Dec 19, 2023

Who Will Stand Up for Renters? Their Elected Representatives, Who Also Rent.


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In California, legislators come out as tenants to form a renters’ caucus.

By Conor Dougherty

When Matt Haney entered the California Legislature, he discovered he was part of a tiny minority: a legislator who rents.

Mr. Haney has never owned property and, at 41 years old, has spent his adult life as a tenant. His primary residence is a one-bedroom apartment near downtown San Francisco. The rent is $3,258 a month. (He also paid a $300 deposit for Eddy and Ellis, two orange cats he adopted from a shelter during the pandemic.)

“When I got there last year, it seemed that there were only three of us out of 120,” Mr. Haney said of the renters in the Legislature. “That’s a very small number.”

Looking to highlight their renter status and the 17 million California residents who are tenants — a little less than half the state’s population — Mr. Haney and two Assembly colleagues, Isaac Bryan and Alex Lee, last year founded the California Renters Caucus. A fourth Assembly member, Tasha Boerner, joined after the caucus was formed. The group added a state senator, Aisha Wahab, after she entered office this year.

Mr. Haney said there was briefly a sixth, more politically conservative member who attended one meeting but never came back. It’s possible they have other colleagues who are renters and have yet to come out.

“Being a renter is not necessarily something people project or put on their website,” Mr. Haney said.

That much seems to be changing. From cities and statehouses to U.S. Congress, elected officials are increasingly playing up their status as tenants and forming groups to push for renter-friendly policies.

Politics is about being relatable. Candidates pet dogs and hold babies and talk about their children. Given how many families are struggling with the cost of housing and have lost hope that they could ever buy, it makes sense that elected officials would now start talking about being tenants.

London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, talks frequently about her rent-controlled apartment in the city’s Haight district. Lindsey Horvath, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — the powerful body that oversees a $43 billion budget and more than 100,000 employees — predicates discussions of housing policy with her status as a renter.

In June, federal legislators followed California with a renter caucus of their own, although that one has looser criteria. Representative Jimmy Gomez, who is chair of the Congressional Renters Caucus as well as a Democrat from Los Angeles, said instead of actual tenants his group targeted members from renter-heavy districts, even if they own a home, as he does.

“Good elected officials are going to fight for their constituents, no matter what,” Mr. Gomez said.

Besides, he added, the strictest definition of “renter” can obscure economic insecurity. His parents, for instance, were homeowners who never made more than $40,000 combined and lived in inland California without air conditioning. Other people own nothing but rent a $7,000-a-month penthouse.

“Are they considered the same?” he said.

When asked how many of his colleagues did not own a home, Mr. Gomez said, “My gut is that it’s less than 10.”

In addition to advancing Democratic priorities like subsidized housing and tenant protections, these legislators are making a bet that being perceived as a pro-renter is politically advantageous in an era in which a growing number of Americans are renting for longer periods, and often for life. Mr. Haney and Mr. Gomez both describe their caucuses — subsets of legislators organized around a common purpose — as a first for their bodies. Which is easy to believe.

Homeownership is synonymous with the American dream. It is supported by various federal and state tax breaks and so encoded in the American mythology and financial system that historians and anthropologists assert that it has come to symbolize a permanent participation in society. The underlying message is that renting is temporary, or should be.

“There is a pretty foundational bias against renters in American sociological and political life,” said Jamila Michener, a professor of government and public policy at Cornell. “So when policymakers say, ‘Hey, this is an identity that’s relevant, and one we are willing to own and lean into,’ that’s significant.”

About two-thirds of Americans own their dwellings, and survey after survey shows that the aspiration of owning a home is no less potent today than it was for previous generations. But the number of renters has grown steadily over the past decade to about 44 million households nationwide, while punishing housing costs have migrated from coastal enclaves to metropolitan areas around the nation.

More salient to politicians, perhaps, is that renters are increasingly well-off — households that make more than $75,000 have accounted for a large majority of the growth in renters over the past decade, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. At the same time, the struggle to find something affordable has escalated from lower-income tenants to middle-income families that in past generations would very likely have owned their homes.

In other words, renter households are now composed of families much more likely to vote. And after a pandemic in which homeowners gained trillions in home-equity wealth while renters had to be supported with eviction moratoriums and tens of billions in assistance, the fragility of their position has been made clearer.

“As cost burdens show up in places where we don’t expect it, there seems to be more political momentum around addressing these problems,” said Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, senior research associate at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

By organizing around an economic condition, lawmakers are embracing a concept that renter advocates refer to as “tenants as a class.”

The idea is that while renters are a large and politically diverse group — low-income families on the edge of eviction, high-earning professionals renting by choice, couples whose desire for suburban living but inability to afford a down payment has made single-family house rentals one of the hottest corners of the real estate business — they still have common interests. Those include the rising cost of housing and the instability of being on a lease.

“It’s a lens that I don’t think has been captured in the same way as race, gender, age, ability, et cetera,” said Mr. Bryan, the California Assembly member and renters’ caucus member whose district is in Los Angeles. “I’m excited to be among the first five legislators in California history to develop what the political consciousness is around this status.”

That the ranks of tenants also include legislators, albeit not many of them, is one of the points California lawmakers said they wanted to make by forming the renters’ caucus. It also plunged them into the surprisingly thorny question of who is and is not a tenant.

Does the list include lawmakers who rent a dwelling in Sacramento but own a house or condominium in their district, a criterion that would qualify a good chunk of the Legislature? The group decided no. How about Mr. Lee, the Assembly member and renters’ caucus member, whose district residence is his childhood bedroom, in a home his mother owns? He doesn’t own property, so sure.

Despite having only five members, the California Renters Caucus, like the state it represents, is racially diverse but dominated by Democrats (there are no Republicans in the caucus). Its members are white, Black and Asian. Mr. Lee is a member of the Legislature’s L.G.B.T.Q. caucus. Ms. Wahab is the first Muslim American elected to the California Senate.

Politically speaking, the outlier is Tasha Boerner, who lives in the San Diego suburb Encinitas and is the caucus’s more conservative member (as California Democrats go). Despite being the group’s longest-serving member in the Legislature, Ms. Boerner, 50, was initially not identified as a tenant by her colleagues on the renters’ caucus.

“No one ever called my office because I’m a white mom living in Encinitas,” she said. “They thought, ‘She must be a homeowner.’”

Ms. Boerner frequently disagrees with her colleagues about the efficacy of policies like rent-control, she said, though she voted for a statewide rent cap several years ago. She is also more skeptical of the state’s efforts to speed construction by taking land-use control from cities, and she voted against a bill that effectively ended single-family zoning in the state.

And yet Ms. Boerner is also a lifetime renter who has moved three times since assuming office. Her current home is a three-bedroom apartment that she shares with her two children and her ex-husband, in part because it’s cheaper than if the parents had separate places.

“Families who rent come in all shapes and sizes, and what I hope to bring is a little diversity,” she said. “We have disagreements, as any caucus does, but coming together and saying, ‘Hey, this is a demographic who matters’ — that is the importance.”

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of tenants in California. It is about 17 million residents, not 17 million households.

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Conor Dougherty is an economics reporter and the author of “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.” His work focuses on the West Coast, real estate and wage stagnation among U.S. workers. More about Conor Dougherty


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