Nicole Hodgson is a social worker who lives in Pasadena. After a day of working to place homeless veterans into housing for LA County, she parks her red Mazda on the corner of Meredith Avenue and Colorado Boulevard to collect signatures for an ordinance that will help her keep her own housing.
Nicole is working to bring the rent stabilization as is enjoyed in the City of Los Angeles to Pasadena. The Pasadena Tenants Union needs 12,892 signatures, as based on the percentage of how many Pasadena residents were registered to vote in the last governor’s race. As we moved together from house to house on her signature-gathering rounds, she indicated that collecting signatures has been tougher as some people do not open their door in fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
Kate: How did you get started with Pasadena Tenants Union?
Nicole:It was just myself and a whole bunch of neighbors. We went to talk to our district council member regarding our rising rents. Unfortunately we didn't get much support. So myself and some other folks just ended up joining together, learning more about tenant’s rights. We decided to act independently, do this Pasadena Tenants Union, using knowledge we gathering from the LA Tenants Union and how they mobilized. The conversation about rent control and just cause was always in the back of our heads, but every time we did more door knocking, that was the one solution—rent control—that tenants kept on mentioning.
Do you have any personal stories of how the housing affordability crisis has affected you?
Nicole: Honestly, if rents keep on going up as they have, I probably have just two more years left in Pasadena—and I'm pretty economically stable. That’s if things stay the same. But the owner of my property is aging. If he passes away within those two years, it’s probably going to happen faster. The kids will take over the property and want to sell it. That’s probably when we'll all get displaced.
I’m a newer tenant. I've lived here now four years. Some of my neighbors have been here 20 and 30 years. For me, since I've lived in Los Angeles—which has been the last seven years—I've had to move every couple years. I cannot keep on doing that financially. I was in Del Mar—that’s on the Westside—then I was in Baldwin Hills, near Culver City, then I came out to Pasadena.
I came from San Francisco where everyone talks about how horrible the housing is there. But if there wasn't rent control, no way I could have lived there for 15 years. Lower- and middle-income folks would not be able to stay in that city without rent control. I was there, and my neighbors are still there and thriving. A lot of them are now retirement age and can still be in their community because of rent control. These are folks who work for government jobs, or worked in industry, such as food service. They contributed to the community and aren't having to be kicked out.
Is there rent control in that it can’t go over a certain price in San Francisco? Because I know there’s stabilization as well.
Nicole: Yes, it’s basically rent stabilization. There’s a certain percentage rent can go up every year. In San Francisco, they base the increase on the consumer price index, which is a measure of inflation. For them, they do it based on 75% of the CPI, which is 75% of the interest rates—which is usually between 1 and 3%.
We went with 100% CPI in LA, because our CPI is a little bit lower than up north. It’s called the Fair and Equitable Housing Charter Amendment. It’s a situation for tenants to win and for landlords to win. Landlords will still be guaranteed a fair return on their property; tenants will be secure in their housing and only have one rent increase per year—a reasonable rent increase.
Folks coming to the Pasadena Tenants Union meeting, they’re not just getting a 10% rent increase. They’re getting a 10% rent increase with a 30-day notice, and then five months later, getting another 10% increase, if they're on a month-to-month lease. So, it’s multiple rent increases.
In Pasadena, we have no protections. We only have the California state protections, which are few—regarding discriminatory practices and all that. But here landlords can raise their rents as much as they want, and they can give you a 60-day notice to move out without a reason, if you're on a month-to-month. In Pasadena, we don't have any protections, and that’s why we're trying to bring rent control here.
We’ll see folks who get a rent increase, and then they’ll want some improvements on their unit, on things they haven’t complained about in years. Then they get a 60-day notice. It’s retaliation, but folks haven’t felt enfranchised enough to fight those things. We’re hoping to change that a little bit.
Why do you think you only have 2 years left in Pasadena?
Nicole:If I look at my income, and how much it goes up each year, and how much my rent increases every year—because right now it’s going up between 5 and 6%—I'll be at 50% of my income. I have an aging parent, I have my school loans, I just will not be able to afford to stay.
If I look at my income, and how much it goes up each year, and how much my rent increases every year—because right now it’s going up between 5 and 6%—I'll be at 50% of my income. I have an aging parent, I have my school loans, I just will not be able to afford to stay.
Then, I have to think about long-term plans. I don’t want to move out of state, because that means uprooting my Mom to another state, where her social support system isn’t at. I’m fortunate, I don’t have children, so I don’t have to worry about the school system. But, I need to be here for caregiving reasons.
If I do keep on moving to the next spot possible for affordability for me—which might be El Monte or South El Monte or East LA—I’m becoming part of the problem. I’m just taking my middle income, taking it to an area that has less income, basically kicking out a family because they don’t have any rent control or just cause.
I come from a social work background, concerned about social justice. Do I really want to be part of the problem of what I do for my job with housing folks who are homeless?
That's really tough. Will your rent definitely go up in the next few years?
Nicole:Oh, most likely. It’s been very consistent. I’ve been lucky so far. But if anything happens to the property owner, then I’m in really big trouble.
Because you think his kids will take it and sell it to a corporation?
Nicole: Probably, and take a huge amount of profit, which is understandable. Or maybe there’s five kids and they’ll want to split it up and be done with it. That’s a pretty common theme in all cities.
At first I thought, ‘Oh, in Pasadena, we have all these aging landlords.’ But that’s a theme you’ll hear in any city. There’s the mom-and-pop landlords, they’re in there, they know their tenants, they know someone’s life story. Their goal is to have good, consistent tenants, where they’re paying rent, they’re taking care of the property, taking care of the apartment.
If you have an off-site landlord, they’re not really invested in the community or the school systems. They’re just invested in getting the maximum profit, which isn’t going to be healthy for the community at large. Once my landlord hired a management company, that’s when the rent started going up, with folks getting huge rent increases—between 5 and 10% sometimes.
But that could change, because Los Angeles has rent control, and even really nice areas like Beverly Hills and Santa Monica have rent control.
Nicole: Yes, if you look statistically, Santa Monica recently had a study that shows that rent control is one of the number one affordable housing options. Folks who have higher income actually just move out, move to other areas, and purchase a home.
There’s this myth that rent control only supports the wealthy. That renting out an apartment is not means-tested, which means it’s not income-based, which is this false notion that the California Apartments Association puts out. But if you look at the data, it is one of the #1 affordable housing tools.
Are price ceilings ever possible? I know in New York they have price ceilings.
Nicole:I don’t imagine that ever happening in California. We have Casta-Hawkins; it would be fascinating to see if price ceilings ever really happen here. For me, I’m just taking it one step at a time. I’m so present in the moment, worried about my own housing, I just want this one piece—rent stabilization. For us, as a community, the proposed initiative really provides a forum, with the rental board, for community dialogue. The board is comprised of two tenants, two landlords and one homeowner. It’s a great force that doesn’t cost the City anything, just a small fee passed onto tenants and landlords, who are able to come together and have a community dialogue.
Now, no one’s a part of this dialogue, or this dialogue in City Hall. For us, it’s a way to bring some more stability to the city and just get folks more stabilized in their units. It’s a document where there’s enough room for decision-making to happen, so as the community changes, things can be adapted.
Rent Control Series Articles:
- Rent Control's Human Face, overview by Dick Price
- Nicole Hodgson: Rent Control's Human Face: Hanging On, Moving On, by Kate Clark
- Bob Roberts: Rent Control's Human Face: Taking It to the People, by Kate Clark
- Sarah Tenorio: Rent Control's Human Face: Making Change at Home, by Kate Clark
- Mike Van Gorder: Rent Control's Human Face: Couch Surfing at 85, by Kate Clark
- Adrienne Boswell: Rent Control's Human Face: Facing Retaliation, by Kate Clark
How have you seen the community change over the years?
Nicole: I wasn’t here before Colorado Boulevardwent through the luxury unit expansion on Paseo. What I've witnessed—and I've only been here four years—is that the storefronts are empty, the mom-and-pop shops are gone. Now we have the huge big box stores.
Our schools are falling apart. Everyone’s so frightened of losing their home. People have no idea of what to do next. Moving to Lancaster and Palmdale is not an option. First, it’s getting overpriced there, too, and then you think of the commute, and how do you do daycare and all those other pieces?
We’re losing community members and not gaining new folks as long-term tenants. Someone might be here 4 to 5 months on a work contract, so it’s not really long-term support for the mom-and-pop shops and local businesses, support for the school systems. You won’t have someone who lives in the community and says, ‘Oh, I want to join this, I want to help restore this park. Or, I see this, I want to be part of this committee.’
If you look at more of the luxury units, a lot of them are more short-term stays, a lot of folks in the luxury units sign a year lease, and don’t realize it’s going to double the amount of rent. In the luxury units, you pay for your water, your garbage, which is unusual, you also pay for your parking and you pay pet-rent. It’s not just a pet deposit; you're paying for your pet.
Wow. So, its really difficult to live in a luxury unit?
Nicole: Well, you have to be higher income. They get you in with a good, small security deposit of $500, but then the add-ons, and it’s not sustainable because the amount of money goes up every year.
So, it’s not an option for most people and its not like they’re building more affordable housing?
Nicole: People are really fighting to bring more affordable housing to Pasadena. There’s some really good folks trying to do that. With the luxury units, there is an in lieu fee, which means that if you’re building luxury units, you’re supposed to put a certain percentage aside of the units aside for affordable housing, or pay money into the funds for more affordable housing.
Most folks are paying the funds into this bucket, but the bucket’s not being utilized. We don’t know the vacancy rate in the luxury units. I imagine it’s pretty high. Our city doesn’t track anything. When I ask for how many apartment units in the city, they say they’d have to go in and look at the actual titles prior to '88.
After a resident of a single-family home declined to sign the ordinance, I asked Nicole why homeowners should care about rent control.
Nicole:What we’re finding is, a lot of families, because the pricing is so expensive, have to move out. So there’s fewer students enrolled, which then defunds the school system.
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.