The fight for rent control is an increasingly uphill battle in Fresno, where the mayor and city council have said solving the statewide housing crisis means incentivizing development and courting reinvestment. Credit: Cassandra Garibay / Fresnoland/The Fresno Bee

What's at stake?

Supporters say Fresno needs a public panel to protect renters, but city leaders say such policies lead to higher prices and slums.

Community residents and housing advocates are regrouping after an unsuccessful push for Fresno’s new city budget to include a rent control program. 

“Community members are disappointed, and there really is this feeling that their narratives, their testimony aren’t being taken seriously,” said Marisa Moraza, a campaign director with Power California Action.

That fight, advocates acknowledge, is an increasingly uphill battle in Fresno, where the mayor and city council have said solving the statewide housing crisis means incentivizing development and courting reinvestment.

Rent control, they argue, would be counterproductive to building new housing units.

“In terms of rent control, I can tell you I don’t support that because I’ve seen what has happened in other cities,” Mayor Jerry Dyer said during a news conference Thursday following the budget’s adoption. “When rent control is implemented, ultimately, you have landlords making fewer dollars, and so they’re not investing in their property. And as a result, we end up with a lot of slums within a city.”

Despite lingering frustrations, housing advocates say they aren’t backing down on their demands.

In May, a coalition of advocacy organizations sent a letter to Dyer and the Fresno City Council, listing a series of budget requests on everything from transportation and infrastructure to housing and, specifically, a new rent control program.

In the letter, advocates said the city should establish a board to enforce rent-control policies, which, they say, would stabilize rents in Fresno.

“We wanted to also wrap in the opportunity to actually allocate funding for something like a rent control program,” Moraza said. “It would be a very low funding allocation, but just having that allocation then opens the door to conversation of building up a policy.”

Mayor, council push to build more affordable housing, remain opposed to rent control

Just before the city council approved the 2024 fiscal year budget Thursday, a group of community residents and housing advocates, with signs in hand, rallied inside the Fresno Council Chambers.

“What do we want? Rent Control!” The group chanted. “When do we want it? Now!”

About 15 seconds into the chant, Council President Tyler Maxwell put the city council meeting into recess for five minutes, and the city’s live feed and audio cut out shortly after.

The chant capped about two months of Fresno residents and housing advocates showing up to public comment before a city council – which they have noted is composed of a majority of landlords – to voice their concerns about rising rents.

“This is really like our final attempt to be able to speak directly to council members because the in-person meetings (with them) weren’t making a shift,” Moraza said. “We’re now seeing that public comment is not making a shift.”

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Dyer said the rent control issue was a nonstarter.

Dyer said passing rent control would send a message to housing developers to leave Fresno, which he said could lead to a lack of housing production and actually drive rents up. Dyer has maintained that the city can resolve its housing crisis by building more units, and rent control does not fit his vision.

Since 2021, 400 new affordable housing units have been built and are currently occupied in Fresno, city spokesperson Sontaya Rose told Fresnoland in May. She said the city plans to add 2,493 more affordable housing units by the end of 2025.

But when new affordable housing developments open up, applications pour in.

One 60-unit affordable housing development in Clovis recently received over 10,000 applications, and another 57-unit development that opened up in Fresno’s Chinatown received 4,000 applications, said Michael Duarte, the chief real estate officer at the Fresno Housing Authority, at a June 15 Fresnoland/CalMatters panel on housing.

Duarte added that the Fresno Housing Authority received 10,000 applications in less than one day for its Section 8 housing voucher waitlist. 

Rent control isn’t the only way to help tenants, leaders say

In an interview with Fresnoland, Maxwell, the city council president, said he sees both sides of the issue but said he believes rent comes down to simple supply-and-demand economics.

He added the best way to bring rent down is to increase the housing supply, and that means construction.

“These last three years, I can tell you that we have set a record when it comes to either subsidizing or helping initiate affordable housing projects here in the city of Fresno,” Maxwell said. “It’s a priority for not just this council but the mayor and his administration to really try to expedite as many housing projects as possible.”

In lieu of rent control, Maxwell said the council in recent years has taken steps to beef up some protections for tenants.

He pointed to the city’s Eviction Protection Program, which Maxwell co-authored in 2021.

The program, which provides legal representation for tenants facing eviction, wasn’t included in the proposed budget that Dyer released in May. 

Maxwell, one of the few city councilmembers who rents his home, pushed to save the program with a budget motion to put $2 million towards the program’s third year. He said he hopes the program wouldn’t require a budget motion to get funding in the future.

“Going forward, my hope is that it starts getting baked into the proposed budget,” Maxwell said. “Ether because it’s a priority for the mayor or a priority for the city attorney.”

Maxwell added that another piece of legislation he authored, the Tenant Relocation Assistance Program, helps renters avoid getting displaced due to unhealthy or unsafe living conditions. The ordinance requires landlords to assist with the expense of relocating tenants to complete needed renovations or face fines.

However, the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, a key COVID-19-era effort that provided assistance with rent and utility bills to Fresno residents who met income requirements, is going away soon. The $54 million from federal and state governments that funded the program is almost depleted, and the remaining $2.5 million in funding remaining for the program will likely get spent in the next fiscal year.

With no city funding to keep the program around next year, it will likely end soon.

“There was a lot of community momentum and energy that really shows that folks care about this issue,” said Marisa Moraza, a campaign director with Power California Action. “We will continue to push for this rent control demand.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the number of Fresno City Councilmembers that rent their homes. The article has been corrected to reflect that at least two councilmembers are renters.

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Omar Shaikh Rashad is the government accountability reporter for Fresnoland.

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