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From Rent Hikes to Rent Relief: Advocating for Affordable Housing

Policy and Advocacy
From Rent Hikes to Rent Relief: Advocating for Affordable Housing

The Rent Roller Coaster: Tenants Strapped for Cash

You know that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you open that rent increase letter? The one that makes your heart race and your palms sweat as you anxiously scan the fine print, bracing yourself for the gut-punch of a number staring back at you. Well, if you’re a low-income renter in California, chances are you’re all too familiar with that unsettling experience.

Despite the state’s efforts to protect tenants from exorbitant rent hikes, a gaping loophole has left hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable renters unshielded. As someone who’s personally grappled with skyrocketing rents, I can attest that the struggle is real.

Take my neighbor, Miguel Contreras, for example. This 53-year-old mechanic recently had his rent jump a staggering 17% – from $1,828 to $2,138 – on the two-bedroom apartment he’s called home for over two decades. The kicker? His unit is considered “affordable housing,” financed back in 2006 with low-income housing tax credits. But because of a quirky exemption in California’s rent control laws, properties like Miguel’s aren’t subject to the same caps that protect most private-market tenants.

Rent Relief Roadblocks: The Affordable Housing Conundrum

Now, you might be thinking, “Wait, if it’s ‘affordable housing,’ how can the rent be skyrocketing?” Well, therein lies the rub. You see, the restrictions on these tax-credit funded units aren’t tied to the individual tenant’s income, but rather to the median income of the surrounding area. So, in wealthy regions where the median income is already sky-high, that translates to even higher rent ceilings.

Throw in factors like inflation, rising operating costs, and the financial toll of the pandemic, and you’ve got a perfect storm brewing for low-income renters. As Marcos Segura, a staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project, explains, “As long as the rent stays below the federal ceiling, it can be hiked at whatever percentage and however many times a year a property owner chooses.”

It’s a frustrating reality that’s left advocates like Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal and policy director at the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, fighting an uphill battle. As she puts it, “How are you supposed to live in affordable housing but it’s not affordable?”

The Rent Cap Conundrum: Balancing Tenant Needs and Landlord Concerns

When California lawmakers passed the Tenant Protection Act in 2019, their goal was to rein in skyrocketing rents across the state. But in their efforts to strike a delicate balance, they ended up carving out an exemption for these tax-credit funded properties – a move that, in hindsight, seems to have done more harm than good.

You see, the thinking behind the exemption was that since these units were already subject to rent restrictions, adding another layer of regulation might overcomplicate things. As former Assemblymember David Chiu, who authored the law, explains, “This was a heavily negotiated bill. The exemption for tax credit-funded properties in particular has fueled a quiet but complex policy debate over whether to further regulate rents.”

The debate, as you might imagine, has been anything but quiet. On one side, you’ve got tenant advocates like Simon-Weisberg, who are pushing for local rent caps to close the loophole. On the other, you’ve got landlord groups like the California Apartment Association, who argue that the properties are already heavily regulated and that changing the rules now would “create some problems for those owners who would even want to go into the business.”

Landlord Laments and Tenant Troubles: Finding the Middle Ground

It’s a delicate balancing act, to be sure. While no one wants to see low-income housing developers go out of business, the harsh reality is that tenants like Miguel Contreras are being priced out of the very homes they were meant to afford.

As Marina Wiant, vice president of government affairs for the California Housing Consortium, points out, property owners do need the flexibility to raise rents sometimes to cover operating costs and repairs. After all, many of these landlords – both nonprofit and for-profit – weathered the pandemic storm with tenants unable to pay, and are now facing a surge in insurance and maintenance expenses.

But there has to be a middle ground, right? A solution that protects vulnerable renters while still giving landlords a fighting chance to keep their properties afloat. Perhaps it’s a tiered rent cap system, or maybe it’s greater transparency around how those rent ceilings are calculated. Whatever the answer, it’s clear that the status quo is simply unsustainable.

Grassroots Gumption: Tenants Taking Matters into Their Own Hands

Frustrated by the lack of action at the state level, some tenants are taking matters into their own hands. In Antioch, for example, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment successfully pushed the city council to pass an ordinance capping rental growth – and this includes low-income housing units.

And they’re not stopping there. The organization is now filing ballot measures for the November 2024 election in four other Bay Area cities and one in the Central Valley, all aimed at imposing local rent caps on tax-credit funded properties. As Simon-Weisberg puts it, they’re particularly concerned about “corporate landlords buying up affordable housing units and those owners [being] more likely than nonprofits to raise rents to the maximum allowed by federal restrictions each year.”

It’s a grassroots effort that speaks to the desperation felt by low-income renters across the state. And with cities like Richmond, Fairfax, and Oakland already following Antioch’s lead, it seems the tide may be turning. After all, as the team at HACC Housing knows all too well, when it comes to affordable housing, the fight is far from over.

A Glimmer of Hope: Rent Caps and the Affordable Housing Equation

But there may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Earlier this year, a state committee took a step in the right direction by imposing a new rule that limits annual rent increases to 10% in new low-income housing units built with the help of tax credits. And while the rule doesn’t directly protect tenants in existing properties, the state expects most landlords to comply anyway – a move that could provide much-needed relief for struggling renters.

It’s a start, but as advocates like Simon-Weisberg and Anya Lawler, a policy advocate for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, will tell you, there’s still a long way to go. The legislation to impose a direct rent cap on tax-credit funded properties, Assembly Bill 846, is currently stalled in the state Senate, and the debate over how to balance tenant needs and landlord concerns continues.

From Despair to Determination: Empowering Tenants in the Affordable Housing Crisis

But one thing’s for sure: the tenants aren’t giving up without a fight. Whether it’s Miguel Contreras driving to his landlord’s office to protest rent hikes or the grassroots efforts of groups like the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the demand for real, sustainable solutions to the affordable housing crisis is only growing louder.

And as someone who’s been in the trenches, witnessing firsthand the devastating impact of skyrocketing rents, I can say with certainty that the time for action is now. Because when it comes to the basic human right of having a roof over your head, we simply can’t afford to sit idly by.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. Let’s push for the policy changes needed to protect low-income renters, while also ensuring that affordable housing developers can maintain the financial viability of their properties. Because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together – and the stakes have never been higher.

Ready to join the fight for affordable housing? Head on over to HACC Housing to learn more about how you can get involved. Together, we can turn the tide and make sure that “affordable housing” truly lives up to its name.

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