Rent control reformers submitted over half-a-million signatures Monday to put the Affordable Housing Act on the November ballot, a voter initiative that would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act. If it passes, cities would regain the ability to expand rent control in their jurisdictions and limit how much property owners can charge tenants.

“Local government should have control over their own city,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at a press conference where he announced his support for the controversial initiative. Costa-Hawkins prohibits cities from extending rent control to new construction and mandates rents can be reset to market rate when tenants move out (vacancy decontrol). The 1995 law upended Santa Monica’s City Charter, which dictated a rent ceiling in any unit built before 1978.

Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents the area of Los Angeles encircling Santa Monica, also threw his weight behind the initiative Monday. Bonin called the homeless problem an “economic refugee crisis,” citing rising rents as a major contributor to the number of people sleeping on the streets in LA’s 11th District.

“Put this damn thing on the ballot,” Bonin said to cheers from supporters outside LA’s City Hall.

In Santa Monica, the local Rent Control Board (RCB) has discussed the possibility of a companion initiative to expand rent control here if the statewide initiative passes. Earlier this month, the RCB’s top lawyer warned the initiative could have immediate implications if it passes in November because of the way the City Charter was rewritten after Costa-Hawkins. If the law suddenly disappeared, J. Stephen Lewis says new tenants could conceivably argue for 1970’s rent.

Lewis warned the RCB rollbacks could “cause significant economic dislocation.”

Despite the warning from Lewis, the RCB said there was too little time to draft a companion ballot measure to amend the City Charter and expressed doubt the Affordable Housing Act will pass. On April 12, they voted unanimously to table the discussion indefinitely.

“They seem to have an incorrect political assessment because poll after poll shows a significant number of voters in this state support rent control and support repealing Costa-Hawkins,” said Amy Schur, the campaign director for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the group behind the initiative.

Schur says Garcetti’s support is a major boon for the grassroots initiative. The group will now focus on training hundreds of volunteers throughout the state to advocate for the initiative. She says California has 17 million renters, many of whom would like to see rent control in their local communities.

“It’s not a surprise that the mayor of the largest city in the state recognizes that enough is enough,” Schur said in an interview with the Daily Press. “Skyrocketing rents are not sustainable and the only way cities are going to have the tools they need to address the situation is by repealing Costa-Hawkins.”

The City Council has the ultimate say in whether to put a companion initiative on the ballot.

Local and state landlord groups such as the California Apartment Associate (CAA) argue rent control forces mom-and-pop landlords out of business and reduces the financial incentive to build new housing, worsening the current crisis.

“It’s a high stakes battle,” said Steven Maviglio, with Californians for Responsible Housing, a group opposing the initiative. “We think this will pour gasoline on the fire that is California’s affordable housing crisis. It will result in a housing freeze that will hurt the people it’s intended to help.”

Instead, his group supports the Veterans and Affordable Housing Bond Act which would set aside $3 billion for affordable housing and $1 billion for home loans for veterans and other measures that allow housing development throughout the state.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press