California Renters’ Caucus formed to fight for tenants

Only five state legislators rent, and they are pushing to win protections and political clout for the state’s 17 million renters

Photo by Jon Tyson

By Mark Kreidler

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main, and co-published here with permission.

When its legislative members formed the California Renters’ Caucus last fall, they understood the scope of their challenge: They were the only three renters identified among the Legislature’s 120 elected officials.

Or, as caucus chair Matt Haney (D-San Francisco) mordantly explained, if the group was able to really gain traction during the 2023 legislative session, “We might be able to double our membership.”

Nearly nine months later, the caucus stands at five — again, the only members of the Legislature who rent the place where they live. And not only are they advancing measures aimed at giving more Californians a shot at a fair rental situation, they are learning firsthand about the power of the industry that wants them to go away.

“What I can tell you is that we are small, but we are mighty,” Assemblymember Haney said with a smile last week as the caucus introduced its legislative priorities for when the Senate and Assembly reconvene next month. “Often the bills that we put forward face very strong opposition, very organized opposition… But we’re just getting started.”

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In some cases, the bills are very specifically targeted, such as Haney’s proposal for a strict cap on how much security deposit a landlord can demand of a prospective renter. In others, they are far broader, including a 10-year plan to build more than a million units of state-developed affordable housing.

And they do get political. A bill proposed by Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) is nominally about redistricting. Its real purpose? To prevent gerrymandering that is specifically designed to weaken or splinter blocs of voters who rent.

The stakes are bigger than the size of the caucus would make it appear. California is home to some 17 million renters, or 44 percent of the state’s population. But those renters are a fragmented group that has been represented through the years by a loose coalition of local nonprofits and advocacy organizations. Rarely has anyone stepped up to work on a coordinated state level.

Enter the caucus. Haney, who pays $3,200 a month for a one-bedroom in San Francisco, helped form the group and was elected its first chair. He didn’t expect a particularly warm welcome in the halls of the State Capitol; after all, about a quarter of the state’s legislators are landlords themselves, according to a 2020 report.

Renters’ caucus chair Matt Haney speaks on the Assembly floor on June 23, 2022. (Photo courtesy Matt Haney’s office)

Legislation sponsored by the caucus is also going to face headwinds from those representing the state’s landlords. That includes the powerful California Apartment Association (CAA), which a recent report noted has spent at least $233 million in political contributions and lobbying during the three state legislative sessions prior to this one.

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One of Haney’s stated goals last fall was to begin the process of repealing the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act of 1995, through which communities are prevented from imposing rent controls on units built at any point after that year. The measure also allows landlords to reset the price on previous rent-controlled units when they become vacant.

A fellow member of the Renters’ Caucus, state Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-Fremont), introduced a bill this session to expand the types of properties on which communities could enforce rent control, which would have represented an incremental encroachment on Costa-Hawkins. Under heavy pressure from the CAA and others, the measure failed, with 15 senators voting yes and 16 no. There were nine abstentions. (The apartment association loudly celebrated its role in defeating what it called anti-housing legislation.)

“It burned down in flames on the Senate floor,” Wahab said. “Nearly a quarter of the Senate decided not to vote on something that is completely reasonable — it’s just a reform, not even a repeal.” Supporters noted that the measure forced many legislators to make their positions publicly known, which to them was a small victory, but the bill itself vanished.

The caucus has succeeded in keeping five bills alive to be revisited next month. Among them:

  • Haney’s AB 12, which would cap security deposits at one month’s rent. “Many people in our state are looking at paying over $10,000 just to move into an apartment,” Haney said. “It’s not only an issue of whether you can afford the rent, it’s whether you can get into a home or apartment to begin with.” The measure passed the Assembly’s third reading on a 53-14 vote.
  • Bryan’s AB 1248, which would require independent redistricting commissions in cities and counties across the state. “At first glance, [it] might not look like a renters’ issue — until you look at my home city of Los Angeles, where folks conspired to gerrymander political boundaries with the intentional purpose of diluting the power of renters,” Bryan said.
  • Senate Bill 555, an ambitious plan by Wahab to establish a 10-year goal of creating 1.2 million units of affordable publicly funded “social housing,” with no fewer than 200,000 of the units going to those with very low or extremely low incomes. The bill says the private housing industry “has failed to meet the needs of the vast majority of California residents,” who can’t afford market rents.

There’s also a measure by Assemblymember Tasha Boerner (D-Encinitas) that would protect renters by giving inspectors more authority to ensure safe living conditions, and a proposal by Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San Jose) that would allow the state to create its own development agency and build affordable housing for residents.

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As some of the strong votes in support of keeping the bills alive would suggest, the five-person caucus isn’t exactly on an island in the Democrat-controlled chambers. Haney noted that every legislator in the state represents significant numbers of renters, some more than others. More than half of Los Angeles County residents rent, and the spiraling cost of housing both there and elsewhere is driving a conversation that feels more urgent by the week.

“Housing is the No. 1 issue when cities are surveying their constituents. It’s housing and homelessness, in every single city,” Wahab said. “And yet I’ve been very disappointed in the conversation around housing in the state Legislature. We’re not doing enough.”

One caucus won’t change that, at least not yet. Haney said the Renters’ Caucus will continue to push, and is open to sponsoring legislation not written by its members. Added Bryan, “When you are fighting for renters, for tenants, you are fighting for some of the most vulnerable Californians. And when you lift from the bottom, we all rise.” The lift, a long and heavy one, is under way.

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