Guest Commentary: Why Can’t Tenants Win in Sacramento? Follow the Money

The dome of a white government building with an American flag flying nearby

Over the years, the California Apartment Association—funded by corporate landlords—has delivered millions in campaign cash to stop tenant rights bills in Sacramento.

Governor Gavin Newsom and former State Senate leader Toni Atkins have especially raked in the CAA’s money. The result is a rigged game in which corporate landlords are allowed to charge outrageous rents—and tenants suffer the life-altering consequences. But Californians can overcome the backroom politics in the state capitol by supporting the “Yes on 33 Act.”

This year, a broad coalition of housing justice groups, social justice organizations, labor unions, and civic leaders are working to pass a statewide ballot measure called the Yes on 33 Act. Housing Is A Human Right and its parent organization, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, are sponsoring the initiative.

The November ballot measure is just 23 words: “The state may not limit the right of any city, county, or city and county to maintain, enact, or expand residential rent control.” So the ballot measure will repeal statewide rent control restrictions, and, once it’s approved, California cities can then expand rent control policies.

With the housing affordability and homelessness crises only worsening, rent control is an urgent tool to help poor and middle- and working-class tenants—the people who are hit hardest by unfair rents. Top academics at the University of Southern California and UC Berkeley found that rent control will quickly stabilize the housing affordability crisis, and a group of prominent economists recently wrote a letter to the Biden administration saying the same thing. The economists also noted that the real estate industry’s anti-rent control arguments are outdated and wrong.

One would think that Gov. Newsom and State Sen. Atkins—top Democratic leaders in California—would be strong supporters of rent control and the Yes on 33 Act. But that’s not been the case, and the California Apartment Association (CAA), the powerful lobbying group for corporate landlords, is a major reason why.

Since 2018, two of the CAA’s four political committees have delivered $411,600 to Gov. Newsom, according to state filings. In fact, this year, the California Apartment Association Issues Committee handed over a whopping $350,000 in campaign cash to the governor’s ballot measure committee.

Guess who funds the CAA’s Issues Committee? Many of the top corporate landlords in the country, including Essex Property Trust, Equity Residential, and AvalonBay Communities.

Then there’s State Sen. Atkins. Since 2014, she has received an eye-popping $462,700 from two of the CAA’s political committees. Only last year, in 2023, Atkins took $210,000 from the CAA’s Issues Committee and $100,000 from the CAA’s Political Action Committee.

And who funds one or more of those committees? Corporate landlords, including Essex Property Trust, Equity Residential, and AvalonBay Communities. Interestingly, those three corporate landlords have been mired in the RealPage scandal, which has brought on federal lawsuits by tenants in California and other states, lawsuits by attorneys general in Arizona and Washington D.C., and a federal investigation by the Department of Justice. The lawsuits claim that numerous corporate landlords, including Essex Property Trust, Equity Residential, and AvalonBay Communities, worked together using a RealPage software program to wildly, and possibly illegally, inflate rents.

But Newsom and Atkins are more than happy to be aligned with them, taking the corporate landlords’ money through the CAA.

In fact, political strategists closely connected to Newsom are grabbing tens of thousands in corporate landlord cash, working to kill the Yes on 33 Act. That crew includes Ace Smith of Bearstar Strategies, Jim DeBoo of DeBoo Communications, and Nathan Click of Click Strategies. It’s as if Newsom is running a shadow campaign to stop the expansion of rent control in California.

Atkins isn’t much better. Recently, she came out against the Yes on 33 Act, repeating the real estate industry’s outdated and misleading anti-rent control arguments. Curiously, the state senator never revealed that she’s taken $462,700 from corporate landlords and the CAA.

With all of the real estate cash floating around in Sacramento, it’s easy to see why tenants can never catch a break. That’s why activists and labor unions are forced to go to the ballot to end statewide rent control restrictions. Only Californians can create the change that is needed to protect seniors on fixed incomes, working-class families, and so many others against the destructive greed and shady politics of corporate landlords.

Patrick Range McDonald is the award-winning advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right.