By C.R. Mills
Shelly Williams, the single mother of a two-year-old son, describes the period of time after discovering her landlord would be raising her rent beyond what she could afford as terrifying. “It almost broke me,” said Williams, who worried she could end up on the streets, losing her child in the process. “There were times my depression and anxiety were so great, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through.”
Steadily employed since she moved to Sacramento about two years ago, Williams earns $15 an hour, and for a while, she was making it. Not easily, by any means, but she managed to support herself and her child living in an apartment within spitting distance of the Howe and Highway 50 interchange. But when her landlord recently informed her of a $150 rent increase - on top of a $100 increase made just eight months prior - she realized she couldn’t afford to stay in her home any longer.
Williams scrambled to find a new rental, but crushing student debt harmed her credit score and hamstrung her efforts. Subsidized housing options could only offer a minimum wait time of a year and a half, useless to someone who had immediate bills to pay, a child to care for, and would be moving out of her home in weeks. The date of the rent increase loomed. “I just didn’t have any options, and wasn’t sure if anything was going to work,” said Williams. “For somebody who works hard and takes care of a kid, it just didn’t feel fair that I would be one step away from homelessness.”
As a steady stream of new residents has arrived in the Sacramento region, Williams’s story has becomes depressingly familiar. Between June 2016 and June 2017 alone, Sacramento’s rental market witnessed a staggering 9.9% increase, a larger year-to-year increase in rent than any other market in the country. As locals become unable to pay higher rents any longer, they began to leave for suburbs, other cities, or sometimes, the streets. This trend not only upends stable communities, but increases mental and physical health risks for the victims, an impact Williams can surely attest to. The profits from higher rents often don’t even go to local rental homeowners, but to far-off corporations who bought housing on the cheap during the recent recession.
All of this is happening right now in our region. We have a choice to either idly watch it happen to more and more people, including Williams and her son, or to stand up for solutions to the problem. One solution that’s low-cost, simple, able to significantly reduce the painful impacts of rising housing costs, and, if it had been in place a year ago, would have kept the Williams family in their home: rent control.
Rent control puts a cap on annual rent increases for tenants. Landlords can set the initial rent of a housing unit at whatever they’d like, but once someone occupies the unit, yearly price hikes must be below a small, reasonable percentage - often 2 to 3%, as opposed to the massive 25% increase Williams received.
When a tenant moves out of a rent-controlled unit, the landlord can again charge whatever they want. In order to safeguard against landlords simply evicting rent-controlled tenants so that they can raise rents for the next tenant, a companion law called “just cause eviction” is usually enacted. “Just cause eviction” means that a landlord has to have a reasonable justification to evict a tenant, such as nonpayment of rent - they can’t just kick someone out because they want to make more money on their unit.
Nineteen California towns already have rent control and companion just cause protections, including San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles. Just last year, Richmond and Mountain View passed ballot measures of their own implementing rent control programs.
Why the recent interest in rent control? In addition to a revitalized housing market in California causing skyrocketing rents, research has shown rent control works. Work done by the Haas Institute at UC Berkeley on residential displacement in the Bay Area found that “many of the neighborhoods that experienced less displacement than we would have expected had rent control policies in place.”
The Haas Institute goes on to state that “a number of academic studies have shown that rent control enhances housing stability for low income and less educated households.” For example, a study performed by the City of Berkeley in 2013 found that average rents for units subject to rent control were nearly half the cost of units that weren’t.
Rent control isn’t a magic bullet able to solve our region’s housing affordability crisis. Renewed investment in public housing and subsidized housing programs (like those that proved unworkable for Williams), support for community land trusts, and a slew of other efforts must be taken to truly ensure housing takes its rightful place alongside air, food, and water as a human right. But rent control represents a welcome start towards this goal.
Since her recent rent hike, Williams was able to find two rooms for rent in a Sacramento-area home that she could afford for both her and her son. While she remains nervous about raising her child while living with strangers - who also happen to be her landlords - she maintains hope that the situation will work out. “It’s still really expensive for me, but more affordable than staying here,” she says. Williams moves in two weeks.
Sacramento residents like the Williams deserve stable communities and homes. Right now, the city is failing them mightily. But as efforts grow to implement rent control locally to help solve the problem, so do misinformation campaigns about what rent control truly is. The final part of our three part series will delve into exposing the biggest lies being told about rent control.