landlords and tenants

California Has a Brand-new, Very Tiny Renters’ Caucus

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Nearly 17 million people in California — or 44 percent of its residents — rent their homes, making it the state with the second-largest tenant population in the country. (New York comes in first.) But of the 120 members of California’s legislature, just three are full-time renters, while one in four lawmakers are landlords. So it makes sense that, as outnumbered as they are, California’s elected tenants might find one another. And once Assemblymembers Matt Haney, who represents part of San Francisco (median rent $3,691), Isaac Bryan from Los Angeles (median rent $3,095), and Alex Lee from San Jose (median rent $3,400) started talking, they came up with the idea of a renters’ caucus: a first-of-its-kind political body dedicated to tenants.

Their timing couldn’t be better: The pandemic’s tenant protections are ending, L.A.’s City Council is embroiled in an anti-renter saga, and inflation is driving already unaffordable rents even higher. I talked to Haney about the impetus behind the caucus, his experiences as a lifelong tenant, and what he’s paying in rent right now.

How are there only three renters in the California state legislature? How did you find each other? How does something like this come up at work? 

We found a fourth! Tasha Boerner Horvath is also a renter. There may be more. We’ve gone through the list and checked in with a bunch of people and we’re pretty confident we’ve gotten most of us. It’s pretty shocking to most people. Renters make up 40 percent of the state, so that’s 17 million people in California, and even with our fourth member, we’re just 2 percent of the state legislature. It does have an impact on policy-making because a lot of folks haven’t had that direct experience or even in some cases are thinking about it from their own perspective as landlords, and it does impact what perspectives are heard and what is prioritized.

In the spirit of transparency, can I ask what you pay for rent now?

Sure. I have a one bedroom in the Tenderloin, and I pay $3,200, which is about the median in San Francisco, if you can believe that. I’ve lived in rental housing most of my life — for most of my childhood, my mom rented — and now I’ve rented my entire adult life and have lived in a rent-controlled apartment for most of that time. San Francisco is not the same as everywhere in the state. But what we do know is that California is the second-most expensive rental market in the country behind only Hawaii, and California also has the highest number of people who are unable to afford their rent and the highest number of people in the country who are currently in danger of being evicted.

Does your experience as a renter influence how you see yourself trying to legislate in ways you didn’t expect? 

It’s important to see that the issue of renter protections and renter-rights programs intersects with a whole other set of policy priorities that we have as a state. If we can strengthen pro-renter policies, it will also help us be more effective in how we address issues connected to climate change, homelessness, poverty, family stability, and economic opportunity. Air-conditioning is a good example. It will be an essential part of what renters need because our state is getting a lot hotter, plus we have all the air-quality issues with wildfires. In the next ten, 20, 30 years people are going to need to be indoors more. If you’re a family and you live in a unit where you have habitability issues and you don’t have an air conditioner or you have insects, are you going to do your homework? This really has a lot of ripple effects.

So you’re one of four renters, but one in four of your colleagues are landlords. Are there any ways you’ve seen this dynamic play out in policy-making around rent laws and housing more broadly? What are the conversations in the room like? 

A lot of policy-makers see all issues in the eyes of their own experience. And when there are issues that deal with tenants or renter, and their position is one of the check receiver, not the check-writer, these policies have direct impacts on their wallets. It’s not true for every landlord. But I do think it could also lead to some subconscious bias. One of the things that I hope to do with this caucus is educate our colleagues. Here are the issues and concerns and the data that impact your constituents who are renters. And here’s how you can advocate for them and fight for them. We’re definitely not arguing that only renters can represent renters. But having a strong and organized voice for renters can help all legislators — renter, landlord, homeowner, whatever — it can help them to do their job better.

Your timing is critical with tenants still having trouble accessing rental assistance, the eviction moratorium ending, and now inflation. What’s the first priority of the caucus, or how do you see your agenda developing? 

It’s hard to know where to start. We need more affordable housing. That’s part of what’s driving up the cost of rent. We also need to increase the support to renters. There are a whole range of tax credits and rebates that go to people who own homes but do not extend to people who rent. There is a renters’ tax credit, but it is tiny. They’ve tried to increase it a couple of times, and they failed. We also need to make sure that if people have emergencies and they can’t afford the rent that there’s emergency rental assistance that’s available across the state. It’s not something that’s uniform, and it’s very hard to get. In California, if we have an interest in stopping homelessness, we can prevent people from becoming homeless to begin with.

That really does seem like the biggest role your caucus can play.

That’s a huge issue. If people face a situation where there’s a health emergency or loss of a job, we can help them stay in their homes rather than have them be evicted and then help them once they’re on the street. Also people who own homes or own massive rental properties don’t have to report in any way how much they’re charging. The result of that is that a lot of people are just breaking the law. So we need to have ways to enforce existing laws against exorbitant rate-rent increases and against unjust arbitrary evictions and actually have renters be able to assert rights that we’ve given them. I was just visiting with a woman in the Mission District on Sycamore Street, Miss Evelyn, who’s lived in a building for 40 years. She is a staple in the community. And three years ago, somebody came along, bought her home, and is now evicting her and her neighbors, including her five family members. They’ve been there for 40 years.

What was your first apartment in California you lived in on your own or with roommates who were not your family, and do you remember what you paid?

I lived in an apartment on Cherry Street in Berkeley. I was a student at UC Berkeley. That was the first place I lived that was really off campus. I believe that I paid $500 for the room that I was in. That was very doable back then. It’s not that doable now. This was around 2000, and $500 for a room around campus was about the going rate. The first place that I rented on my own in San Francisco, I paid $900 for a studio in Hayes Valley. I was in a rent-controlled unit, and that was in 2008. It wasn’t that long ago, but I’d imagine that same apartment is probably close to $3,000 now.

Would you ever rent a place from one of your landlord colleagues? 

Actually, there are a number of legislators who, when in Sacramento, rent from other legislators.

How do you define membership, then? 

That was one thing that was kind of challenging for us: how to define who qualifies as a renter for the purposes of this caucus. Many legislators are renters in Sacramento but own in their district. Some own in Sacramento but rent in their district. What we decided to go with was, if you do not own a home and you are a renter, you have to live in a rental property. We do expect that there will be a number of renters elected this November. Some of the candidates have contacted us saying they’re excited to join, and there’s some excitement about it. This renters’ caucus is going to grow.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

California Has a Brand-new, Very Tiny Renters’ Caucus