What's at stake?
Fresno has had some of the highest rent increases of any city in America. Experts are recommending rent control - but city leaders are hesitant.
Fresno’s anti-displacement task force recommended rent stabilization – which could involve rent control – as a way to address the city’s housing crisis. That was on Dec. 16; no action has been taken on the recommendation.
While rent stabilization can come in many different forms, the city of Fresno has not made any indication that it will adopt a rent control policy. Instead, the City Council voted to set aside money from the American Rescue Plan Act for a landlord incentive program that would give landlords funds to repair their properties in exchange for an affordability covenant.
The task force voted in December to recommend 10 policies from the Here to Stay report to the City Council, one of which was rent stabilization. The recommendations were initially set to be presented to the City Council in January, but that did not happen. It will not be heard until April, when Mayor Jerry Dyer proposes his One Fresno Housing Plan to the body.
The top 10 policy recommendations include a full right to counsel, renter assistance programs, down payment assistance, a fair chance housing policy and community land trusts.
“The Here to Stay report has been delayed for so long,” said Karla Martinez, a policy advocate with the Leadership Counsel. “We haven’t seen any type of action in regards to that, and we know that there’s a housing crisis.”
Renters like Benita Vasquez said they cannot afford to wait much longer.
Vasquez, a Fresno renter and mother of three, said her rent rose from $475 to $700 a month over the past two years — a nearly 50% increase in two years, which is not legal under California’s current rent control law that caps rent increases at 10% annually. She and her husband have lived in their two-bedroom apartment in central Fresno for 10 years and didn’t experience any rent increases for the first eight years of their tenancy.
“When the pandemic began, that’s when the rent increases began,” Vasquez said in Spanish.
Vasquez said it is not only rent that is going up; it’s food, gas and other necessities, also. Her husband makes too much money for her family to qualify for assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program which provides food stamps, she said, but she’s had to limit the food she buys to prioritize their rent.
“If we can’t pay it, it’s no trouble for (the landlord) to send us an eviction notice,” Vasquez added. “And there aren’t really a lot of places to go here in Fresno; there’s a lot of requirements, and it’s not easy to find a house or apartment in three months.”
She is one of many renters from across the city, in both apartments and single-family homes, who have told Fresnoland that their year-over-year rent has seen a sharp increase, some claiming that their incomes from jobs in Fresno’s top industries aren’t keeping up.
As of February, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment on the market is $1,315, according to Apartmentlist.com.
Is Fresno considering rent control?
Dyer’s office declined multiple requests to comment on any housing policy recommendations, preferring to wait until the One Fresno plan is presented to the City Council some time in April.
In a November letter, the mayor reacted to the Thrivance Group’s policy recommendations, stating that he believes in a “free and unhampered market.” He stated that he was, however, willing to explore the prospects of the local government subsidizing “rents for a subset of landlords, with the condition that their units remain affordable for a specific period of time.”
The mayor wrote: “The fact of the matter is we are growing, and while we are happy that Fresno, now more than ever, is being sought after as a desirable place to live, the simple economic principle of supply and demand, if left unchecked, may lead to many residents being priced out of the market.”
According to Dyer’s November letter, the program would provide landlords with money to make improvements to their rental property in exchange for an affordability covenant.
Without first hearing the recommendations from the anti-displacement task force, the City Council approved setting aside $1 million of APRA funds for this program in January.
Details on the program are yet to be released, and it is unclear how much money landlords can apply for and what types of landlords can apply. Dyer’s office declined to provide details about the program.
Would an opt-in program be enough?
Advocates with Faith in the Valley said that an opt-in program would not account for “slum lords” who can continue to rent unrepaired properties at high rates with no incentive to do otherwise.
Housing policy advocate Alexandra Alvarado said Faith in the Valley and the Leadership Counsel have looked into rent control programs elsewhere, such as in Santa Ana where rent increases are capped at 3% or 80% of the change in the area’s consumer price index – which would equate to 6.1% in Fresno – whichever is lower.
“Five percent is too high when the typical renter is already severely rent-burdened in Fresno,” said Amber Crowell, a researcher with Faith in the Valley and member of the anti-displacement task force. “We need more stabilization.”
However a policy such as that would not come without opposition.
The California Apartment Association, which represents landlords of about half of Fresno’s registered rentals, said in a statement to Fresnoland that the organization opposes a local rent control.
“CAA is unequivocally opposed to any local rent control ordinance in Fresno and is carefully reviewing the “Here to Stay” report by the Thrivance Group,” the statement read.
“Rather than create a new bureaucracy to manage an “optional” rent control program . . . the city would likely help more residents in a faster manner by directing more funds to the rental assistance program and helping those who did not qualify for the state program receive assistance,” according to the statement.
The organization further suggested that based on studies that found that direct rental assistance programs reduce homelessness, the city leaders should direct ARPA funds to renters in the form of additional rental assistance to “ensure that all those living in the city have access to safe, stable, and affordable housing.“
Housing researchers, advocates and city officials have stated clearly that there is no “panacea” to solve the housing crisis in Fresno.
“None of these policies can be implemented in a vacuum; it has to be a part of a bundle to keep everybody whole,” Crowell said. “The fear that rent stabilization is going to hurt landlords, it doesn’t have to, not if we really think holistically about these policies.”