By JOE CATRON
Emboldened by a national outcry against the use of eminent domain to seize property for private developments like Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards, California landlords have devised an ingenious attack on the state's local rent-control laws: Disguising a statewide referendum to ban them as a measure to reform eminent domain.
After the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial Kelo v. City of New London ruling in 2005, which allowed eminent-domain takings for private use, California landlords promoted Proposition 90, a deceptive proposal to weaken all public regulation of private property, including rent controls. It lost by a five-point margin in November 2006.
The landlords waited less than a month before introducing Proposition 98, dubbed the "California Property Owners and Farmland Protection Act" by its backers and the "Hidden Agendas Scheme" by tenant organizations and a broad range of other public-interest groups. Similar to Proposition 90 but even more destructive, Proposition 98 will appear on the state's June 3 ballot.
Proposition 98 ostensibly bans the taking of property for private use, but it defines "taking" to include "limiting the price a private owner may charge another person to purchase, occupy, or use his or her real property," and "private use" as "regulation of the ownership, occupancy, or use of privately owned real property or associated property rights in order to transfer an economic benefit to one or more private persons at the expense of another."
Californians for Property Rights Protection, the coalition backing Proposition 98, includes the Apartment Owners Association of California, the California Housing Providers Coalition, four mobile-home landlord associations, and four regional landlord organizations. UPI reports that landlords have poured nearly $2 million into the effort, and Nan Brasmer, president of the California Alliance for Retired Americans, says that over 90 percent of the coalition's war chest has come from landlords.
California has no statewide rent-regulation system. A dozen cities currently have rent-control laws for residential buildings, and 110 localities extend ordinances to mobile home parks. Proposition 98 would end them all.
Rent controls there are already limited by the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act. That state law, which only affects buildings, exempts all post-1995 units from local rent controls, prohibits cities from extending their laws to cover previously uncontrolled units, exempts single-family homes and condominiums, and enables landlords to set initial rents for new tenants, even if future increases face regulation: the infamous "decontrol/recontrol" system.
Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a Los Angeles tenants' union and community organization, warns that Proposition 98 would also attack even the meager rights of uncontrolled tenants. "What it basically says is that any laws cannot be maintained that impact the property values of owners," he says. "One could say that requiring a 60-day eviction notice does that. So it potentially has some broad-reaching impacts, ones that at this point we can't even think about, they're so dangerous." He also notes that the measure would hamper efforts to encourage the development of new affordable housing, such as inclusionary-zoning laws.
Dean Preston, a tenant attorney and organizer, left San Francisco's Tenderloin Housing Clinic in September to launch Tenants Together, California's only statewide tenant organization. He helped organize a Save Rent Control Convention in San Francisco on January 19.
"Tenants showed up in large numbers to save rent control," he says. "The event space was filled to capacity. Tenants are resolved to take strong action to defeat this dangerous initiative."
A similar event is planned for Los Angeles, Gross says. "We're holding a meeting down here in February to brief other organizations on what's going on and tie them into the campaign."
Several tenant organizations have joined Eminent Domain Reform Now, a statewide campaign for Proposition 99, the Homeowner Protection Act. That initiative would curtail eminent-domain abuse while leaving public regulations like rent controls in place. This way, Gross says, "voters who are concerned with eminent domain will have a choice to vote for something that will truly protect them." The competing propositions are the only two qualified to appear on the June 3 ballot.
Proposition 98 also threatens environmental, labor, zoning, and other protections. Because of its massive scale, the campaign opposing it has grown into what Gross modestly calls "a coalition that is broader than your typical tenants' rights or affordable-housing campaign." The bill has drawn the ire of organizations as diverse as the California Alliance for Retired Americans, the California League of Conservation Voters, the Consumer Federation of California, the League of California Homeowners, the State Building and Construction Trades Council, and even the California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities-all of which also support Proposition 99. With so many constituents united in a common cause, the effort to defeat Proposition 98 has breathed new life into California's tenant movement. "Rallies have been held in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and there will be more in these cities and elsewhere around the state," Preston says. "Tenants and tenant advocates are an integral part of the grass-roots campaign to defeat this ballot initiative."
But landlords have deep pockets, and California tenants face a difficult fight with far-reaching consequences. "Undoubtedly, landlords throughout the nation are watching this initiative closely," Preston says. "If [Proposition 98] passes, landlords in other states will view it as a green light to run similar measures. It is crucial that this measure be defeated, both to protect California's tenants and to prevent similar measures from hurting tenants across the country."
Gross agrees. "I think this is a threat to tenants and rent-control laws throughout the country," he says. "If the landlords succeed here, that will empower them to go after tenants everywhere."
Besides, Gross adds, California and New York tenant movements have always shared close ties. "When we originally fought for rent control in the mid-1970s," the former New Yorker says, "one of the landlords' arguments was that all of the tenant leaders fighting for rent control were from New York. And you know what? They were right!"