For years, the California Apartment Association, the landlord lobbying powerhouse, has been one of the state’s most aggressive opponents of tenant protections. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization fought temporary safeguards for renters. That take-no-prisoners approach is largely due to one man: Tom Bannon, the longtime chief executive officer of the CAA.
Whether it’s opposing a city ordinance or supporting controversial state legislation, Tom Bannon (pictured above) has instituted a way of operating that utilizes deceit, strong-arm tactics, and loads of campaign cash to smackdown housing activists and curry favor with politicians. Perhaps the most notorious landlord group in the state, the California Apartment Association is now leading the charge against Proposition 21.
Proposition 21 is the November ballot measure that puts sensible limits on unfair, sky-high rent increases, reins in corporate landlord greed, and prevents homelessness. The initiative is supported by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, Congresswoman Maxine Water, former United Nations special rapporteur on the Right to Housing Leilani Farha, and numerous others. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, keeping people in their homes is even more crucial.
Under the leadership of Tom Bannon, the California Apartment Association is now sponsoring Californians for Responsible Housing, the lead No on Prop 21 committee that’s so far raised a whopping $33.3 million. Bannon is also a member of a secretive “executive committee” made up of real estate executives that calls the shots for the No on Prop 21 campaign. Considering the CAA’s track record, it’s unsurprising the landlord lobbying group is playing such a major role.
In 2019, the California Apartment Association killed watered-down tenant protections that were initially passed by the El Cerrito City Council. The CAA started up a petition drive to repeal the protections through a local ballot measure. According to local activist Karina Ioffee, CAA’s signature gatherers misleadingly told residents that they should sign the petition if they wanted rent control — a complete lie. Other signature gatherers said that if residents didn’t want criminals to move into El Cerrito, they should sign.
“They engaged in a total misinformation campaign,” Ioffee explained.
El Cerrito residents weren’t experienced in the dishonest ways of the California Apartment Association. The lobbying powerhouse got the signatures it needed, forcing the City Council’s hand. The politicians folded, and repealed renter protections in August 2019.
“It was another example of CAA’s power,” Ioffee said.
She added: “They send people into any locality when they get a whiff of rent control. They’re an organization that has massive resources. They’re a force to be reckoned with.”
A year earlier, in 2018, Tom Bannon and the California Apartment Association tried a similar campaign in Mountain View, where the landlord lobbying group attempted to repeal renter protections through a ballot measure. The CAA and others brazenly framed it as a good thing for tenants, but the disingenuous effort failed to get enough signatures. Mayor Lenny Siegel said in a strongly worded statement: “Mountain View voters were not fooled by the apartment owners’ deceptive campaign to place the sneaky repeal on the ballot.”
In 2018, the California Apartment Association sponsored a political committee to oppose Proposition 10, the California ballot measure that would have repealed statewide restrictions on rent control. That committee, funded by such corporate landlords as Equity Residential, Essex Property Trust, and AvalonBay Communities, raised $53 million to trick voters with deceitful campaign ads. Despite the fact that more than 525 housing and social injustice organizations, civic groups, and elected leaders endorsed Prop 10, voters were sufficiently scared and confused — and the initiative lost at the polls.
These are just some of the underhanded methods Tom Bannon and the California Apartment Association have used over the years. During the coronavirus pandemic, the CAA tried to repeal a temporary rent freeze in Santa Ana.
“I call on you to continue standing up for working-class and immigrant residents in the city that have been economically impacted,” Santa Ana resident Carlos Perea told city politicians. “I understand landlords who shamelessly want to continue to raise rents during this global crisis have been putting pressure on you. That is not just disappointing but morally wrong.”
The Santa Ana City Council listened to Perea — and maintained the freeze. But many activists believed that CAA’s hard push in Santa Ana was another disturbing example of its extremist ways: even during a global pandemic, Tom Bannon and the CAA were still trying to scrap a temporary measure that kept people in their homes and safe.
Earlier this year, Tom Bannon and the California Apartment Association tried to stop AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s crucial work to protect vulnerable Californians, including seniors, working-class families, the unhoused, and people living with chronic diseases. Around the world, activists and experts agree that access to stable, affordable housing is essential for maintaining good health.
AHF and its housing advocacy division, Housing Is A Human Right, are spearheading Proposition 21. In an effort to silence AHF, Tom Bannon and the CAA stooped to a new low and tried to pass AB 1938, a dangerous state bill that would have stopped AHF from using certain monies to carry out its housing advocacy work through litigation and ballot measures.
The CAA-backed bill not only singled out AHF in a way that appeared to be unlawful, but was also a clear threat to the organization’s First Amendment rights. The legalities of AB 1938 didn’t concern Tom Bannon and the California Apartment Association — it was hard-ball politics at its worst. Fortunately, the draconian bill was stopped in a state assembly committee.
With millions of California renters in dire straits, top experts at USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley agree that rent limits is a crucial tool to stabilize California’s housing affordability crisis.
“The housing crisis requires a range of strategies,” explained University of Southern California Professor Manuel Pastor, co-author of the USC Dornsife’s Rent Matters report, “[and] moderate rent regulation is a useful tool to be nested in broader strategy. It has fewer damaging effects than are often imagined, it can address economic pain, and it can promote housing stability. And housing stability matters because it is associated with physical, social, and psychological well-being; higher educational achievement by the young; and benefits for people of color.”
Those words hold even more true during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has slammed people of color and middle- and working-class Californians. What’s Tom Bannon and CAA’s approach to the worsening plight of the state’s most vulnerable? The landlord lobbying group is fighting tooth and nail to stop Proposition 21 — and to keep the status quo of sky-rocketing rents, increasing evictions, and worsening homelessness.
For Bannon and the California Apartment Association, anything that even slightly threatens the real estate industry’s out-sized profits must be stopped — no matter the human cost.
Patrick Range McDonald is an award-winning advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right.