RENT CONTROL - When it comes to devastating the lives of tens of millions of Californians, the California Apartment Association and corporate landlords are public enemies number one. That’s not a stretch. No other industry has done as much destruction to the basic need of shelter, fueling the housing affordability and homelessness crises and upending people’s lives. But there is a solution: rent control.
It’s long been acknowledged that corporate landlords entered the rental housing market in a major way soon after the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, corporate landlords, who operate in multiple cities, have charged higher and higher rents to squeeze maximum profits out of their tenants. It’s no coincidence that between 2010 and 2019, U.S. tenants paid a staggering $4.5 trillion in rent, according to Zillow. In 2019 alone, renters paid landlords $512 billion.
California is one of the states hardest hit by a nationwide housing affordability crisis that’s fueled by the unfair, exorbitant rents charged by corporate landlords. Zillow came up with a top 35 list of U.S. metro areas where tenants paid the most to landlords in 2019. Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Riverside, San Jose, and Sacramento all appeared in the top 35 – no state had as many metro areas on Zillow’s list.
That human wreckage has been enormous.
Numerous studies, including two by Zillow, found that sky-high rents were fueling California’s homelessness crisis, forcing people to live in the streets where more and more people were dying. In Los Angeles, homeless deaths increased every year between 2014 and 2021, and The Guardian found that San Diego saw a 78 percent increase in homeless deaths between 2016 and 2020, Sacramento saw a 93 percent jump, and L.A. saw an 89 percent increase.
There have also been countless stories of college students and seniors living in their cars because they can’t afford skyrocketing rents, hard-working Californians unable to save money for emergencies, and Californians needing to choose between paying the rent or paying medical bills and buying groceries.
And since 2010, there have been constant scandals involving the predatory business practices of Blackstone Group, Invitation Homes, Equity Residential, Essex Property Trust, and other corporate landlords.
In 2019, for example, United Nations housing experts blamed Blackstone Group for fueling the global housing affordability crisis and “using its significant resources and political leverage to undermine domestic laws and policies that would in fact improve access to adequate housing consistent with international human rights law.”
In 2018, a Reuters special investigation of Invitation Homes found that in “interviews with scores of the company’s tenants in neighborhoods across the United States, the picture that emerges isn’t as much one of exceptional service as it is one of leaky pipes, toxic mold, nonfunctioning appliances, and months-long waits for repairs.” Invitations Homes also charged excessive rent increases and was quick to threaten tenants with eviction or file eviction notices no matter the circumstances.
Manufactured Housing Action, an advocacy group for mobile home owners, charged Equity LifeStyle Properties, a division of Equity Residential, with “vulture” capitalism by charging excessive rent increases while decreasing community services. Many seniors on fixed incomes live in mobile homes. One ELS resident said that the company seemed “intent on robbing seniors – mostly women – of a secure retirement.” Activists charged that ELS was “gouging grandma.”
And most recently, there’s the RealPage scandal. Through its software program, RealPage, a Big Tech firm, helped a cartel of corporate landlords to work together to wildly inflate rents in California and across the U.S. ProPublica broke the story in 2022. Since then, congressional members have called for federal investigations and more than 20 federal lawsuits have been filed by tenants against RealPage and its corporate clients. At least four of those suits involve California renters, and Equity Residential and Essex Property Trust are two of the corporate landlords named in the legal actions.
That’s just a few examples on the long list of corporate landlords’ devastating business methods.
Then there’s the California Apartment Association, which carries out the dirty work of Big Real Estate. Corporate landlords such as Equity Residential, Essex Property Trust, AvalonBay Communities, and many others contribute massive sums to the California Apartment Association’s four political action committees. The CAA then implements the real estate industry’s anti-tenant agenda by stopping any kind of pro-renter legislation and heavily contributing to local and state elected officials to shape housing policies that help Big Real Estate make billions.
Between 2019 and 2020, Housing Is A Human Right found that Irvine Company Apartment Communities, led by billionaire Donald Bren, delivered $125,510 to the California Apartment Association Political Action Committee; multi-millionaire landlord Tod Spieker shelled out $51,700; Equity Residential gave $7,012; and Woodmont Real Estate Services handed over $45,291.
In addition, Equity Residential gave $125,000 to the California Apartment Association Independent Expenditure Committee; AvalonBay Communities shelled out $55,515; Essex Property Trust delivered $465,682, and, among others, Sares Regis Operating Company contributed $124,825.
Then acting as a middle-man for Big Real Estate, the CAA uses corporate landlord money to send campaign contributions to local and state politicians in 51 of California’s 58 counties. Some of the beneficiaries have been Assemblymember Evan Low, State Senator Scott Wiener, Glendale Councilmember Ardy Kassakhian, and a host of others.
That’s just for the period between 2019 and 2020. Over the years, there have been many more big-money contributions from corporate landlords to the California Apartment Association.
In fact, Essex Property Trust, Equity Residential, AvalonBay Communities, Blackstone Group, Invitation Homes, and many other corporate landlords spent $175.4 million to stop two statewide pro-rent control ballot measures in California in 2018 and 2020. The California Apartment Association sponsored the main opposition committees that successfully deceived and confused voters and killed the initiatives.
Since then rents have only increased, more people are pushed into homelessness, and more people are dying on the streets. With so much destruction taking place in California, it’s no exaggeration to say that the California Apartment Association and Big Real Estate are public enemies number one.
It’s why Housing Is A Human Right and its parent organization, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, are sponsoring the Justice for Renters Act, a 2024 statewide ballot measure that will expand rent control in California. Tens of millions of lives hang in the balance, and only rent control will rein in the runaway greed and predatory business practices of corporate landlords and its anti-tenant enforcer the California Apartment Association.
(Patrick Range McDonald, author and journalist, Best Activism Journalism: Los Angeles Press Club, Journalist of the Year: Los Angeles Press Club, Public Service Award: Association of Alternative Newsmedia, and a contributor to CityWatch.)