File photo by Hélène Goupil

Your proposition may be good, but let’s have one thing understood:
Whatever it is, I’m against it.
And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it
I’m against it. — Groucho Marx

Life didn’t used to be so complicated. People wore natural fibers, ate organic food, breathed clean air … and died young. Caves didn’t have rent control; if there were more of them than there were of you, they’d just go ahead and evict you. The rent board was eaten by a saber-toothed cat and all the signature-gatherers to get a measure on the ballot fell into the La Brea Tar Pits.

Considering the nasty and brutish components, perhaps the shortness of life in a state of nature was a feature, not a bug.

Well, we don’t live in a state of nature anymore. We live in the state of California. And life is complicated.

To wit, tenants’ rights activists have been heartened by a series of municipal victories; rent control is polling well. So, naturally, you would expect state Prop. 10 to poll well. It’s not. Rather, it appears headed for a messy demise.

Per a mid-month survey by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, 60 percent of voters are now thumbs-down on Prop. 10, with only 25 percent in favor. Not surprisingly, these results come on the heels of a spending barrage by landlord and property-owner interests — including, bizarrely, San Francisco’s pension system. The anti-rent control forces have loosed an arsenal exceeding $68 million.

The No on 10 campaign has made (specious) claims that rent-control expansion will slow construction in this state (which is already 49th in the nation in housing construction, so it doesn’t have much further to fall). Its ads feature seniors, veterans, and senior veterans claiming that Prop. 10 will force them into the streets (and, of course, lower the value of their homes).

There is much political value in telling homeowners that X, Y, or Z would reduce their property values, ruin their views, result in undesirables moving into the neighborhood, or all of the above. Like an adept football coach, political strategists will keep running this play until the defense manages to stop it — and, right now, it can’t.

Casting Prop. 10 as an attack on homeowners, as this South Bay sign does, has paid dividends thus far. Photo by Zak Franet.

That Prop. 10 would likely succumb to an avalanche of real-estate and landlord money was not unanticipated by San Francisco tenants’ rights organizers. Boots-on-the-ground activism of the sort that wins local campaigns is tough to reproduce on a statewide level.

You will not be surprised to learn that Los Angeles and San Francisco tenant organizers and organizations do not always see eye to eye or think all that much of one another. Prop. 10 is the brainchild of Michael Weinstein, the brazen CEO of Los Angeles’ AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which has poured scores of millions into the rent control-expansion measure and is its only significant donor.

Organizers here have all fallen behind Weinstein’s lead. But, on background, some questioned if this was the right year to for a  statewide battle; perhaps a few more years of successes on the local level would have galvanized a movement. Northern California organizers also expressed some frustrations at, essentially, taking marching orders from an “egotistical billionaire” from L.A. writing all the checks.

If Prop. 10 does fail, expect local backers to discreetly distance themselves from the effort (but not in a manner demonstrative enough to dissuade Weinstein from writing a big check in the not-too-distant future).

Even the measure’s most ardent backers admit that it can be a tough sell. This is not simple stuff: Prop. 10 would, officially, undo the Costa Hawkins Act of 1995. You may not have ever heard of this law; most Californians certainly haven’t, especially if they live in non-rent-controlled cities. The Costa Hawkins Act limits what municipalities can do with regard to rent control: It exempts single-family homes or any structures built after ’95. It outlaws “vacancy control,” which would preclude landlords from jacking up the rent in a unit after a rent-controlled tenant moves out.

If Prop. 10 were to succeed, the state would not suddenly wake up to find itself rent-controlled. Rather, each jurisdiction could then formulate its own rules without the restrictions currently imposed by Costa Hawkins. This is part of why the Yes on 10 camp finds itself with that tough sell: They have to convince voters to repeal an act they’ve likely never heard of so parts of the state could then enact laws of a sort they could have enacted before.

Costa Hawkins limits the types of rent control a city can do; it takes single-family homes and new buildings out of the equation. But there are plenty of aging multi-unit buildings around, and in any town where there was political will, some form of rent control could have been instituted in the past. And that’ll be the case in the future, no matter what happens come November.

So, it’s not logical to claim that the Fresnos and San Bernardinos would, suddenly, scramble for rent control if Costa Hawkins were vanquished — nobody there ever mounted a serious push for rent control before.

Prop. 10, then, isn’t so much about bringing rent control to where it isn’t as expanding rent control where it is. This, too, is complicated. This, too, is a hard sell.

There’s a reason they call economics “the dismal science.” Economists, ideally, aren’t swayed by emotional or political input. Even liberal economists are skeptical about rent control — and disdainful of vacancy control.

If San Francisco or some other city eventually enacted vacancy control, it’s highly conceivable that landlords, in the business to make money and suddenly shut out of market value for good, would exit the rental market by creating tenancies-in-common. This would, of course, be a loss of rent-controlled units and work against keeping longtime tenants in their homes — an antithetical outcome for tenant activists.

There are consequences for any action, regardless of what either side puts in its campaign ads. Not surprisingly, both rent-control backers and naysayers are using the very same Stanford study to bolster their claims — and cherry-picking the findings. That August 2018 report found that rent control accelerated gentrification here in the Mission as landlords opted to convert former flats into luxury condos and co-ops. Rent control increased the stratification of the neighborhood. But it also kept tenants from being displaced — especially low-income and/or older renters.

Rent control, then, contains multitudes.

This is complicated. And it will continue to be: whether Prop. 10 succeeds or fails, the next step is to continue campaigns, city by city (hello, Sacramento).

Rent control acolytes can only hope that, when they make their next pitch, in some California city near you, voters don’t come out against it. Even when they’ve changed it or condensed it.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Prop 10 will allow local governments to impose rent control (1) on new constructions; (2) on single family homes/condos and (3) when a tenant moves out. You need to know that researches by Stanford, Berkeley, and MIT economists UNANIMOUSLY agree that this is a bad idea.

    Some cities, such as SF, are already suggesting imposing rent control during vacancy. That is, if a tenant moves out, the landlord cannot charge a new tenant market rate. Now, suppose the market rate is $2700, and this rental unit can rent for only $1000. Many renters are going to want that unit. A first prospective renter makes $300,000 a year, has a perfect credit score, and promises to change the carpet. A second prospective renter makes $30,000 a year, with less than perfect credit score, and has to work two jobs. Which prospective renter will get it?

    Rent control is a SCAM. It actually hurts the lower income (in this example, $30,000 a year) renter. If you want affordable housing, ABOLISH rent control. ABSOLUTELY NO on Prop 10.

  2. AIDS patients, friends and relative of AIDS patients, and generous contributors to Weinstein’s AIDS “charity” should be outraged that money given for AIDS patients is being frittered away on Weinstein’s continuous wrong-headed pet political fights that end up being soundly rejected by California voters.

  3. When CA voters passed Prop 13 they did so in large part because of anecdotal stories of individuals at risk of losing their homes, despite solid evidence showing that the law would have long term and widespread detrimental impacts. The proponents of Prop 10 rely on the same anecdotes while the evidence points to the same sort of long term negative impacts.

  4. Prop 10 is absolutely needed.. I witnessed (and continue) to witness the rental price gouging here in Sonoma County following the fires. Despicable. We need less state level policies to think that Rural El Dorado county should be governed under the same policies as the metro areas is insane! People in the bay are are loosing their homes and apartments by the scores! This shit has to stop. Every person deserves a place to call home, screw the developers and their money grubbing!

    1. David – rental price gouging after a disaster is already illegal. Prop 10 won’t change that. It will, however, stop developers from building new housing to help alleviate the burden the fires have caused…thus making housing even more expensive.

    2. David- as Adam stated the Governor has put a moratorium on housing increases and anyone who increases rent above 10% in areas affected by the fire can be prosecuted. By your logic areas that have rent control like many areas in the the bay area ie Berkley, Richmond, East Palo Alto, San Jose, San Francisco, and Mountain View are losing their homes and yet you want vacancy control, houses and new construction to be under rent control in El Dorado. Guess what would happen to El Dorado if you got your wish. People losing their homes and can’t move from their apartments. If you want to screw the developers, but you will have to compete against the software engineer for your next one bedroom apartment and my guess is that he will get it and there will be no place for you to stay.

  5. If passed, Prop 10 will in fact make the housing problems worse. Nobody in their right mind will build new rental housing. As stated above, renal buildings, especially small, 2, 4, or 6 unit buildings, will be emptyed and sold to tenants-in-common or as condos depending on the jusidiction. The only workable solution is to elect peole with real-world expericene, as oppossed to non-profits or governmental employmnet, to decision making positions. Do not allow the loudest “activist” groups who represent very few people to rule the roost.

  6. I think that the increased local control that Prop 10 would create is precisely the problem. We’ve already seen what happens when systems are regionally uncoordinated and hyper-localized: the suburbs on the Peninsula allow almost unlimited commercial office development but make other communities bear nearly the entire burden of housing the workers who occupy those offices. Meanwhile, my friends in the Richmond have to use three different, poorly-coordinated transit agencies to visit friends in Hayward.

    I think California already has too many municipalities with too much local control. It’s too difficult to coordinate on important regional tasks (like transportation infrastructure) and too easy to inflate the scope of NIMBY policies from “backyards” to entire cities.

    So, regardless what anybody thinks of rent control and Costa-Hawkins, the answer cannot possibly be to further reduce the scale on which our society tries to solve problems.

    1. “El-D”,

      You are exactly right.

      Prop 10 kicks the door wide open for 481 jurisdictions throughout California to impose rent control on all rental housing — including new developments and people’s own homes.

      40+ years of failed, hyper-localized, NIMBY-driven anti-housing policy has led inexorably to the present housing shortage and skyrocketing housing costs.

      Incredulously, Prop 10 represents a further reliance on this utterly failed approach.

      Practically every locality in California with a robust jobs market has been thwarting adequate housing creation — the NIMBYs residing in these places always want some other community to accommodate it.

      The “Local system” has clearly failed, we need strong State-level pro-housing laws — like Costa Hawkins, SB-828 and SB-827 to ensure that every jurisdiction does its fair share of housing production (close to the jobs) and that we encourage, rather than discourage, the creation of desperately-needed housing.

      That’s the only way we’re going to be able to effectively and sustainably address the housing shortage and mitigate rising housing prices for all Californians.

      Prop 10 does not do this.

      There is no requirement or even incentive in Prop 10 to do so.

      PROP 10 is BAD POLICY.

  7. “The No on 10 campaign has made (specious) claims that rent-control expansion will slow construction in this state (which is already 49th in the nation in housing construction, so it doesn’t have much further to fall).”

    The claims that Prop 10 will kill off rental housing production are hardly “specious”.

    No project sponsor in their right mind is going to create rental housing if there is no certainty that the government won’t take away its value as soon as it is produced (i.e., via unconstrained rental control expansion.)

    The article rightly points out that California ranks 49th(!!) in housing creation.

    Especially with the economy booming, you’d think the pro-Prop 10 folks would ask why that is?

    Perhaps it is because it is enormously difficult, expensive, time-consuming and uncertain to create housing in this State?

    And why is that so?

    Well, it’s because for 4+ decades hyper-local NIMBY-driven anti-housing policies have created this situation and Prop 10 represents a doubles down on this failed approach.

    (Oh, and it also exposes people’s single-family homes to the threat of rent control to boot — No Thanks!)

    We should be massive encouraging — not discouraging as we presently do (and Prop 10 would absolutely decimate new rental housing production) — the creation of massive amounts of new housing.

    Prop 10 is bad policy — plain and simple.

    1. Only people that are against 10 are developers and landlords, they are worried their paydays are in jeopardy again. They fought hard to kill rent control in the past and now use the money they squeezed out of old people in apartments to create negative ads. The basic argument against it this “If developers have to start renting to the poors, they will never build new housing!!!”

      Well guess what, renters are done. Time to take back control you vampires. #YesOn10

      1. Voting for Prop 10 might eventually result in limited benefits for some existing tenants, but renters overall — especially those newly arriving in search of employment opportunities — will be royally screwed.

        Accordingly, voting for Prop 10 is basically cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

        Fortunately, most people have a rational understanding regarding the housing shortage and realize that the only way to solve it is to create more housing — a lot more housing and especially rental housing.

        Prop 10 will basically kill rental housing production.

        Prop 10 is a fool’s errand.

    2. In Walnut Creek 26 miles from San Francisco’has impossible home prices and rents on 1 bd room apartments at $2700 month. This is without rent control. Additionally I don’t think property owners in rent-controlled San Francisco or Berkeley have suffered over the past 30 years and counting.

      1. @f gillis what does that have to do with prop 10? Costa Hawkins protects three thing, single family homes and new construction from rent control and prevents vacancy control. If Walnut Creeks wants rent control they can do it, but it will just make it harder to create new housing and that is the solution to helping ease the sky high rents.