index amount, which was 2.7 percent last year. That would make a maximum increase of 8.7 percent last year, but it could go as high as 10 percent a year.
The grassroots-initiated measure was much more renter friendly. It would cap increases at half the city approved one Tuesday – at just five percent. And it could be as low as two percent if the CPI isn’t high.
That difference, as was made clear by speakers, could mean everything to Sacramento renters living in a stagnant wage increase economy.
Councilmember Steve Hansen led the effort to get the less stringent ordinance passed, noting that “this is not so imperfect we shouldn’t support it.” He said the ordinance will help renters facing 20-30 percent increases and those being evicted “for things that have nothing to do with their renting habits.”
However, loud proponents of the grassroots measure were not at all pleased. They said the ordinance approved Tuesday was not what the thousands who had signed petitions “expected.”
And they flat-out charged that city lawmakers – specifically naming Hansen and Steinberg – were bought off by landlords and landowners.
“A big part of why this deal is so bad is that rent can be raised up to 10 percent a year. That’s why we need a permanent rent control, and we need the opportunity to vote,” said one speaker. “We want landlords to profit,” but renters are opposed to “inhumane profits.”
“We were sold out by a labor union. The ones (who made the compromise with the city) were not the ones who gathered the signatures. They were the ones waiting for us back at the office for the signatures we gathered,” said Fairfield teacher Kevin Boltz. “Those voters who signed earned the right to vote (for the initiative).”
He and other speakers claimed that tens of thousands of dollars from developers and those opposed to rent control have flowed into 2020 re-election campaigns of Hansen and Steinberg.
“And we wonder why this (the city measure) is the best we can get. You are letting them kick people on the street,” Boltz said to the council. “I’m disgusted,” he said.
Hansen maintained that “this is not the end of the story, but the beginning of it.” Late in the meeting he asked for a modification of the ordinance so that it would be effective in 30 days, not 60, to give relief sooner to renters. He said he wanted to “send a clear message” to landowners the city wouldn’t “tolerate” rent gouging.
Councilmember Allen Warren said he wouldn’t support the new ordinance, largely because “as written it won’t produce the desired results.” And Councilmember Jay Schenirer admitted he was opposed to rent control, but that he would support the more modest city measure because he has heard many “stories of suffering.”
Citing thousands of affordable housing units under construction, Councilmember Jeff Harris said that “relief is on the way.” Although he said he believes more units is the answer, he voted for the compromise ordinance. Councilmember Larry Carr abstained, noting that he didn’t have time to study the measure, just put on the agenda this week.
Speaking to those opposed to the compromise measure, Steinberg said, “It was the initiative that pushed everyone to the negotiating table. We’ve got nothing now. If you’re looking for perfection this is not the place. It’s good, more than good. It is a start.”
Under the new ordinance, landlords can still evict tenants if they have to make certain repairs, but they need to give a 120-day notice. And the law only covers pre-1995 built structures, and those who have signed leases. It excludes single family homes.
Proponents of the now cast-off ballot measure spent nearly $740,000 to gather the signatures, while opponents of rent control – apartment owners – spent about $775,000, city records show.
If the measure had gone to the ballot next year, observers said millions of dollars would have been spent in a pitched battle for the votes of city of Sacramento voters.