A California Housing Fight, Waged With Pen and Walking Shoes

“It’s very doable,” she said.

Countering a Crisis

Until recently, rent control was mostly limited to a few urban areas in New York, California and New Jersey, as well as the District of Columbia. About half of states prohibit cities from even considering the idea, according to the National Apartment Association. But as cities have become magnets for high-paying jobs, producing higher rents and fights over gentrification, tenants’ movements have spread.

Last year Portland, Ore., passed a law requiring landlords to pay relocation costs for renters evicted without cause, while legislators in Washington State considered but ultimately killed a law that would have lifted a prohibition on rent control and paved the way for cities like Seattle to pass rent regulations. In Denver, Minneapolis and Nashville, tenants are fighting displacement, pushing for expanded protections and organizing into tenants’ unions.

“Towns and cities everywhere are seeing new organizing to build tenants’ unions, fight for renters’ rights and change these laws,” said Ryan Acuff, an organizer based in Rochester, N.Y., for the Homes for All Campaign, a national coalition of tenant activists.

In California, where one in five people lives in poverty once rent is figured in, lawmakers have offered a flurry of bills to streamline building regulations, expand tenant protections and put more money toward subsidized housing. For many tenants, those efforts are not nearly enough. Up and down the state, activists and renters’ groups are using California’s tradition of citizen government to put voter initiatives on the ballot.


Ms. Camacho, followed by Ms. Her, left a gathering at a union hall to canvass a neighborhood. If the Sacramento initiative qualifies for the ballot and is approved by voters, rent increases would be capped at 5 percent a year.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

There was a similar movement two years ago, when activists in a handful of cities in Silicon Valley and the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area promoted rent-control initiatives. They met with middling success, but as rents have risen further and rising homelessness has become an issue statewide, tenants’ groups are betting that voters will be much more receptive this time.

As a result, this year’s rent-control drives are more ambitious, in county seats like Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Santa Ana; big Los Angeles suburbs like Pasadena, Glendale, Inglewood and Long Beach; and the San Diego suburb of National City.

Some organizers are so confident that they are willing to try do-overs. The Santa Rosa City Council passed a rent-control measure in 2016, prompting a landlord-backed proposal that repealed the measure in a special election last year. Now, after the fires that destroyed thousands of homes across Santa Rosa and surrounding Sonoma County last year, organizers are getting ready to collect signatures for an initiative to put rent control back in place.

“People are already supportive of rent control, and even more so after the fire,” said Davin Cardenas, a director at the North Bay Organizing Project. “The need has not gone away, so we feel like we have a very good chance of winning.”

A Costly Proposition

Running in parallel to the various local rent-control drives is a statewide initiative that would repeal a longstanding state law limiting local rent regulations. That measure is backed by the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, whose director, Michael Weinstein, has put tens of millions behind ballot measures on health care and housing issues. That effort, should it end up on the ballot, is likely to escalate into a war of radio, billboard and television ads that could surpass $100 million in combined spending, according to political consultants who have run statewide campaigns.

Continue reading the main story