Santa Monica Rent Stabilization Commissioner Anastasia Foster Explains the Truths of Prop 21

Karen Ocamb News

It’s the fog of election war, David versus Goliath style: the people-powered Yes on Prop 21 campaign fighting against Big Real Estate’s multi-million-dollar effort to stop Proposition 21. And while Yes on 21 doesn’t have the real estate industry’s massive war chest, the real power behind the Prop 21 campaign is the urgent desire to help California’s renters survive an eviction crisis brought on by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prop 21 is the statewide ballot measure that puts limits on unfair, sky-high rent increases, reins in corporate landlord greed, and prevents homelessness. Top experts at USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley agree that sensible rent limits are key for stabilizing California’s housing affordability crisis. That’s why the California Democratic Party, the ACLU, the California Nurses Association, the California Alliance for Retired Americans, Black Lives Matter and the Los Angeles Times, among many others, have thrown their full support behind Prop 21.

Today’s Goliath is corporate landlords — Essex Property Trust, Blackstone Group, Equity Residential, among others — who use their power and multi-millions to obfuscate, lie, mislead, and confuse voters about Prop 21; most recently in a TV ad featuring Gov. Gavin Newsom. The Yes on 21 campaign has sent a cease and desist letter to broadcast stations. Additionally, Yes on 21 filed a formal complaint with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission and a lawsuit in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, charging that No on Prop 21: Californians to Protect Affordable Housing and No on Prop 21: Californians for Responsible Housing sponsored by the California Apartment Association had violated the Political Reform Act by engaging in money-laundering activities. 

“The real estate industry has long been known for doing whatever it takes to make bigger profits. So, we’re not surprised that Wall Street landlords are up to their dirty tricks again,” says René Christian Moya, campaign director, Yes On 21 campaign and director of Housing Is A Human Right. “But we’re always going to fight back and hold them accountable—and stand up for California’s 17 million renters. That’s what Proposition 21 is all about.”

The Yes on 21 campaign also successfully thwarted the No on Prop 21 campaign from legally suppressing three statements by Prop 21 backers in the ballot argument that:

  • Proposition 21 “Protects single-family homeowners”
  • Proposition 21 “Encourages the construction of new homes”
  • Proposition 21 “Provides reasonable and predictable rent increases”

Nonetheless, the rich No on Prop 21 campaign continues to deploy expensive fog machines and cloud up the minds of frightened voters. To help clear the air, the ACLU of Southern California, which has endorsed Prop 21, recently held a webinar with Moya and Santa Monica Rent Stabilization Commissioner Anastasia Foster (pictured above) hosted by Occidental college.

Prop 21 “addresses one of the most fundamental crises that is affecting the state of California,” says Moya, though it is “a fairly simple measure” that is not a tax, as falsely promoted on social media, and does not remove existing rent control ordinances.

Prop 21 “would allow us to expand rent control in the state of California at the local level,” giving cities and counties the ability to “implement or expand or strengthen its rent control” to protect more buildings, specifically apartment complexes that were built after the last 15 years. It also extends protections to renters in units in one-time single family homes that were bought up by private equity firms and other corporations during the financial collapse of 2008 and converted into gentrified rental housing. Additionally, Prop 21 would provide the ability to regulate rent increases when one renter moves out and another renter moves in — before that other renter moves in.

Senior citizens and people of color with families who have been living for many years in an apartment “have a target on their back,” says Moya, because corporate landlords and real estate investment trusts know that if they can push out longtime renters, “they would be able to jack up the rent to whatever level they wanted. They could double the rent overnight. They could triple the rent overnight…. And so what our initiative does is it allows cities and counties to implement these protections.”

Nearly 30% of California’s 17 million renters are paying at least half of their income on rent, according to housing studies. And as a result of COVID-19, up to 5.4 million renters could be at risk of losing their homes, according to the Aspen Institute – “people who already were at risk of displacement, at risk of eviction. They were paying too much money on their rent already,” says Moya. “If we are going to have a just recovery from the deepest recession in a hundred years, we’re going to have to adopt policies that truly protect the people of California and Proposition 21 is absolutely vital as a part of that.”

Anastasia Foster, a small business owner and a commissioner on the Santa Monica rent control board, also participated in the ACLU webinar to strike down misconceptions

“We are the original rent control jurisdiction in the state of California. And if you ask the Apartment Owners Associations up and down the state, they will routinely tell you that we have among the most repressive, oppressive rent-controlled charter amendments in the state. That being said, we are the only city in the state of California who met our [housing] goals for the last cycle,” says Foster.

“So, in a city with supposedly such stringent and wonderful rent control, we produced thousands of market rate and deed restricted affordable units, over the last many years,” she says. “Some of the misconceptions that the opposition campaign is running were really surprising to me because they’re very easily debunked… The ads I’ve seen threatened some kind of a Doomsday where upon Proposition 21 passing, there would instantaneously be 150 rent boards throughout the state of California telling everybody what to do with their property. And the fact is that right now, today, any city municipality or county that wants to pass rent control can do so right now,” such as in Culver City.

“Why do we need Prop 21? It’s because as we need to be able to edit and tweak for the modern era the demands and limits that [the state law] Costa-Hawkins has put on us. We’re not trying to completely overhaul every single unit in the state. If your community doesn’t feel you need it, if you have an ample housing supply at a very diverse array of affordability levels, then great, what a wonderful community you have,” she says. “But for those of us who have communities that are squeezed by market pressures, we have got to protect the tenancies we currently have. And rent control is not for poor people. Rent control is for everyone — it’s for our community. It can preserve and then control rents at very low affordable levels, at medium levels, and at higher levels and provide a broad spectrum of affordability across any community. And that’s really what it’s for.”

Foster also wanted to clarify the notion that Prop 21 or any rent control anywhere “will dampen the construction of new housing. We met our goals this cycle. We have so many extra units that we just last month had to pass in Santa Monica a ban on furnished corporate rentals because there were so many empty market-rate units,” she says.

(“Housing activists presented a compelling case for prohibiting commercial uses of Santa Monica housing that were displacing real residents, and the Council set clear rules that end the abuses,” Mayor Kevin McKeown told a Santa Monica newspaper. “With no more rentals to corporations, and no more short-term furnished leases, the Council took a definitive stand that Santa Monica housing is for people and for building community.”)

“So, after 40 years of rent control, 20 of which were strict rent control, we have never seen a dampening of housing,” Foster says. “And let me just say, there’s a correlation there that I think you can probably see — if a community is being squeezed by market forces so much that they feel they need rent control, there is probably no shortage of market activity in the housing space. We have never seen that actually come to pass in Santa Monica or the Los Angeles region.”

In closing, Foster notes that last year’s AB 1482, (the California Tenant Protection Act) “was great” and “absolutely” protected some families from outsized, immediate gentrification. “However, it is not something we can stop at and pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘We did a great job.’ And it’s enough because allowing for basically what amounts to an 8% or more increase most years… most households that were already on the margins cannot absorb a year over year 8% increase in their rent,” Foster says, noting that the law still has “many, many loopholes that were probably unintended, but that are still there.”

That rent control measure “was only a starting point,” Foster says. “If you take away anything about Prop 21, it’s that it gives cities the choice. If they don’t need it, they will not be able to muster the votes to pass it. It will not be automatic overnight rent control for anyone, but it will free communities that have already passed it by a vote of the people to make the necessary adjustments, to move forward in a progressive way.”

Here’s the entire ACLU/SoCal webinar: