A Q&A With California’s Brand-new, Very Tiny Renters’ Caucus
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Nearly 17 million people in California — or 44% of its residents — rent their homes, making it the state with the second-largest renter population in the nation. (New York comes out on top.) But of the 120 members of the California legislature, only three are full-time tenants, while one in four legislators owns. So it makes sense that, as many as there are, California’s elected tenants come together. And once Assemblyman Matt Haney, who represents part of San Francisco (median rent $3,691), Isaac Bryan of Los Angeles (median rent $3,095) and Alex Lee of San Jose (median rent $3,400) started talking, they came up with the idea of a tenant caucus: a unique political body dedicated to tenants.
Their timing couldn’t be better: Pandemic tenant protections are ending, the LA City Council is embroiled in an anti-tenant saga, and inflation is driving up already unaffordable rents. I spoke 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 tenants in the California State Legislature? How did you find yourself? How does something like this happen at work?
We found a fourth! Tasha Boerner Horvath is also a tenant. There may be more. We went through the list and checked with a bunch of people and we’re pretty confident we got most of us. This is quite shocking to most people. Tenants make up 40% of the state, or 17 million people in California, and even with our fourth member, we only make up 2% of the state legislature. It has an impact on policymaking because a lot of people haven’t had that direct experience or even in some cases are thinking about it from their own perspective as owners, and it has an impact on perspectives heard and what is prioritized.
In the spirit of transparency, may I ask you what rent you are currently paying?
Sure. I got a room in the Tenderloin and paid $3,200, which is about the median for San Francisco, if you can believe it. I’ve lived in rental housing most of my life – for most of my childhood my mother rented – and now I’ve rented my entire adult life and lived in a rental apartment controlled for most of that time. San Francisco is not the same as anywhere in the state. But what we do know is that California is the second most expensive rental market in the country behind Hawaii, and California also has the most people unable to pay rent and the most people in the country who are currently in danger of deportation.
Does your experience as a tenant influence how you see yourself trying to legislate in a way you didn’t expect?
It is important to see that the issue of tenant protections and tenant rights programs intersects with a whole different set of policy priorities that we have as a state. If we can strengthen tenant-friendly policies, it will also help us be more effective in how we address issues related to climate change, homelessness, poverty, family stability, and economic opportunity. Air conditioning is a good example. This will be an essential part of what tenants need because our state is getting much hotter, and we all have the air quality issues with the wildfires. In the next ten, 20, 30 years, people are going to have to be more indoors. If you are a family and you live in a unit where you have livability issues and you don’t have air conditioning or you have bugs, are you going to do your homework? It really has a lot of ripple effects.
You are therefore one of four tenants, but one in four of your colleagues is an owner. Are there any ways you’ve seen this dynamic play out in policy-making around rent and housing laws more broadly? What are the conversations like in the room?
Many decision-makers see all problems in the light of their own experience. And when there are issues that concern tenants or tenants, and their position is that of the receiver of the check, and not that of the writer of the check, these policies have direct impacts on their wallet. This is not true for all owners. But I think it could also lead to unconscious bias. One of the things I hope to do with this caucus is to educate our colleagues. Here are the issues, concerns and data that impact your constituents who are tenants. And here’s how you can defend them and fight for them. We certainly do not claim that only tenants can represent tenants. But having a strong, organized voice for tenants can help all lawmakers — tenant, landlord, landlord, whatever — it can help them do their jobs better.
Your timing is critical with tenants still struggling to access housing assistance, the end of the eviction moratorium and now inflation. What is the caucus’ top priority, or how do you see your agenda evolving?
It’s hard to know where to start. We need more affordable housing. This is part of what drives up the cost of rent. We also need to increase support for tenants. There are a variety of tax credits and tax refunds available to homeowners, but not renters. There is a tax credit for tenants, but it is very small. They tried to increase it several times, and they failed. We also need to make sure that if people have emergencies and they can’t pay rent, emergency housing assistance is available statewide. It’s not a uniform thing and it’s very difficult to obtain. In California, if we have an interest in ending homelessness, we can first prevent people from becoming homeless.
That really seems like the biggest role your caucus can play.
It’s a huge problem. If people are facing a health emergency or job loss, we can help them stay in their homes rather than evict them, and then help them once they’re on the streets. Also, people who own homes or own huge rental properties don’t have to report how much they charge in any way. The result of this is that many people are simply breaking the law. So we need to find ways to enforce existing laws against exorbitant rent increases and unfair arbitrary evictions and allow tenants to claim the rights we have given them. I was visiting a woman from the Mission District on Sycamore Street, Miss Evelyn, who has lived in an apartment building for 40 years. She is a staple in the community. And three years ago someone came along, bought her house and is evicting her and her neighbors, including all five of her family members. They have been there for 40 years.
What was your first apartment in California that you lived in alone or with non-relative roommates, and do you remember what you paid?
I lived in an apartment on Cherry Street in Berkeley. I was a student at UC Berkeley. It was the first place I lived that was truly off-campus. I believe I paid $500 for the room I was in. It was very doable at the time. This is no longer possible now. It was around 2000, and $500 for a room around campus was about the going rate. The first place I rented alone in San Francisco, I paid $900 for a studio in Hayes Valley. I was in a rent-controlled unit, and that was in 2008. Not that long ago, but I imagine the same apartment probably costs close to $3,000 now.
Would you ever rent a place from one of your fellow landlords?
In fact, there are a number of lawmakers who, when in Sacramento, hire other lawmakers.
How do you define belonging, then?
That was one thing that was a bit difficult for us: how to define who qualifies as a tenant for the purposes of this caucus. Many lawmakers are tenants in Sacramento but landlords in their district. Some own in Sacramento but rent in their neighborhood. What we decided to do is that if you don’t own a house and you are a renter, you have to live in a rental property. We expect a number of tenants to be elected in November. Some of the candidates have contacted us to say they are excited to join us, and there is some excitement about that. This tenant caucus will grow.
This interview has been edited and condensed.