"We have in California in both houses a supermajority of Democrats, many of whom will tell you that they're concerned about the housing crisis," said Brian Augusta, legislative advocate for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and a lobbyist for tenant interests who has watched a handful of tenant protection bills die or get watered down in recent years. "And yet when we go to try to secure their vote for what seem like very reasonable policies, they're not going up [to vote]."
So why can’t tenant groups wield the political muscle you’d think their numbers would warrant?
Money is the easy answer: Landlords have it, renters don't.
"We still have to have plausible arguments, and our arguments still have to resonate," said Deb Carlton, lobbyist for the California Apartment Association."A lot of these bills are extreme and they’re not willing to compromise on these issues."
But there's more to it than that.
California renters are more likely to be lower income, younger and immigrants—all demographic blocs less likely to vote
Who's your typical California renter?
Picture a Latina woman in her early 40s, making around $26,000 a year. There's about a 1 in 3 chance that's she's foreign-born.
Contrast that to your typical California homeowner—white, ten years older, making about $12,000 more a year. There's about a 25% chance she was born in another country.
Almost all of the demographic characteristics associated with homeownership—nativity, race and ethnicity, income level, age—make homeowners much more likely to vote than renters. And lawmakers are acutely aware of who votes and who doesn’t.
"When you think about renters, you're looking at a lower socioeconomic status, younger people, people who move more often. That's all negatively correlated to turnout," said Paul Mitchell, a political consultant with Political Data Inc, which provides voter roll services to state political campaigns.
Despite comprising more than 40% of the population, renters make up only about 20% of registered California voters, according to data analyzed by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
Last November, tenant advocates hoped that a rent control initiative put on the ballot would gin up turnout from renters who finally had a clear and compelling economic interest to show up to the polls. Although precise data on the rental status of voters is hard to obtain, an analysis of voters identified as renters by Political Data Inc. shows that registered homeowners were still about 25 percent more likely to vote than registered renters. The rent control initiative lost by an overwhelming margin.
It's not just what's associated with being a renter that depresses turnout. Just being a renter, itself, makes you less likely to vote.
In 2016, simply owning a home in California meant you were nearly 6% more likely to be a registered voter than if you rented, even controlling for factors like ethnicity and level of education, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
Renting had roughly as strong an impact on your likelihood to register as being unemployed or being single. That disparity in renter-versus-homeowner registration and turnout has persisted election after election, in California and elsewhere.
"Once you buy a house, you become settled in a community," said Eric McGhee, research fellow at the institute. "When you're settled in a community, you're more likely to sign up and register to vote, and when you're registered, you're more likely to vote.”
There are some very practical reasons renting keeps Californians from the ballot box. Renters tend to move more, meaning they need to re-register to vote at each new address. Political mailers and turn-out-the-vote campaigns can have a tough time infiltrating apartment complexes and keeping track of who moved where.
But beyond these structural barriers, there's the thorny question of why more renters aren't more politically organized and active, especially compared to homeowners.
Part of the answer–many renters consider their identity as a tenant temporary, and aspire to be homeowners some day. Why spend time on something like campaigning for rent control if you won't benefit from it in a few years?
"Everyone in America and certainly everyone in California, from when you’re born, the expectation is you rent until you have enough money to buy a house," said Shanti Singh, communications director for Tenants Together, a statewide coalition of local tenants groups.
Singh likens the difficulty tenants unions have mobilizing renters to the difficulty labor unions have mobilizing workers who aspire to one day rise to management.