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.