Earlier this year, San Francisco-based California State Senator Scott Wiener turned local zoning codes into a national news story when he introduced the Transit Zoning Bill, SB 827, which would have allowed new housing near major transit hubs to be built up to eight stories tall, overriding local zoning concerns.
Although the bill ultimately failed, it was a proposal that galvanized pundits and supporters across the housing and development divide: it was either a long-overdue, common-sense solution to a lack of housing supply, or a misguided measure that would usurp local control and disrupt neighborhoods.
But in terms of local housing policy, and a significant rise in activism and advocacy, it can be seen as the tip of an iceberg. According to Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, a statewide tenants rights organization in California that formed in 2008, 150 housing-related bills were introduced in the California legislature last year, one of many signals Preston and others have noticed showing a sharp rise in activism and political pressure to change housing laws.
“There is a lot more interest on the state level, since more and more people have recognized we’re in the midst of a housing crisis,” says Preston.
Along with a growth in activity from tenants union and rent strikes, more and more local groups are succeeding in putting these issues on the political agenda. This grassroots energy flows in part from the fact that, in addition to traditionally being a local issue, housing was barely a factor in the 2016 election.
“We need to make housing an issue because I don’t think candidates on a national level ever talk about it,” says Shanti Singh, communications and development coordinator for Tenants Together. “We’re obviously trying to change that.”
Preston points to California, both due to his experience there and the increasingly expensive housing market, as a leading indicator of a national swing towards pushing for rent control, tenants’ rights, and housing legislation. The passage of rent control in Richmond and Mountain View in 2016 represented the first time in 30 years a municipality in California had passed such a law.
Now, there’s a movement to overturn Costa Hawkins, a statewide rule that limits rent control measures, with a ballot initiative this November, and Santa Cruz, among others, has local rent control on the ballot (similar proposals were defeated in Inglewood and Santa Rosa).
“Our group and our allies in California have been planting the seeds and nurturing local movements to pass new rent control laws,” says Preston. “There was an assumption they couldn’t pass any new laws. Now, a number of cities will vote on such measures this election.”
The momentum isn’t confined to the Golden State. In Chicago, Lift the Ban is working to establish rent control, the national Up for Growth alliance is pushing zoning reform and walkable development with housing opportunities for all, and the Right to the City Alliance, which started in 2007, has been working nationwide to protect and promote affordability and renters’ rights, working with dozens of groups in every corner of the country.
For Preston, what’s changed in California and elsewhere is that tenants and activists have simply had enough. He points to rising rents in city centers, a growing renter population, increasing consolidation of real estate ownership, and rises in displacement and evictions as catalysts for increased action. The lack of help from a federal level only reinforces the need for local advocacy, he says.
“There are different takes on what caused and what can solve the crisis, but people are talking about it,” he says.
In addition to rent control, tenants rights have become another rallying point for local activists and advocates. It’s a pressing issue; according to research by scholar and author Matthew Desmond, roughly 900,000 households faced eviction in 2016.
San Francisco’s recent passage of a right to counsel for evicted tenants has opened up the issue to consideration across California. A national movement to secure a right to counsel—evidence shows that providing a tenant with legal representation reduces the chances of eviction—has sprung up, with right to counsel legislation passing in New York City and in the works in Newark, New Jersey. Philadelphia’s Eviction Protection Project offers an array of services to tenants, while the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel has also pushed the issue.
But tenants’ rights has been a tougher sell, according to Preston, because by making it harder to evict, it takes away some of the power of landlords. The “elephant in the room” is the powerful landlord and real estate lobby.
“There’s a willingness to talk more about the housing, but only by talking about solutions that don’t challenge real estate and profits,” he says.
There has been some increased activity on a national level, especially in light of movement from the Trump administration and new HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson to cut federal funding for housing aid and public housing. But in some ways, it still hasn’t quite coalesced. Home1, a national advocacy group that formed to push for more affordable housing, hopes to impact the next election, but has its plans and resources focused on action for 2020, according to spokesperson Christiaan Boer.
But an increasing number of candidates for Congress, especially a new generation of Democrats, have made housing affordability and housing issues part of their a campaign platform, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Democrat running for a seat in Congress, and Joe Neguse, a 33-year-old son of Eritrean immigrants vying for a seat in Colorado.
Preston says his organization’s focus has been on collaboration and power-building with local groups. The local efforts do bubble up, and Tenants Together expects to see this begin to have more impact on both the state and federal levels going forward. Federal policy has a considerable role in funding and supporting affordable housing.
“There’s no crisis for landlords and developers,” says Preston. “They’re doing great and don’t want to change anything.”