The Pasadena Rent Control Debate: 'How Did We Get Here?'

Housing experts, rental advocates, local leaders ponder the fallout from Pasadena’s rising rental rates, with little agreement on what if anything should be done

Published : Friday, August 9, 2019 | 5:53 AM

[Updated] Few subjects in Pasadena attract as much heated debate as housing. Whether it’s rent control or the lack of affordable housing, there are inflamed opinions on all sides.

As Pasadena Tenant Justice Coalition supporters work towards their goal of qualifying a rent control and eviction protection measure on the 2020 municipal ballot in a city they say is comprised of 54% renters, Pasadena Now talked to a number of different players in the debate for an answer to the question, “How did we get here?”

We wanted to know what issues have led to the current community conversation, and what’s driving those issues?

The responses, from grass-roots rent control advocates to property owners and landlords, to City Councilmembers and local progressive community leaders, ranged from complete support to complete rejection of rent control.

Answers to the origin of skyrocketing rents are just as hard to nail down.

“It’s a combination of things,” said Councilmember Victor Gordo, who represents a portion of Northwest Pasadena. “It’s a combination of Pasadena and then, frankly, California being an attractive place to live.”

But Gordo is not convinced that rent control would save things.

“San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, they have rent control, but they’re also some of the most expensive markets for rent or for sale in the entire country,” Gordo observed this week. “Rent control has not been the silver bullet in any of those places. It’s just not.”

He said that as the debate continues “We have to be thoughtful and deliberate. We’re talking about housing for human beings. We’re talking about wage disparity. We’re talking about other social issues that all come together and contribute to the issue of homelessness.”

Gordo also said he sees the current situation as an opportunity for Pasadena to “think through carefully, [how] to house people.”

“That should be the goal,” said Gordo. “Let’s just go right at the issue. How do we help? How do we contribute to people being able to stay in their home and people being able to find a home?”

Republican activist Stephen Smith also doesn’t think rent control is the answer, nor is the City of Pasadena’s Tenant Protection Ordinance (TPO). For Smith, agreements between tenant and landlord should be just that — mutual and voluntary agreement between two parties, but not mandated by rent control law.

Says Smith, “What I would find fair, frankly, is to give due notice. If you’re upending somebody’s life, it’s only proper and right to give them an adequate time period, three months, or six months, so the people have time to get their life together and manage a change in their life. Just saying ‘you’re gone tomorrow’ is not right.”

“That could certainly be a tenant-landlord agreement,” Smith continued, “but required by law, that’s troublesome.”

Smith is also troubled by those he sees as wanting to make everything “fair.”

“There is no guarantee in this life.” Smith explained. “That’s the thing, I hate to say it, but see, that’s one of the goals of the left.”

And there is no fairness, either, according to Smith.

“Everything has to be fair,” Smith stresses, “but unfortunately in reality, life isn’t fair. We don’t all have the same jobs, the same talents. Sometimes it’s just good fortune. And ultimately what you’re seeing is a movement towards total state control over a person’s personal property. And I think that violates the principles that our country was founded on.”

Jonathan Edewards, an insurance broker who is president of the Downtown Pasadena Neighborhood Association, sees rent control as a marketplace issue.

With rent control, says Edewards, the rental situation only benefits those who are first in line, so to speak.

As Edewards explains, “Housing is a market just like any other, so what happens when you have rent control is that it really benefits people who take advantage of the program early on.”

Those renters are the lucky ones, he contends, but their luck makes things more difficult for people wanting to move in, or those who are forced out.

“It’s the same principle with home ownership too, in the state of California,” says Edewards, “where people who bought a home many years ago are benefiting at the expense of everybody else who didn’t buy a home because [the longtime homeowners] have low, low tax rates that are locked in by Proposition 13.”

Edewards also looks askance at local zoning regulations, for example, which impose height limits on new buildings, limiting the number of units that can be built.

“All these zoning restrictions are holding down the supply of housing,” says Edewards. “It’s just simple supply and demand. It’s a nationwide thing, too.”

Perhaps the local problem’s origins lie in ‘outsiders,’ offers Ed Washatka, Chair of the Housing Justice Committee for Pasadenans Organizing for Progress (POP).

“What’s happened over the last five to eight years since the recession,” posits Washatka, “and what’s forcing the market rates up are outside investors.”

“They’re coming in, they’re buying up properties and they’re exploiting the gap between current affordable rents and marking them up to the new, but much higher, market rate rents. They keep pushing the market up because they keep buying up the housing, the affordable housing.”

And that process is eliminating housing that would ultimately be available to far more renters and not just high-income renters or buyers, he says.

For renters’ advocate Allison Henry of the Pasadena Tenant Justice Coalition, the battle for rent control is personal.

“I got a $250 rent increase, which was 25%,” she said Thursday, “but all my neighbors got between $500 and $600 rent increases. The idea was to ‘bring all these units up to market rate,’ whatever that meant.”

Henry maintains that low rents are not necessarily the Coalition’s ultimate goal. The goal is being able to stay where you live, and not be subject to the whims of landlords or developers, she says.

“We’re not saying Pasadena needs to be a cheap place so people can come into Pasadena,” stressed Henry. “That’s not really the argument. The point is if you’ve been in your apartment and you’re a member of the community and all of a sudden you get this significant rent increase, many of these rent increases were not accompanied by any type of improvement or maintenance to the building. A walk around the city will actually show you there’s a ‘habitability issue’ as well. People are paying really high rents for very shabby accommodations.”

Whether the future will emerge from unfettered marketplace forces or from ballot box mandates, rents and homelessness continue to rise as do new developments filled with new residents, as Pasadenans ponder.


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