State threatens rent control

Publication Date: Friday Apr 7, 1995

HOUSING: State threatens rent control

Pending bill would severely limit East Palo Alto law

by Don Kazak

East Palo Alto's rent control law may be headed for a major overhaul. The state Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday approved a bill that would would wipe out the strongest rent control laws in California, including one that has been in effect in East Palo Alto for 10 years.

Senate Bill 1257, authored by state Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), would prevent "vacancy control," meaning cities would not be able control rents when an apartment becomes vacant. Apartment owners would be allowed to adjust rents to market rates after someone moves out.

However, cities could continue to control rents for occupied units.

Communities that now enforce vacancy control include Berkeley, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Cotati and East Palo Alto.

While the bill still must clear the Senate floor and Assembly committee and floor votes, getting past the Senate Judiciary Committee is viewed by people on both sides of the issue as the toughest hurdle. That committee killed the last three versions of the same bill in previous sessions, including last year.

In the past, a similar bill was approved by the Assembly.

"That has been viewed as the biggest hurdle," said Terry Reardon, an aide to Costa. "We believe the votes are there in future committees and on both floors."

"This is a disaster," said William Webster, a member of East Palo Alto's Rent Stabilization Board who was in Sacramento for Tuesday's vote. "This (committee) was the best shot to defeat it."

Assuming the bill is approved by the Senate and Assembly and signed by the governor, it would become law on Jan. 1, 1996. The bill provides for a three-year phase-out of vacancy control. During that time, apartment rents could not increase more than 25 percent when a unit is voluntarily vacated.

Costa and other opponents of rent control have used census data to show that rent control has reduced the number of rental units in Santa Monica and Berkeley, two of the other cities most affected. East Palo Alto's stock of rental housing has increased under rent control, according to census data.

"This is a great victory for affordable housing," Costa said in a prepared statement. "Extreme rent control hurts renters because over the long term it reduces the number of rentals available."

But East Palo Alto Vice Mayor Sharifa Wilson sees the bill's victory as creating more problems for poor people. "It's only going to exacerbate conditions in poor communities," Wilson said.

Viewed in tandem with welfare cutbacks being discussed in Washington, a reduction in job training funds and summer jobs for youths, Wilson said the defeat of rent control in Sacramento is part of a pattern. "It's sad," she said. "There's a feeling that if people are impoverished it's their fault."

The culmination of the various measures, including an end to rent control, will hurt families and children the most, she said. "We'll see more families literally on the streets," she said.

Wilson is also upset because the state is removing a form of local control. "For me, it's not so much rent control, it's local control," Wilson said. East Palo Alto's rent stabilization law has been approved by the city's voters on three occasions.