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A Revolution for California Housing: Repealing Costa-Hawkins (Yes on Prop 10)

Rent control is one of the foremost demands of grassroots movements organizing around housing justice.

four protesters stand over a banner that reads universal rent control now! with text superimposed over the image that reads repeal costa-hawkins rental housing act!
This photo is courtesy of the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), one of many grassroots groups fighting for the repeal of Costa-Hawkins and for strong rent control

Rent control is one of the foremost demands of grassroots movements organizing around housing justice these days. To activists all across the country, from Los Angeles to Chicago, rent control is a no-brainer policy that would immediately slow gentrification and help guarantee housing as a human right.

While many California Democrats now see affordable housing as a top priority, rent control is conspicuously absent from their agenda. They talk about housing the same way Republicans talk about healthcare and taxes — free the market and watch prosperity trickle down.

Fortunately, a 2018 California ballot measure — Proposition 10 — gives us a very real opportunity to advance the fight for rent control. In the midst of our current housing crisis, with 58,000 homeless people alongside 58 billionaires in Los Angeles alone, and global investors confident that the city “still has room for rents to rise,” rent control has perhaps never been more urgent.

But implementing strong rent control measures in California cities first requires getting rid of a state-level law called Costa-Hawkins, passed in 1995, which places three major restrictions on rent control throughout the state:

  1. Single-family homes cannot be covered by rent control. (Wall St. investors love this part, especially Blackstone and other big private equity firms that have spent billions of dollars buying up and renting out homes in California since the housing crash.)
  2. Buildings built after 1995 cannot be covered by rent control, and cities that already had rent control at the time of Costa-Hawkins’ passage are prevented from expanding it. (So L.A., for example, cannot expand rent control to units built after 1978.)
  3. All rent control laws must include “vacancy decontrol,” meaning property owners can raise rents to whatever price they want once a tenant moves out of a rent-controlled unit.


Here’s a helpful graphic from Tenants Together, a major organization active in California.

There was a bill proposed in the State Assembly to repeal Costa-Hawkins, AB 1506, but it died in committee on January 11, 2018, due to strong opposition from the real estate industry. Just another example showing how California Dems are often useless.

But we the people of California will have a chance to do what the Democrat-dominated state legislature refuses to, as Costa-Hawkins repeal will be on the November 2018 statewide ballot as the “Affordable Housing Act.” It has recently been given a number: Proposition 10

It’s crucial we support this fight, because repealing Costa-Hawkins would be revolutionary (what some others would call a “non-reformist reform”). Here’s what I mean:

Getting rid of Costa-Hawkins (voting YES on 10) directly weakens the institution of the capitalist real estate market and openly challenges the dominant neoliberal logic that tells us that the profit-oriented provision of shelter can provide decent housing for all. By rejecting the idea that property owners are entitled to as much wealth as they can possibly squeeze out of their tenants, Costa-Hawkins repeal represents a huge step towards ensuring housing as a human right, rather than a commodity to be bought and sold for profit. Simply put, it’s a reform that places us on exactly the right path.

This is especially significant considering just how pathetic (and yes, “neoliberal”) the solutions being proposed by state-level Democrats are. An anti-capitalist logic of housing provision is wholly absent from debates occurring at the highest levels of California politics, our elected officials happy to simply tinker at the margins of a system that leaves over 118,000 Californians homeless and 1.5 million households spending over 50% of their incomes on rent.

Governor Jerry Brown signed 15 housing-related bills in September of 2017, and 13 of them were aimed at spurring private construction or preservation of units. The thinking behind these reforms is clear: free the capitalist market from burdensome regulations, and housing will trickle-down to all.

The other two measures were a $4 billion bond for construction of low-income housing (pending two-thirds approval by voters) and a $75 real estate transaction fee (though not even applicable to home or commercial building sales!), which analysts say together will not even provide enough new construction to keep up with population growth.

It’s abundantly clear that most California politicians have no intention of challenging the immensely profitable status quo, refusing to offer solutions that match the scale of the crisis. No talk of taxing the rich to finance the construction of public housing on a massive scale, and certainly no talk of rent control.

But in 2018, we can change that. Repealing Costa-Hawkins will not end the capitalist real estate market, or even implement any new rent control measures on its own. But it would be the most significant step in decades towards de-commodifying housing and guaranteeing shelter as a human right.

NOTE: If you want to join the fight to repeal Costa-Hawkins, DSA-LA will be working to collect signatures, canvass, and spread the word any way we can. Email email hidden; JavaScript is required if you want to be added to our email list, or contact me directly for more info (comment on this post or message me on Twitter).