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Mike Van Gorder is a 31-year-old wedding photographer, who lives in South Glendale, near the Americana Mall. Last March, he ran for a seat on the Glendale City Council, hoping to represent the voice of the renter in Glendale, after noticing that zero renters were on the City Council, despite two-thirds of the city’s population being renters.

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He did not end up winning the seat, but he did not stop organizing towards affordable housing. He created the Glendale Tenants Union to organize the city’s renters to lobby for rent stabilization. Of the two-thirds of the population that are renters, 59% of them pay more than 30% of their income in rent. A rent stabilization ordinance is nothing unheard of, as Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica already have rent stabilization.

In West Hollywood, for example, a landlord is not allowed to increase an in-place tenant’s rent by more than 1.75% per year. Glendale is only shooting for capping rent increases to 3% per year. This is a sharp contrast to the story of a renter named Bartan, according to Van Gorder. Bartan’s rent increased from $800 to $1750 over the span of five years when his landlord decided to convert his 500-square-foot studio on a street with very limited parking into a “luxury unit.”

Over homemade chocolate chip cookies and soft pretzels, I spoke with residents of Glendale ranging in age from recent college graduates to retired senior citizens united over their desire for secure, affordable housing. Here's my discussion with Mike Van Gorder.

Kate Clark: What is the goal of the Glendale Tenant’s Union?

Mike Van Gorder: The goal of GTU is to be an organizing force for a huge group of people who share an economic identity. There are groups ethnic identities; there are groups for hobbies or political affiliations, and there are tons of homeowner associations.

GTU came about because Glendale is two-thirds renters, and we have one of the lowest home ownership rates in all of LA County. The number of people who rent and who don’t have any direct representation is huge. It’s part of a larger movement because the economy is set up to benefit homeowners and property owners—and we’re getting into a crisis point.

Thirty years ago groups like this weren’t as likely to happen, but we’re actively experiencing a crisis. We have a tenant here who’s rent just went up 400 bucks overnight. There’s no limit on how that can happen here. And the majority of development in our city has been luxury development. That’s not helping us at all. That’s just bringing in rich people from out of town.

Alongside the luxury developments, the landlords are saying, ‘Oh, Glendale’s beginning to become sort of a prestigious place. Why aren’t we charging more? The market’s there.’

So, GTU exists so that we can respond to people in crisis. If they’re hit with a $400 increase, and they’re like, “I’m a senior on a fixed income, I can’t pay it,” eventually we want to get to the point where we can come in and negotiate with the landlords on their behalf. We had help setting up our campaign from a very good pro bono legal team. We know lawyers who can help people in these kinds of crises. We have people from the Eviction Defense Network.

Connecting people to resources is important because there’s not a lot of… you don’t really know your neighbors as much when you rent. If you haven’t bought someplace, people think that they’re not as in-vested. No, we’re absolutely invested in our community; we just can't afford home prices. In the past 17 years, home prices have doubled. They averaged $325K in 2000; now they’re at $770K. If you’re not a doctor or a lawyer, you can’t get into the market.

Mike Van Gorder

Mike Van Gorder

Rent is really high, health care is expensive, people have student loan debt. There’s so much economic pressure that it’s really, really difficult for people to buy into the security of the middle class. On top of that, not everybody wants to own. There are a lot of people who don’t need that much space. They deserve security just as much as a homeowner.

What motivated you to get into this type of work?

Van Gorder:When I was in college I did my senior thesis on student loan debt. I discovered that—surprise, surprise—people who have student loan debt have fewer options, across the board. Not even fewer options after graduating, but fewer options in school, because they have to start thinking about, ‘well whatever it is, I need to have a job that’s going to cover my student loan debt.’

It’s like the snake eating its own tail. That got me thinking, like ‘man our generation is set up to fail,’ because we’re not even guaranteed anything after we get this degree.

After I graduated, I had my degree and there wasn’t much I could do with it. Eventually I got into the gig economy. I’m a wedding photographer. There’s not nearly as much security in that as people enjoyed back when the labor movement was really strong in the 60s and 70s, when things were awesome for the labor scene.

A couple years ago when, when Bernie Sanders said student loan debt is wrong—it’s not just something we need to reduce—it’s wrong. He was the first person to say that publicly and I was like, ‘Oh my god, yes it is!’

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A ton of our present members are seniors who are on Social Security, and if they’re hit with a rent increase, they’re homeless. It’s a lot harder to couch surf when you’re 85 years old.

It got me thinking about some of these systems where, yeah, they really have set up young people to fail. I looked around and saw that that same thing that young people were facing can be applied to seniors on fixed income. A ton of our present members are seniors who are on Social Security. If they’re hit with a rent increase, they’re homeless. They don’t necessarily have couches they can crash on. It’s a lot harder to couch surf when you’re 85 years old. They can’t take the hit the same way a young person who can move back home with the folks.

At the beginning of last year, I decided—you know what?—I am going to run for City Council as a renter. There were nine other people running: lawyers, CPAs, one military general—stable people. Either they were stable or homeowners, or they were wealthy.

I was looking at that and thought that’s really not representative government. Economic identities should play a factor in representational government. So I ran for City Council as a renter. I said, ‘Look, I’m the only person running from the south half of the city, I’m a renter, I’m working class, clearly by a wide margin the youngest person here.’

The city is ignoring, or thinking of it in terms of acceptable loss, these challenges that are facing our city. What I mean by acceptable loss, I read some of the interviews with the previous council members, and they say things like, ‘you know, it’s a shame the city changes, and some people lose their homes, but like what are you gonna do? Some of the communities get affected…what are you gonna do? Acceptable loss!’

By no means is there a silver bullet. By no means is there an easy solution to these problems. They are enormous, they are complicated, and they require numerous fixes…the problem of the housing crisis is a web. If you poke something on one side, something else is going to pop out somewhere else.

What do you hear from other renters?

Van Gorder:The person I point to is this fellow, Vartan. Vartan lived in a unit on Garfield, and Garfield is basically the hardest place in Southern California to park your car. It’s horrible. It’s one-sided. It’s a very narrow street. A lot of the buildings have underground parking garages, and it’s all apartments.

ACLU Rent Control Pasadena -- 6March18 4C

He had been living in this unit on Garfield for 27 years, and he’d always paid a reasonable rent. Five years ago, a new landlord bought the building and thought, ‘Heck, this could perform more.’

So every year he increased the rent $500. It started out at $800. Charities would improve the unit, the landlord would not improve the unit. Every year charities came in and installed new blinds out of the sake of environmental concerns, and the landlord would say, ‘Oh your apartment’s nicer now, I’ll charge more.’

After the economy crashed in ’08, there were a lot of mom-and-pop landlords who lost their shirts. The companies came in and ‘vultured’ these mom-and-pop loncerns. A lot of people sold their properties because they couldn’t hold on anymore because the economy tanked. The companies did okay because none of them were really ever punished for their speculation.

Increasingly you see corporate landlords gobbling up properties and looking at everything in terms of spreadsheets and numbers. Vartan's landlord started raising the rent $100 every year regardless of never having done anything and regardless of the fact that this is probably a 400- to 500-square foot, one-bedroom apartment. I’ve been in larger dorm rooms.

It was not the nicest unit, it was old, and there was a $100 increase every year for four years. In this previous year, 2017, the landlords told them, ‘This is going to be a luxury unit now. I’m going to charge you $500 more.’ He wanted to clear out all the tenants, put in hardwood flooring and some aluminum fixtures, and do some repainting that should have been done eight years ago. Then, boom! Luxury unit, even though parking is impossible, and it’s not a luxury unit. Rent went from $800 to $1750 in the space of five years, because one landlord felt like the market would bear it.

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The problem is that right now the sole arbitrator of this essential human right is the market, and profit, and the landlord’s ability to make unlimited profit. There’s no built-in mechanism to say…in Berlin they have this whole system set up where there’s this oversight board. The board determines, ‘No you’re going to charge too much, we’re going to lower this down,’ Because space in Berlin is very, very limited. In Glendale, we have a completely unregulated market.

Right now we have rent stabilization in a few cities, but there’s a state law that prevents rent control, like tenant-to-tenant rent control. That’s why you hear people say, ‘Oh, rent control just makes prices go up even further.’ Because in a rent-controlled unit, when an occupant moves out, then that landlord can charge whatever they want.

What we have in some towns in California is rent stabilization. If I’m living in a unit, right now I know that my rent won’t go higher than 3% every year, in places with rent control. That’s Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Richmond, Alameda and a few others. People who live in those units benefit from knowing that whatever happens over the next few years, they’re not going to get hit with a $500 rent increase.

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But the state law says that as soon as that person moves out, the landlord can charge whatever they want to the new tenant. If the landlord only has one opportunity to raise their rent, they’re going to raise it as much as humanly possible.

Kate Clark

Kate Clark is a junior at Occidental College studying psychology and politics. Originally from Philadelphia, she hopes to stay in California for a while. She initially became interested in social justice issues after tutoring elementary school students in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. She has a variety of academic and non-academic interests, including journalism, running, the brain, and law.