During the 1980s, few California political issues burned as intensely as rent control.
California’s population was growing rapidly, and the state was evolving from having a big majority of homeowners into one with a relatively low rate of homeownership and a proliferation of rental units.
The trend fueled a spate of rent control ordinances in liberal cities, pitting renter advocates against landlords and developers. Meanwhile, in rural and suburban areas, elderly retirees in mobile homes sought rent controls on the parks in which they occupied spaces.
Landlord vs. renter battles flared not only in local governments, but in the courts and, eventually, in the Legislature.
One big skirmish occurred in a liberal Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Rose Bird. In 1984, it upheld a Santa Monica city charter provision barring landlords from evicting tenants in order to demolish units, unless they got permission from the city housing board.
The court rejected landlords’ claims that the law violated property rights, and in response, they and developers turned to the Capitol. In 1985, a Democratic-controlled Legislature passed and Republican Gov. George Deukmejian signed the Ellis Act, named for Jim Ellis, the GOP senator who carried the bill, to overturn the Santa Monica decision.
The Ellis Act allows landlords to evict tenants to “go out of business,” even if the building remains intact, thereby allowing apartments to be converted into condominiums.
Some cities have attempted to counter the act with local laws requiring landlords to jump through additional hoops, but the property owners have mostly prevailed. And a decade after passing the Ellis Act, the Legislature went further, freeing landlords to raise rents when their units become vacant.
Fast-forward to 2014.
San Francisco is booming with high-income tech industry workers and has much more demand for housing than it can supply, creating an incentive for investors to buy apartment houses, evict low- and moderate-income tenants and convert units into pricey condos for techie buyers with ready cash.
Renter advocates and their political allies in San Francisco are fuming about the spate of evictions, and last week, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee came to Sacramento to talk to legislative leaders about amending the Ellis Act to make evictions more difficult, or perhaps impossible.
That effort will be followed by a “Renters Day of Action” in a few weeks, with renters descending on the Capitol to push their cause.
It could be a replay of the 1980s rent control battles, overlaid with San Francisco’s current culture war over the impact of tech workers.
Though renter rights advocates would appear to have an advantage with a mostly liberal Legislature, it’s not a clear-cut ideological issue – and Gov. Jerry Brown is a very uncertain factor.