guest review | Ira West: Making Room for the “Little Ones” – Pasadena Now
Pasadena shoppers are beginning to see large storefront signs popping up at small stores around town. your message? Support the rent control in the November elections.
On a recent weekend, I joined Mercy Young, the 36-year-old campaign coordinator for the Pasadena Rent Control Campaign, as we walked down Colorado Boulevard across from the Paseo Mall and worked with employees and owners to rally support for placing signs in their windows.
In one hour, she approached 11 businesses, placed or handed out 8 signs, and received only two resounding “nos” – one from a shopkeeper who said he owned real estate.
Employees and owners of other shops and restaurants were often enthusiastic. At one o’clock, a clerk behind the counter revealed that her rent had quadrupled in the last year and she was now paying $2,400 for a studio.
But we didn’t walk the Paseo. “Companies are very unlikely to support local efforts, particularly political campaigns like ours,” Young said, “while mom and pop shop owners are very receptive to our cause and more than happy to put up one of our signs in their storefront windows.”
This is the first time a rent control campaign in Pasadena has garnered enough voter signature support to make it onto the ballot after a failed attempt in 2018. People from other communities are often puzzled that rent control never caught on in this city — where about 62 percent of residents are renters — while elsewhere across the state rent control struggles have been successful, beginning in Southern California in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, followed by Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.
Last fall, Santa Ana became the first Orange County city to enact a rent control measure. Other nearby jurisdictions have already implemented eviction protections similar to those in Santa Ana, including Los Angeles County, Inglewood and Culver City.
But since 1994, state legislatures have imposed strict limits on what types of rent controls cities and counties can put in place.
Young, who has worked in the affordable housing space for seven years, sees profound structural forces at work in Pasadena, defined by wealth and ownership. Only one Pasadena City Council member, Jess Rivas, is on record supporting rent control. Councilor John J. Kennedy, on the other hand, has said, “Rent control is a well-intentioned bad idea.” Kennedy’s biography on the City of Pasadena website notes that he is in the real estate business.
The city council’s response to the grassroots campaign to put rent controls on the ballot was to coordinate with city officials to produce a report on the economic impact of the proposed rent control initiative. According to Michelle White, a long-time advocate for fair housing in Pasadena, “Such analyzes typically deal almost exclusively with the real estate industry’s arguments, briefly leaving behind the impact on the city’s renters.”
Young added, “Landlords want to protect their interests, like neighborhood upkeep, and don’t care that the single mother and her four children are being evicted just behind that tree,” Young said.
“Landlords justify ‘rezoning’ [evictions due to major renovations] than maintaining the neighborhood and increasing property value,” Young explained. “Coupled with this are other wealthy, influential groups who prioritize protecting the city’s character and landscape over the needs of struggling tenants.
As a prime example, “the Pasadena Heritage Foundation wants the city to designate more and more parts of the city as landmark districts,” making those districts ineligible for affordable housing.
Eviction protection for justified reasons is another important part of the proposed rental price brake. The same applies to relocation assistance if a tenant is evicted through no fault of his own.
A longtime resident of Northwest Pasadena, Nate Cooke, presented his eviction story to the city council. His new landlord, Cooke said, evicted him to remodel his badly neglected unit after living there for six years, then listed the property with this description: “Price for immediate liquidation. 3 units in the best rental location. No rent stabilization…. Opportunity to increase rents.”
Cooke said: “Landlords should not be allowed to evict tenants without a valid reason. Rents must not increase astronomically from year to year. Because we lack these basic protections, my family is forced to leave Pasadena to find housing we can afford. We will continue to commute here. My work is here.”
Every weekend, dozens of volunteers — including not just renters but homeowners and people of all ages — parade across Pasadena to place literature in apartments and houses, put up lawn signs, and rally support before organizers see an inevitable counterattack by deep-rooted real estate interests .
But Kerwin Manning, senior pastor of the Pasadena Church in Northwest Pasadena and one of several Pasadena churches supporting the campaign, is hoping the tide will turn.
“The right to affordable housing is something that every human being deserves,” he said. “We need to take better care of what the Scriptures call care of ‘the least of these.’ The aldermen here have always catered to the elites of our community, like the Caltechs and the JPLs. But we must make room for those who cannot afford to live here. Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes I am.”
Ira West is a retired high school teacher and former journalist. He is currently a volunteer in the Pasadena Rent Control Campaign.