Tenants Show Their Power at State Capitol

by Cathleen Williams, Homeward Street Journal

“Without mass investment by the government to fund affordable housing at scale, more Californians living one paycheck away from homelessness will end up on the streets with no affordable housing options available.” – Housing Now!

On a bright and breezy spring day in Sacramento, hundreds of outraged families traveled from across the state in the midst of California’s housing crisis to meet with the lawmakers  who shape housing and homelessness policy. Their objective was to build—and display―tenant power.   

A collective of renters and advocates representing 150 organizations converged on the Capitol for Lobby Day on April 29. This coalition, called Housing Now!,  includes members of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Inner City Law Center, the Los Angeles Tenants Union and Tenants Together, among others. 

Suzanne Ansell, a social services worker with the state, joined ACCE’s Sacramento delegation. “Believe it or not I feel like I’m on the edge, too, one paycheck away from homelessness,” she said. Out of her monthly take-home pay of $4,500, Ansell pays $3,600 for rent and utilities. That leaves her with only $900 for food, transportation and medical visits and co-pays. 

Ansell pointed out that other state workers—especially those who were recently hired—have lost their apartments and moved out to their cars when their salaries are cut to balance the budget. 

“I have no protection from increased rent,” she added. “I want to see people live with dignity. Housing is being bought up and built for profit-making companies—this is a big reason for the crisis.”

The reality is that the government at every level shapes the crisis in housing and makes homelessness inevitable, like a game of musical chairs in which hundreds of thousands are left standing because there just aren’t seats for all. Vulnerable individuals—families and seniors, people dealing with racial oppression and its legacies, those who are disabled or ill—are at the greatest risk.  California has one of the highest poverty rates in the U.S. when balancing family resources against housing costs and other basic needs, like food and clothing. Californians are among the most severely cost-burdened tenants in the nation: 1 in 4 households  pay 50% or more of their income in rent, according to the California Budget & Policy Center. 

What’s Behind the Housing Crisis and the Rise of Homelessness?

The housing crisis goes deeper than housing. Start with the digital transformation of the economy. To make a long story short, the digital revolution—including robotization, automation and AI—drives the process of eliminating living-wage jobs and searching the world for cheap labor. Financial speculation, or “financialization,” has become more and more attractive as compared to production and manufacturing. Privatization of every public institution and service has become the rule rather than the exception

This process of increasing speculation and investment has accelerated the commodification of housing, according to the Urban Institute. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank noted that speculators have changed the focus from providing a place for people to live to creating a profitable investment. It also observed other key trends in government policy that have supported increased commodification.

“The most potent example is Blackstone—the world’s largest private equity firm with nearly $500 billion in assets under management—which bought more than 50,000 foreclosed homes from banks in the wake of the 2008 crisis, using government aid,” the institute wrote.  

First, multiple government programs made possible the development of suburbs surrounding the “inner city,” exploiting and increasing segregation, inequality and the racial “wealth gap,” which abandoned Black, Latinx and other people of color to poverty.   

At every level, governments provided subsidies to wealthier homeowners, including the annual $26 billion mortgage interest deduction. These subsidies led to the use of homeownership as an investment strategy for millions, linking housing to financial markets.  

Second, governments—especially the federal government—cut support for public and subsidized housing that was always inadequate, demolishing and converting hundreds of thousands of apartments since the 1970s. 

As a result, real estate interests with their copious funds were able to exert political influence to control and corrupt the political process and good governance that focuses on society’s basic needs.    

Marching to the Capitol 

Holding banners and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of dozens of housing organizations, the tenants came in their hundreds to the Capitol. They focused on key legislative bills to address the housing crisis, build power, and publicize the narrative that we don’t have to stand by helplessly as millions of renters slip further into crisis and the numbers of homeless people multiply. Housing Now! advocated these specific bills: 

  • Place Assembly Constitutional Amendment 10 on the ballot, so that voters can declare housing to be a fundamental right, and give the state a new legal tool to create and ensure housing for all.
  • Reject the currently proposed $1.2 billion in cuts and delays and maintain funding levels for affordable housing levels in the state budget as well as funding for the needs of the unhoused community;
  • Place Assembly Bill 1657, the $10 billion Affordable Housing Bond Act of 2024, on the ballot, and actively support its passage, to fund`construction of affordable housing; supportive housing for unhoused people; farmworker and tribal housing; and preservation of existing affordable housing. 
  • Pass AB 2584, to ban financial and investor corporations that own more than 1,000 single family homes from purchasing additional properties and converting them into rentals. 
  • Pass AB 2616 to repeal California’s Mortgage Interest Deduction on second homes, and direct the income saved from closing this tax break ($250 million annually in 2016) to state programs 
  • Pass AB 1333 to ban developers from selling single family homes in bulk to big institutional investors (who then offer them for profitable rents). 

While these bills by themselves might not be the cure-all for the housing crisis, the tenant power behind the legislation could signal the direction of future housing advocacy.