Last year, I visited housing activists throughout California, asking them about the street-level impacts of gentrification and unfair, sky-high rents in their cities. We also talked about the powerful influence of the real estate industry on local politicians. All of these things, I learned, were ravaging their middle- and working-class communities. The COVID-19 pandemic is only making a horrible situation worse.
“People have been unemployed for weeks and unemployment checks are not coming in with the slow unemployment insurance process,” Rafael Bautista, of San Diego Tenants United, told me in April. “Federal checks are not going to be received for another few weeks, and not everyone will receive those funds. The system has failed us, and if nothing changes, hundreds of thousands of unemployed tenants will have little to no option but to skip rent to survive.”
Bautista and Sacramento Tenants Union member Erica Jaramillo (pictured above) have been battling on the frontlines of California’s housing affordability crisis for years. Bautista has seen San Diego politicians push a pro-gentrification, trickle-down housing agenda that’s enriched the real estate industry, but has driven up rents and fueled displacement in such working-class neighborhoods as City Heights.
“The people who were living here are leaving,” Bautista, a 35-year-old San Diego native, explained to me last November. “It’s sad. We have people telling us they’ll go back to Mexico. We have other people who say they’ll go back to the Philippines or Iran. And people are going to Texas and Arizona because they’re paying more than half of their incomes on rents. A major rent increase can destroy a person’s life.”
Jaramillo, in Sacramento, saw something eerily similar: middle- and working-class residents were getting hit with massive 20 and 30 percent rent increases.
“There’s no political will to help us,” Jaramillo, a 31-year-old government worker who was born and raised in Sacramento, told me in May 2019. “There’s no one here for us. The politicians are making sweet deals for themselves [with the real estate industry], and not helping us.”
Today, Jaramillo told me, the COVID-19 pandemic is only adding more weight to the financial burdens residents were already carrying.
“Across the board,” she explained, “we are hearing that the response renters are getting from landlords is, ‘I still have a mortgage to pay and you still need to pay rent.’ The real disaster for tenants is going to be after the coronavirus pandemic… We aren’t all going to have that money to pay the rent back.”
In San Diego, Bautista said, “Tenants are facing a real life struggle between paying rent and paying for food and medications.”
He added, “The coronavirus has made it abundantly clear that working people deserve more, but are still the last priority for this government.”
Unsurprisingly, San Diego Tenants United and the Sacramento Tenants Union have enthusiastically endorsed Proposition 21.
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. It’s why U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the California Democratic Party, the Los Angeles Times, and California’s housing justice movement have thrown their full support behind Prop 21.
But corporate landlords such as Blackstone Group, Essex Property Trust, and Equity Residential are banding together to kill Prop 21, shelling out millions to the No on Prop 21 campaign.
Even during the twin public emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing housing affordability crisis, Blackstone CEO and billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, Essex Property Trust CEO and multimillionaire Mike Schall, and Equity Residential co-founder and billionaire Sam Zell want to keep charging unfair, wildly inflated rents so they can keep making king-sized profits.
In very real terms, activists Erica Jaramillo and Rafael Bautista are battling billionaires Stephen Schwarzman and Sam Zell in the fight over Prop 21. California voters will have to decide if they want to stand with Bautista and Jaramillo or Schwarzman and Zell. For the activists, it’s a no-brainer: Yes on Proposition 21.
Patrick Range McDonald is the award-winning advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right.