The effort to put a rent control law before voters has been called off for now, but the problem that prompted it remains: Long Beach is in the grip of a housing affordability crisis.
The coalition of groups that launched the unsuccessful rent control campaign said no matter what happens, tenant rights need to be strengthened. City leaders are “not doing anything to address this housing crisis and renters are being pushed out of their homes as they have been for years now,” said Josh Butler, executive director of Housing Long Beach, one of the groups involved in pushing the ballot measure.
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After announcing this week the end of the local signature-gathering campaign, Butler said his coalition will focus on supporting a statewide ballot initiative, Proposition 10, which seeks to repeal a law that restricts cities from imposing rent control on units built after 1995.
Mike Murchison, a lobbyist and spokesman for the landlord group Long Beach Residents for Fair Housing, said that while landlords statewide are worried about the potential repeal of the Costa Hawkins Act, those in his coalition breathed a big sigh of relief when they learned that the signature gathering process had been suspended.
The negotiations for the future of rental housing in Long Beach will go on, Murchison said, but rent control is a non-starter.
“I think that both sides are willing to come to the table and figure out an ideal solution for all parties,” Murchison said. “We all just looked at rent control from our standpoint as being a draconian measure. I think that when you talk about tenant rights, tenant relocations, that stuff is still on the table.”
Earlier this year the City Council directed staff to explore expanding tenants’ rights protections in Long Beach, and Murchison pointed to those upcoming negotiations in hoping both sides can put the rent control campaign behind them and help craft a compromise.
Patrick Ure, a manager with the city’s housing and neighborhood services bureau, said his office is in the process of writing a memo that will outline its findings gathered through conversations with about 100 cities statewide.
Ure said cities offered a variety of renters’ protections. Four cities in particular have strong policies that include just-cause evictions statutes, anti-retaliation laws, tenant relocation assistance and programs similar to the city’s rental housing inspection program.
Ure said a series of meetings with landlords, renters and others are planned in the coming months. Staff recommendations could be presented to the City Council as soon as October.
“I won’t know what that ordinance is going to include until we have these community engagement meetings, and of course the council will get a chance to weigh in on that as well,” Ure said.
To get the two sides to agree on recommendations could be a challenge. Landlords and tenants rights groups have clashed for years over a number of ideas:
- In 2015, officials considered, but have not enacted, a rent escrow account program that would force bad actor landlords to make livability repairs by giving tenants the ability to withhold rent or pay it into an account that would be released to the landlord upon certification of the repairs.
- In 2016, a just-cause eviction program was considered. That is one of the items currently slated to be part of the discussions scheduled between landlords and tenants groups.
- And the past year has been dominated by the behemoth ordinance that was circulated by the rent control coalition that included rent control and just-cause eviction.
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Robert Fox, one of the faces of the landlord resistance, said he’s been ready to come to the table for some time now—so long as rent control isn’t one of the issues being considered.
Fox, who owns about 15 rental properties in the city, said he’s bothered by the displacement that’s taking place and he wants to create a policy that keeps diversity in Long Beach.
“If you don’t have low-income people in your city and moderate-income people in your city, and you have the upper class in your city, economically you don’t function very well,” Fox said. “If there’s no housing for anyone that’s going to be your housecleaner, who’s going to drive in from Riverside to clean your house? Where are these people going to live in the city of Long Beach if we make housing so unaffordable?”
What happens over the next few months, or years, could depend on how willing the two sides are to compromise. Housing prices are unlikely to taper off and landlords in a strong economy are unlikely to freeze rents.
Butler still hopes to put rent control to the voters, potentially as early as 2020. Supporters announced this week they would not meet a July 30 deadline to turn in more than 27,000 signatures required to qualify a rent control measure for the ballot.
Butler said this week’s announcement was a formality; the group had already missed the cutoff date to qualify for the November ballot, and the city could have exercised its right to use a second 30-day review period to count signatures.
“We released that official statement so that people really understand that we do not need people to go out collecting, that we are reevaluating what is the best path forward right now and that will be to put pressure on City Hall,” Butler said.
Butler would not say how close the group was to the 27,000 mark, but said that with more financial resources the coalition could have gotten over the hump. He said that the organizers had learned from this experience and would likely use this knowledge when or if it decides to mount another campaign to get rent control on the ballot.
“We’re still where we’ve always been, which is Long Beach being the largest population on the West Coast without any basic renters’ protections,” Butler said.
“So people who are relocating here need to know that, because they come to our office and say ‘Hey, I’m from the Bay Area, I’m from Los Angeles, I can’t believe this is happening. Do we have any rights?’ And we tell them no you do not. Welcome to Long Beach.”