Measure M
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Fight Over Rent Control, Evictions Comes to Santa Cruz

A battle brews over Measure M and a vision for Santa Cruz

Rent control supporter Jeffrey Smedberg at a recent Saturday morning canvassing event. PHOTO: ANDREW FAIR

On a clear Wednesday evening in late August, around 170 landlords and homeowners—and even a few renters—gathered at the Westside tasting room of Stockwell Cellars. Set amid rustic wine barrels and industrial-chic chandeliers, the event marked the launch of a campaign against Santa Cruz rent control initiative Measure M, which will be decided by local voters this fall after a recent wave of similar efforts in other California cities.

As the anti-rent-control kickoff went on inside, a small protest just outside the winery’s outdoor patio went live on Facebook. Young speakers who had organized a “Vigil for the Displaced of Santa Cruz” passed a bullhorn a few feet away from their opposition, separated only by a thin strip of gravel lined with drought-resistant plants.  

“Oh, I’d love to give a story,” one rent-control opponent broke in, interrupting a protester mid-speech. “Can I give a story?”

“No!” the protestors replied. As the man walked away, one protestor yelled after him: “I hope you like the fart noise I left on your voicemail!”

While campaign mudslinging is par for the course, the battle over Measure M is getting particularly intense, as record housing prices collide with sharp generational divides and anxiety about widening economic inequality. The oddest part about the rent-control controversy: almost everyone agrees that rents do need some control as they climb precariously high.

“Most people don’t object to limiting rent increases,” said Lynn Renshaw, who owns multiple properties in Santa Cruz, and is a lead organizer of the anti-rent-control group Santa Cruz Together.

Renshaw says she would support a City Council draft ordinance that would limit rent increases to 10 percent a year, or 15 percent over two years. Measure M would limit annual rent increases to the rate of inflation of the Consumer Price Index, which rose about 2 percent each of the last two years.

The rent-control supporters who authored Measure M and collected more than 5,000 valid signatures to get it on the ballot argue that capping big, sudden rent hikes isn’t enough. “Unless there are protections against evictions without cause, a landlord can just evict somebody and jack the rents up to whatever they want,” says Zav Hershfield, a local renter and organizer with the Santa Cruz Tenant Organizing Committee.

Among the most controversial changes proposed in Measure M are new rules for “just-cause eviction,” which stipulate that a landlord can only kick tenants out for specific reasons like failure to pay rent, nuisance, or an owner move-in to the property. Though other recently approved rent control ordinances in Oakland, Mountain View and Richmond include similar rules, the Santa Cruz measure would require a larger-than-average relocation payment—the equivalent of six months of market-rate rent, well over $10,000 for larger units—from landlords who order tenants to leave for reasons unrelated to tenant conduct.

Hershfield draws from personal experience to explain the importance of such rules. He says he was evicted from an older house he shared with several roommates earlier this year with 120 days’ notice and no reason given.

“It was a scramble and a half to find something. We were looking for three months,” he says. “It’s stressful. I have to work.”

Rent control opponent Peter Cook, a real estate agent and property manager who oversees rentals to some 500 UCSC students, said red tape can already make it difficult and costly to evict tenants accused of illegal or dangerous behavior. Santa Cruz Together has seized on this idea to warn on its website that “Your neighborhood will deteriorate.”

Cook also questions who will benefit from rent control. In Santa Monica, he points out, a 2016 city report estimated that just 4 percent of rent-controlled units were occupied by working-class renters. The report adds that California’s Costa-Hawkins Act—which is up for repeal in November with the statewide Proposition 10—allows landlords to reset rents each time a tenant moves out, raising the prices of rent-controlled units over time.

“If I have a line of people, I’m not going to take a chance on a low-income person,” Cook says of the many choices landlords currently have in popular areas like Santa Cruz. “There’s a few lucky ones who will be, you know, dug in an apartment until their death.”

Clashing Activists

“I got really excited about Bernie Sanders’ campaign,” says Jeffrey Smedberg, a retired Santa Cruz County recycling coordinator and rent-control advocate, remembering what inspired him to become politically active.

Answering Sanders’ call to stay involved locally after the 2016 presidential election was a driving force behind Smedberg getting involved first in a challenge to the city’s camping ban impacting homeless residents and now rent control. Though Smedberg owns a home with a group of co-owners, he supports rent control because “homeowners really have the bulk of the power” in the city.

Renshaw, who works in software marketing, also cites 2016 as a turning point in her political activism. “I really got engaged as an activist after Trump’s election,” she says. “Working on local politics, you can tell you’re actually moving the needle.”

For Renshaw, the brand of further-left politics espoused by pro-rent control campaigners at events like the winery protest come off as “weak.” Cook, a Santa Cruz Together board member, frames rent control as one front in a broader local culture war.

“These folks are really trying to establish their vision of social justice on our city and California by forcing rent control,” Cook says. He’s critical of the role statewide tenant groups like San Francisco-based Tenants Together have had in shaping Measure M.

Hershfield says that while the campaign sought legal advice from Bay Area-based attorneys to craft the specifics of Measure M, it’s “hilarious” to characterize the pro-rent control campaign as a well-heeled political machine. Instead, he points to the $60,000 his opponents have raised so far, as well as to the outsized role realtor associations and the California Apartment Association have played in other rent-control races, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into 2016 elections in Mountain View, Burlingame and elsewhere.

While the campaigns for Measure M, a $140 million county affordable housing bond, and the statewide Proposition 10 play out this fall, one question is whether housing prices will increase, decrease or stay at their current level near historic highs in the meantime.

Santa Cruz, like many area cities, has failed to meet its state-ordered number of new housing units for much of the last few decades, creating a scenario where demand is high and supply is low. Realtor.com lists a total of 336 properties for sale in Santa Cruz at a median $995,000 as of early September. The cheapest non-mobile-home or non-senior housing listed is a $419,500, one-bedroom condo on River Street. Those who do buy a house are purchasing them for an average 130 percent of the list price.

While Cook says rent control would not “crater the housing market” due to strong demand from reliable groups like Silicon Valley retirees, he said some landlords are already considering selling off rental units. It might not make for the catchiest campaign slogan, but the San Francisco native points to his hometown—currently one of the most expensive markets in the world—to argue that rent control is a bridge too far.

“My chant is like, ‘It’s better to have an expensive rental than no rental,’” he says. “That’s the unfortunate reality right now.”

What’s in Measure M?

– Maximum annual rent increase: Equal to annual increase in inflation (Consumer Price Index), which rose about 2 percent each of the last two years.

– Rent rollback: Baseline rents would revert to Oct. 19, 2017.

Evictions: New “just cause” eviction rule would prohibit landlords from making tenants leave without a specific reason, including: failure to pay rent, nuisance, need for substantial repairs, owner move-ins, or to remove property from the rental market.

Relocation fees: In the event of an eviction unrelated to tenant’s conduct, landlord would pay a minimum of six months rent for relocation assistance.

Subleases and additional tenants: Landlords would not be allowed to evict tenants for subleasing rental units, so long as the primary tenant remains in the unit and the new tenant replaces an existing tenant. Landlords would also be barred from evicting tenants for moving in a spouse or partner, a child, a parent, a grandchild, a grandparent, a sibling, or those relatives’ spouses, so long as housing code limits on occupancy are not exceeded.

Types of properties exempted: Hospitals, transient occupancies and room rentals where tenant shares kitchen and bathroom. Single-family homes, condos and new units built after 1995 would also be exempt from rent limits (but not just-cause eviction rules), unless state Proposition 10 passes and repeals the longstanding Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act.

Oversight: New rent board, initially appointed by the city and then elected, would settle petitions or disputes. Measure would be an amendment to city charter, requiring voter approval for repeal or future amendments.

Full ballot measure: votescount.com.

Digital Editor at Good Times |

Lauren Hepler is the digital editor of Good Times and a reporter covering cities, jobs and tech — plus the occasional sports or agriculture story required of all Ohio natives. She has contributed to the New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Slate. Lauren was previously on staff at the Silicon Valley Business Journal and is a graduate of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Ken

    October 17, 2018 at 1:32 am

    This article is clearly biased against rent control, but in case there is anyone reading this who is still undecided on how to vote on measure m, I’d like to add a few thoughts. The first is that measure m was modeled off of the Berkeley rent control ordinance, and that 100% of the arguments against measure m were also made against the Berkeley ordinance 10 years ago and those arguments have been shown to be wrong over time. The truth is that indexing our current sky high rents to inflation will not change the fact that being a landlord in Santa Cruz is still incredibly lucrative. There has been no mass sell off of property in Berkeley (or San Francisco) over the last 10 years and there won’t be any mass sell off here either. The second is that rent is the single greatest transfer of wealth from poor to rich people on the planet. The people who cook your food, take care of your children, take care of your elderly, take care of you when you get sick, pick up your trash, fix your toilets, clean your homes, put food on the shelves in your grocery store, and generally keep society functioning are struggling under the incredible burden of renting in this, the 4th worst housing market in the world. The final is that the no on m campaign is being financed by $750,000 from outside of Santa Cruz. This is money from realtors and developers from around the state who are trying to prevent us from taking care of the poorest people in our community. If m fails to pass, those people stand to make a ton of money on the backs of the working poor. If m fails to pass, our communities will break down as the artists, musicians, and workers who make this town great get priced out and forced out. If m fails to pass the invasion of tech bros will continue washing over this town like an unridden wave. Vote Yes on M! Stabilize our community! Give the people at the bottom of society a place to stand, and more importantly, a place to sleep. Thank you for reading. Blessings and guidance to all.

  2. Frank Bella

    October 10, 2018 at 8:12 pm

    I, like many other rental property owners near the UCSC campus, would immediately take my property off of the rental market and sell it if this measure were to pass – no doubt about it – guaranteed. And once all these owners dump the property on the market, it will be gobbled up by foreign investors, who will bring the properties back on the market at much higher rental rates due to the revalued property taxes after the sales. Also many foreign investors will not offer the properties for rent, but rather put their student family members in them – thereby further tightening the rental market. This socialistic experiment will fail like most other socialist experiments – by hurting those it intended to help.

    • Rodrigo

      October 13, 2018 at 10:52 am

      Gotta agree with Frank here. Paying for 6 months relocation? Tenants are allowed to sublease? Why would a landlord want to offer housing in this scenario? Landlords are going to dump their properties ASAP, sell them to live in homeowners, try to convert to condos, move their in-laws in there, etc. All those “converted garages” are going to be reconverted back to their original function: being a garage. In an already scarce housing market, the market is only going to get worse.
      There’s no debate in the amongst economists (both liberal and conservative economists), rent control makes things much worse for renters.

  3. Steven Hill

    October 3, 2018 at 11:50 am

    I’m getting tired of hearing about gentrification. It seems in Santa Cruz if you work hard, save your money, and buy a house you are considered greedy. I’ve never seen so many useless grovelers in one place. If my kids want to go to UCSC they will have to pay for it themselves. What a bad decision these kids are making throwing away hundreds of thousands of dollars and 4-6 years of their lives only to be taught that they are victims. What a waste!

    • Jeff C

      October 14, 2018 at 4:14 pm

      Frank you make a valid point if it was back in July. As a local realtor here I can tell you for certain that the foreign investors have dried up. We saw this start happening in the beginning of 2018 and as of July, completely dry up. I mean having 5-10 bids on a property from foreign buyers down to often zero offers and sellers sitting on properties and constantly dropping prices. I and many other agents have been actively listing properties for current landlords whom don’t wish to compete with a flood of people like you that will be selling if and when measure M passes. If you look at the current market we have a surplus of supply and very little demand as only locals are purchasing and many are not willing to pay at these levels this the low demand. Times are changing here in SC real estate and good news for patient buyers is we will be seeing a lot of properties on the market and at lower more affordable prices. If measure M passes we may see pricing drop back to 2011/2012 levels.

  4. Ronald Gunna

    September 26, 2018 at 8:57 pm

    Wow Lauren, could you have honestly tried to sound anymore condescending towards the local housing movement in your article?
    I find it incredibly hard to believe that of all the things being protested outside of this Anti-Measure M meeting, that the most critical thing you thought to report on was someone shouting about a “fart noise” on a voicemail. No – your motives here are incredibly clear (and hella annoying), and that is to paint out a group of local community members as “weak” juvenile clowns who can’t take politics seriously, while illustrating this outside group of Real Estate/Apartment interests and investors as oh-so-civilized, educated, and organized. Wow! Bravo girl. I mean they met at a *winery* on the *westside* for crying out loud! The bourgeoisie element in this article wasn’t even ironic… it was honestly painful to think that you were actually taking yourself seriously at any point while writing this.
    And you know, this is exactly the reason why Santa Cruz locals are so distrusting and averse to outsiders of our community, so thank you so much for proving that after all these years, it is still not without good reason. Whether you’re some sell-out Silicon Valley “journalist” writing under the guise of some pseudo-liberal rag known as the Good Times, or the money-hungry vultures at the CAA, you people not only come into our community and exploit under the guise of “business,” but on top of that that – you actually have the nerve to mock our community, mock our people, mock our political movements and ridicule our community coalitions. It’s offensive and disgusting, and as someone who claims her credentials from UC Berkeley – once the forefront of the social justice movement – you should honestly be really embarrassed and ashamed of yourself for writing such a despicably slanted and biased article ridiculing our community just because you don’t want to piss your boss off. Maybe you should go back to writing fluff pieces in the “big city” if you can’t manage to take the very intimate affairs of our small town seriously for just one article. You’re whack dude.
    The good news, thankfully, is that the most value your writings will ever amount to in this town is being thrown on a wet bench to keep peoples’ asses dry in the rain, so glad that UC Berkeley degree paid off lmaaaaoo. Good luck girl. Besos 💋
    p.s. VALLEY GO HOME / NO KOOKS

    • Bob

      October 2, 2018 at 8:48 pm

      Hey Ron, maybe you wouldn’t be so angry if you lived in the “Valley” with the “Kooks.” Its much more affordable I hear.

  5. Sam

    September 24, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    Great article. Also it should note that increasing supply is a proven way of reducing rents, without the need to take away property rights from the people who have the largest risks, the owners. Santa Cruz has made its own problem in making building prohibitively difficult. More houses means less rent pressure.

  6. Tippy

    September 18, 2018 at 9:46 am

    These are just a couple of rambling thoughts:

    UCSC is going to add another 10,000 students on top of the 5,000 students who have already been added. 15,000 new students, not to mention the amount of new staff to handle this doubling of UCSC. This is a simple problem of supply and demand. Now compound that with people wanting to sell and purchase investment property elsewhere. Further compound that with people taking their homes off the rental market and making vacation homes out of them. This measure only resolves to make housing in Santa Cruz completely unaffordable.

    Average rental rate is $3400 a month, CPI year over year was 2.7, or $91.80 on the average monthly rent in Santa Cruz. Your landlord would be forced to raise the rent every year. You get a pay increase a solid portion of that would be taken out in rent. This is all to say if CPI remains the same as the Trump Era Tariffs are going to drive the cost of goods raising CPI to new levels. Over 4 years that is a 10% increase.

    Now when and if you ever decide to move. The landlord has to contemplate how much the potential for additional costs for an unruly tenant and the potential for relocation fees, how much of that will be added to the rent. The cost of the new Santa Cruz City Rental Board is probably going to be added to the landlord which is going to be added to the rent. The rental inspection program is already built into the price as well. Adding any new bond measures will be added into the price. The costs this measure will added will be added to the next place you rent.

    If you are looking at prospective tenants are you going to be charging a fee for a rental application, is that fee going to increase? Is anybody with a low credit score going to be let into your rental? Who would you rent your house to, short term UCSC students or long term families? If you choose to not move out is that landlord going to give you a good reference?

    In my opinion most people want to do the right thing. Renting a house out and providing a good home for people, fixing repairs as quickly as they come up and making a home enjoyable to live in is what most landlords try to do. As they do not want to see good tenants leave. Likewise ideally you want to rent to a nice family who is going to take care of your place not a student who is going to destroy it and leave town. You want the neighbors to like your tenants, as they in turn will try and look out for your property. Families try and take care of a place as that is the place that they are going to be living in for more than 9 months. They are going to have to see the neighbors not only this year but the following so they are generally respectful. This measure will probably make things worse as landlords look for shorter term people so as to not be locked into a set price.

    If you truly look at this measure you will realize that this is a mess. I believe that the people who are petitioning for this are truly frustrated. That they have come across some very bad situations. I have heard some extremely bad situations from tenants myself. However, this bill will not resolve those situations, it will most likely compound them, especially considering the added additional people who are going to be moving to Santa Cruz to go to and work at UCSC.

    The answer is simple supply and demand, more housing is needed. This measure is going to only compound problems and add extra more costly burdens to the current housing problem. I urge you to vote no on Measure M.

  7. Greg

    September 17, 2018 at 9:50 am

    The board may assess fees on landlords to fund the operation of the board. The initial money will come from the city council.

  8. Steven Alan

    September 6, 2018 at 6:54 pm

    Nice article, but leaving out that the Rent Control Board outlined in the ballot measure wouldn’t have to answer to the City Council or City Manager, and is in charge of their own salaries seems to me worth mentioning. Not sure were the money for their salaries is supposed to come from either. Nothing mentioned about UCSC adding students without building adequate housing for years putting pressure on rents, also seemed to me an oversight. Just saying.

    • StudentsArentTheProblem,SlumlordsAre

      September 26, 2018 at 9:33 am

      Well the UC has kept this town afloat for years, besides, who else do you think would pay near $1,000to rent a single bedroom in a dilapidated, mold-infested apartment? Landlords need students because who else would they exploit. But nice try, blaming everything on the UC and it’s debt-ridden students

      • Jeff

        October 2, 2018 at 7:06 pm

        Why should homeowners be expected to subsidize the the cost of housing for UCSC students? Why is UCSC exempt from rent control?

  9. Robert Derber

    September 5, 2018 at 8:14 am

    Thank you, Lauren. A balanced and well presented article.

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