How Tenants Expanded Renter Protections to 8 Million Families

ACCE Board President, Sasha Graham, after speaking at Governor Nesom’s signing of the Tenant Protection Act of 2019. Photo by San Francisco Chronicle, Scott Strazzante

One week ago today, Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (Assembly Bill 1482) into law as the largest expansion of tenant protections in recent history. The bill will provide protections to 8 million tenants who previously had none by capping rent increases at 5% plus inflation and stopping unfair evictions. This is an incredible victory for the tenant’s rights’ movement, but it did not happen overnight, by magic, or merely by the goodwill of politicians. It happened because of years of tenant organizing.

This victory was both years in the making and the result of an exciting broad-based coalition and the work of literally hundreds of organizations and thousands of tenant activists, including people like me. This campaign was led by grassroots community organizations in low-income communities of color and, also garnered the active engagement of labor, seniors, environmental groups and even segments of the business community.

In 2014, I was living in a home with my son in Richmond, California that I had been living in for nearly 10 years without issue. In May of that year the property was sold to a new owner and within a month my rent was increased over $1000 in one fell swoop — over 150% rent increase. My income had not increased, but I was able to scrape the money together to pay the new rent amount in full on time. But even though the new landlord had increased my rent, it wasn’t enough — they wanted us out of the property so they could flip it. Within 20 days the landlord gave me a no-cause eviction to be out of our home within 60 days.

My son and I became homeless for 3 years. We were forced to live in unsafe and unstable circumstances because we couldn’t afford anything more, and the waitlist for public housing was 2 years. I knew I never wanted any family to have to go through what I went through, and so when an organizer of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) approached me in the parking lot of FoodMax to talk about rent control in Richmond, I knew I had to get involved.

In 2015, I became a member of ACCE and eventually was elected as our state board rep. That same year, I helped collect the signatures, get rent control on the ballot in Richmond and we won — passing the first rent control policy in California since 1980. But that was just the beginning.

In January 2017, we helped to launch Housing Now!, a broad-based statewide coalition advancing an agenda that centers tenant protections, but also includes affordable housing production, combatting exclusionary zoning and expanding social housing. Housing Now! has grown tremendously, currently has 90 organizational members, and holds a 12-member Steering Committee. That year we passed 9 out of 13 priority housing policies.

In 2018, we threw down for a statewide ballot measure, Proposition 10, which would have repealed the State’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, that puts limits on local rent control policies. Always a long-shot, the measure was roundly defeated after a $72 million misinformation campaign by some of the largest corporate landlords in the country. But this high-profile statewide battle provided a tremendous opportunity to build public and political support for expanding rent control protections.

  • At the beginning of 2018, we could count the number of elected officials in support of rent control on one hand. By November 2018 we had 73.
  • Over 400 national, state, regional and local organizations had endorsed the repeal of Costa Hawkins
  • Our collective campaign efforts called 324,000 voters and had 1.23 million voter text conversations.

In early 2019, the Keep Families Home campaign was launched to pass a strong tenant protection bill package in the state legislature to pass a statewide rent cap, just cause and to reform Costa Hawkins. Six organizations sponsored the bills: ACCE, PICO CA, TechEquity, Pubic Advocates, PolicyLink, and the Western Center for Law and Poverty. PICO CA had reach in crucial districts of the state, including some of the more rural areas, and important relationships with business leaders forged at the Bay Area CASA Compact table. ACCE had a large, engaged base of tenants willing to travel to the Capitol repeatedly and pack the hearings for every pivotal committee vote, including when I personally testified and shared my story before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June. Public Advocates and PolicyLink brought policy and advocacy expertise, and TechEquity brought the voice of workers in the tech industry. Western Center added to the campaign’s lobbying. Housing Now! played a critical role engaging its many local partners in calling, emailing and meeting with state legislators in their districts. Coalition partners also helped identify and highlight compelling tenants stories. In particular, SEIU CA made the Keep Families Home bills a priority from day one, and local union leaders worked some of the key “swing” legislators, who their union had helped to elect.

Additionally, some organizations not involved in Housing Now!, such as California YIMBY, joined the campaign, helping to break the largely (although not entirely, in some important ways) false divide between building more housing and tenant protections. As the bills progressed, we were joined by diverse groups such as the California Building and Construction Trades Council and the Bay Area’s “Three P’s” Coalition.

In the end, over 150 organizations endorsed the final bill that moved forward, a bill that combined two of the original bills. Our coalition built consensus around the importance of the policies as fundamental steps in the broader plan to address the displacement crisis. Community groups and labor made thousands of constituent calls to legislators (ACCE Action alone generated over 3,000), knocked on doors in target districts, held in-district delegation meetings with 27 legislative offices, had hundreds of tenant members in the Capitol repeatedly, ran a strong online campaign led by the Courage Campaign, and garnered significant earned media. ACCE members even sat-in at the Governor’s office, in April, with two tenant leaders staying the night! The Governor and State legislators were clear that many of their constituents were not only watching, but demanding action — now.

While all this was going on, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation began collecting signatures for a 2020 state ballot initiative to reform Costa-Hawkins.

The legislative staff and community sponsors worked closely together to negotiate with business interests and made concessions to keep the bill moving through the legislative process, while protecting the bill’s value to our communities. Through further twists and turns, including the Governor jumping into the fray in August, a final deal was struck. The Governor and legislative leaders agreed to champion it and the California Apartment Association agreed to remove their opposition. Additional business groups followed suit, removing their opposition. It’s not a coincidence that it was after Governor Newsom got 2,360 emails from people like you and over 60 people occupying his office that he decided to come out as a leader on the bill.

In California, 17 million of us are renters. Over 4.7 million of us are severely rent-burdened, paying over 50% of our income on rent. We are tired of being pushed out and pushed around by a market-driven approach to housing that puts the interests of the consumers — us tenants — last and that is fueling unprecedented levels of homelessness in cities across the state. We are a force to be reckoned with, and we’ve only just begun. Tenants like me in communities across the state will continue to fight for strong rent control and just cause laws, and other protections to KEEP FAMILIES IN THEIR HOMES — until not one more family has to go through what my son and I went through.

— Sasha Graham, ACCE State Board President