California’s housing standoff is becoming a battle. It doesn’t have to be this way
By Carol Galante
June 8, 2018
Carol Galante, Donald I. Terner Distinguished Professor of Affordable Housing and Urban Policy at the College of Environmental Design and the faculty director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, penned an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee last week on the political debate surrounding the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act. Galante argues that Californians deserve a better, more honest conversation on rent control legislation rather than "an unremitting and divisive debate" when it comes to voting on the issue in the upcoming November midterm election.
Below is Galante’s op-ed excerpted in full.
The political tug-of-war over repealing the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act will not lead to lasting solutions for California’s housing affordability crisis. Whichever side wins in this highly politicized and costly ballot box fight, ultimately, California’s renters will lose. The stakes are too high to allow a binary debate to represent what Californians need or to dictate what outcomes are possible.
Today, one side of this debate is working to qualify a measure on the November ballot that would fully repeal Costa-Hawkins, enabling localities to impose new forms of rent control in their jurisdictions including on single-family and newly-constructed homes and to apply when a resident vacates the unit. The initiative is an effort to protect tenants from rising rents and displacement.
The other side is concerned that such a repeal would disincentivize both ongoing investment in existing rental homes and much-needed construction of new housing. Both sides are gearing up for a full-blown battle over the ballot measure.
These responses are extreme because the housing crisis in California is dire. According to the California Budget & Policy Center, more than half of renter households (three million) in California are “rent-burdened,” which means they are paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
Far too many families have been forced to choose between paying their rent and their other daily needs, have been evicted or priced out of their homes, or are unable to plan for their economic futures because of the unpredictability of rent increases.
Neither option – an untenable status quo or the potential for significantly expanded, stricter rent control policies, which could irreparably constrict the already limited supply of housing in the state – reflects evidence-based, viable alternatives. Californians deserve a better, more honest conversation on possible approaches rather than an unremitting and divisive debate.
And this conversation is needed urgently. If the repeal initiative is not withdrawn from the ballot by late June, all the attention and funding focused on advancing or preventing the repeal promises to distract policymakers and confuse voters about other significant efforts to address the housing crisis in the state, such as the Veterans and Affordable Housing Bond Act of 2018.
I believe that it is possible to meaningfully protect renters without inhibiting investment in new or existing homes. It is this conviction that alternative strategies should be pursued, bolstered by my conversations with a full range of stakeholders, which led the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley to release a policy brief with two such ideas.
One provides real protections against egregious rent increases for all Californians via a statewide cap on rent increases that would amount in most years to 5 percent plus the Consumer Price Index. The other, based on a Washington state policy, creates more affordable housing overall via a new property tax abatement incentive program for the creation and retention of below-market-rate units. (Find the full report at ternercenter.berkeley.edu.)
Our proposals are not intended to represent the only solution to California’s housing crisis, or even the sole pathway forward on rent control. They need not be thought of as in lieu of other renter protection policy efforts, such as “just cause” eviction protections, or other efforts to expand the supply of housing in the state. Although we believe there are more effective policies than a full repeal of Costa-Hawkins, our proposals also do not preclude reforms to the law.
Rather, my hope is that our proposals will serve as a catalyst for a more robust dialogue, pushing us all to think more critically and to explore nuanced approaches more thoroughly. This conversation must contend with the acute need for serious solutions as well as the real consequences of any path forward. This work is essential, and I call on leaders, advocates and policymakers to engage to make better options a reality.