Los Angeles tenant advocates are eyeing a new battle: suspending the landmark statewide Costa-Hawkins Act that strictly limits rent control.
On Wednesday, the influential — and litigious — AIDS Healthcare Foundation called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to suspend the 1995 law. In exchange, the advocacy group said in its letter to the governor, it vowed to withdraw a proposed ballot measure aimed at overturning Costa-Hawkins.
The group is seeking a rent-hike freeze and is concerned that once state eviction moratoriums are lifted, landlords will be able to force tenants out and raise rents.
Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu, in his own letter to Newsom, called for a Costa-Hawkins suspension amid a coronavirus pandemic that has already led the state’s Judicial Council to temporarily suspend evictions and foreclosures.
Ryu’s letter followed an hours-long Council meeting on Wednesday — held via video feed — in which the city attorney’s office warned Council members that any rent freeze legislation would run afoul of Costa-Hawkins.
In the letter, Ryu said that during the crisis, “when an estimated 55 percent of Los Angeles County residents are unemployed, government at all levels must act to prevent an onslaught of renters falling into homelessness due to rent increases.”
Both letters advocated a Costa-Hawkins suspension during Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order, which the governor has pushed back against lifting anytime soon. Messages left with the governor’s office were not returned.
Landlord groups voiced their opposition to the proposed Costa-Hawkins suspension.
“Costa-Hawkins is the one thing that keeps housing providers in California in business,” Daniel Yukelson, president of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, said Thursday. “Without it, we would have far worse housing shortages and even faster rising rents caused by the increasing shortages.”
The new statewide rent law that took effect on Jan. 1 partly did away with Costa-Hawkins. The law, AB1482 — known as the California Tenant Protection Act — caps rent increases to 5 percent annually plus inflation on properties not built within the last 15 years.
Additionally, cities are allowed to cap rents on certain older buildings. This week, the L.A. Council passed a measure freezing rent on the 624,000 units built before October 1978, which are not affected by Costa-Hawkins. The existing state rent law prohibits city and county rent control on condos and single-family homes, and does not limit how much a landlord may raise rent if a new tenant moves in.
Tenant advocates on a conference call with reporters Thursday portrayed the sought-after suspension as one part of a crisis mitigation plan.
“We anticipate a tsunami of evictions once the Judicial Council evictions summons ends,” said Elena Popp, executive director of the Eviction Defense Network. “If we suspend Costa Hawkins, the landlords cannot raise the rent whether they win or lose the eviction case.”
Popp said her organization has received complaints of “about 20 landlords” raising rent. But Yukulson said “no one that I know is considering rent increases at this time.”
AIDS Healthcare Foundation executive director Michael Weinstein said his organization did not intend to hurt “mom-and-pop landlords” but instead “corporate landlords” with thousands of rental units.
While a recent report found that 89 percent of tenants nationwide paid at least a portion of their rent in April, the unemployment rolls have grown to over 20 million with much of the country in near lockdown.
Both tenant advocates and landlords warn that the problem could grow much worse in May. Tenant advocates, including Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, have suggested a statewide rent strike.