Why would a reform bill that favors working families over speculators face an obstacle in the Housing committee?
By Randy Shaw, Special to CalMatters
Randy Shaw is the director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, Randy@thclinic.org. He is author of “Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America” (UC Press 2020).
As President Joe Biden and national Democrats consider overturning the undemocratic Senate filibuster, California’s Democratic-controlled Assembly relies on a similarly undemocratic process: a committee system that blocks floor votes.
California’s system may be worse; senators have to reveal their position on the underlying issue when voting on filibusters, but stopping bills in California Assembly committees protects most members from taking a stand.
One group of people victimized by the Assembly’s committee system are tenants, who represent 45% of California households and a majority of its population.
I recently saw this firsthand. The organization I head, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, joined with the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Economic Survival to co-sponsor Assembly Bill 854. The bill addressed the state’s affordability and homelessness crisis by stopping speculator evictions under the Ellis Act.
Authored by Assemblymember Alex Lee, Democrat from San Jose, the bill tracked a 2014 measure by then Sen. Mark Leno that passed the Senate but was killed in the Assembly Committee on Housing and Community Development. Since then thousands of thousands of tenants have been displaced and thousands of unsubsidized affordable rental units lost.
I felt last summer that with the eviction crisis becoming a national story and California suffering from the nation’s worst homelessness and affordability crisis that the time was right to revive efforts for Ellis Act reform. But I was cautioned against moving forward. The reason? The bill “would never get out of the Assembly housing committee.”
Why would a bill consistent with Democratic Party values that favor working families over speculators face such an obstacle? Because Speaker Anthony Rendon appointed two Democrats, Brian Mainschein of San Diego and Sharon Quirk-Silva of Fullerton, to the housing committee who had previously voted against the same bill. Mainschein was a Republican until January 2019. His district is little impacted by the eviction crisis. Quirk-Silva used her position on the committee to kill a similar Ellis reform bill in 2014 after it passed the full Senate; she denied it an Assembly floor vote.
With Republicans solidly opposed, Rendon’s appointment of two Democrats who had already voted against Ellis Act reform bills raised a major obstacle. Tenant advocates had to win one vote from two inhospitable members.
AB 854 was recently endorsed by the California Democratic Party. It won overwhelming support from Democratic county central committees and clubs, and was formally backed by Berkeley, Culver City, Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Monica and West Hollywood with future support from Los Angeles likely. But the bill could not overcome the opposition of two Housing committee members whose districts have yet to be significantly impacted by the Ellis Act. If Rendon keeps these two Democrats on the committee in 2022, AB 854’s chances of ever getting a floor vote are slim.
Rendon’s Housing appointments prevent the public from learning where the Assembly stands on ending speculator evictions under the Ellis Act. Isn’t this just as anti-democratic as blocking floor votes via filibuster?
Rendon should appoint Democrats to the Housing committee whose constituents prioritize solving the state’s housing crisis. Tenant advocates would still have to win committee and floor votes, but they would not have to overcome a key committee operating as a blockade against tenant protections.
I am frequently told that California Assembly members “don’t understand” the Ellis Act. This is understandable considering the last Assembly floor vote on a major Ellis Act reform bill was in 2003. It doesn’t matter how much Assembly support there is to stop speculator evictions when a handful of committee members can subvert majority rule.
California’s Assembly is not being fair to tenants. And denying majority rule to protect real estate speculators is not consistent with Democratic Party values.
Randy Shaw has also written about the need for legislators to reform the Ellis Act to protect vulnerable tenants.