Emily Ross has never seen her rent so high in the decade she's lived in Richmond. She initially moved to the city to escape the high rents of the surrounding Bay Area cities. This November, she's voting for Measure P, which would cap rent increases at 3% a year. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Emily Ross and her partner moved to Richmond together a decade ago. She was working in Napa, her partner was working in San Francisco and they couldn’t find an affordable place to live in either city.
“We looked all over the Bay and we wound up getting offered a place in Richmond,” Ross said. “We’d been looking for so long and it was the perfect halfway point.”
Ross, 36, fell in love with Richmond as she got involved with local activism centered around racial justice and tenants rights. She worked for an education nonprofit in West Contra Costa County and Oakland schools, but when the pandemic hit, her position was eliminated. Her income dropped as she became an independent contractor, managing political campaigns. Then she and her partner split up, and she had to get her own place. Money got even tighter.
“Rent is my No. 1 concern when I think about my personal finances. Every time I need a car repair or some unexpected expense comes up, it’s a stressor, you know,” she said. “It’s one of those weird things where I recognize how close I am to the brink of economic disaster.”
In August, she received an email from her landlord saying that her rent would increase by 5% to $1472 a month. Ross lives in a rent-controlled apartment, but under Richmond’s existing rent stabilization ordinance (PDF), landlords can increase their rents along with the Consumer Price Index, or roughly the rate of inflation. But in years like this one, when inflation is soaring to historic levels, some rents are, too.
On this year’s ballot, Richmond voters will get a chance to change that. Measure P (PDF) would limit the rent increases landlords can charge tenants to 3% a year.
“It would be scary if the measure doesn’t pass,” Ross said. “I think, within a couple years, I would either need a significantly different line of work or I would need to live in a different city and I don’t love any of those options, so I’m going to hope it passes.”
Richmond's years-old fight over rent control
About half of Richmond’s 118,000 residents rent their homes, according to figures from the Richmond Rent Program.
“I’m all for homeownership, but some residents are going to rent their whole lives,” said City Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin, who has been fighting for tenants' rights since joining the council. “I see myself as likely being one of those renters.”
Soon after getting elected to Richmond’s City Council in 2005, she introduced the idea of rent control, but was the only vote in favor of it. A decade later, things had changed and the council approved a renter protection measure that included a rent cap and a just-cause eviction ordinance that set rules on when landlords can evict their tenants. Despite opposition from the California Apartment Association and other property owners, Richmond voters approved the measure in 2016. Measure P promises to amend that ordinance to deal with inflation.
“I consider Measure P a way to avoid displacement, a way to prevent homelessness, and a way to help our struggling families in Richmond stay in their homes,” said McLaughlin.
James Daniels and his wife are among those who have been priced out of Richmond by rising rents. They had been living in a senior living community in Richmond since 2005 and were paying $950 for a two-bedroom apartment. By the time they left Richmond this year, their rent had risen to $1,435.
“The only people that can afford to pay rent there are people who are still working,” said Daniels. “If you’re in retirement and you’re not getting much money from Social Security, you can’t afford to pay it.”
They searched for another rental in Richmond, but couldn’t find anything within their price range. So Daniels and his wife joined a waitlist for an apartment in Pinole. When they were finally accepted after four years of waiting, they jumped at the opportunity. Now they pay $993 a month for their two-bedroom apartment, which is bigger than their place in Richmond was.
“We love [our apartment in Pinole] — it’s quiet, the people are friendly,” Daniels said. “My wife already adopted some pets, and a lot of birds and butterflies come around here.”
He said that some of his friends from Richmond have asked him for an application to live in his apartment complex in Pinole.
Landlords affected by inflation, too
Mike Vasilas owns two buildings in Richmond, one with four units and another with three. His father immigrated from Greece in the early 1970s and worked as a contractor, building homes throughout Richmond. Seventeen years ago, Vasilas inherited the business from his father and also works as a general contractor.
“It’s really hands-on, especially for the small guy, small-business style,” said Vasilas. “If someone calls you in the middle of the night, [saying] the water heater blew up, you’re the one going down there and taking care of it.”
Like many small landlords, Vasilas, 40, tries to do most of the upkeep for his buildings himself, but the cost of maintenance has risen. According to the National Association of Home Builders, one of the largest trade associations for contractors and developers, the price of building materials has increased by 33% since the start of the pandemic. Vasilas doesn’t have access to the same resources that large corporate landlords do and worries that more rent restrictions could put smaller landlords out of business.
“The market has gone through the roof for construction,” he said. “You can’t get materials, you can’t get a contractor to come out. It costs — all that has just gone through the roof.”
Vasilas opposes Measure P because he feels it pinches small landlords the hardest. He’s in favor of capping the rent for a couple years while inflation is high, but he believes landlords should eventually be able to charge their tenants rates that align with inflation so they can make a reasonable profit from their properties.
“The costs [to maintain a building] are going to continue to go up, whether or not we have high [inflation],” he said. “The costs are going up but [the amount that] you’re allowed to increase the rent is basically nothing. It makes you feel hopeless.”
“Everyone feels anxiety about housing, whether you’re wealthy or not, because your kids can’t move back to your community even if you’re upper-middle-class and your teachers don’t have housing,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director for the tenants' rights group the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.
Simon-Weisberg said this movement has been gaining momentum since the Great Recession and the pandemic made things worse for most renters. Now as tenants face steep rent hikes along with inflation, they are starting to push back.
“One of the ways you push back is you have to regulate the market, and so rent control, just-cause ordinances and anti-harassment ordinances, those are all ways of basically fighting back,” she said.
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