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Lays Groundwork for Victory in 2023

AB 854, which would stop speculator evictions under the Ellis Act, was defeated on January 31. This was the first time in four tries that an anti-Ellis speculator bill reached the Assembly floor, and passage came closer than it appears (bills that do not have 41 votes do not get a floor vote. So my estimate is based on voter cards submitted by members).

The campaign laid the groundwork for a future victory in 2023. I’ll explain why below.

The Missing Votes

Sponsored by Assemblymember Alex Lee, AB 854 was co-authored by Assemblymembers Chiu (before he departed) Bloom, Ting, Kalra, Carrillo, Wicks, Nazarian and Bonta. Senators Allen and Stern were also co-authors.

It was a north-south campaign also reflected in the bill’s co-sponsors: the San Francisco-based Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which I head, and the LA-based Coalition for Economic Survival, led by Larry Gross.

The Assembly requires 41 votes to pass a bill even when multiple members (Chiu, Gonzales and Chau would have likely added 3 Yes votes) are no longer in office. That made our challenge tougher.

Members whose votes we saw as gettable—in the Bay Area from Wood (Sonoma), Grayson (Concord) and Quirk (Hayward) and the Los Angeles area from Gipson (Compton) and Burke (Inglewood), instead stood by realtors, landlords and speculators against tenants and the California Democratic Party.

I saw through this campaign that Lee is among the state’s hardest working and politically committed legislators. He is a true gem.

That members like Grayson didn’t support protecting affordable rental housing is troubling. He’s a strong advocate for building new housing but doesn’t seem to realize—or knows and doesn’t want to alienate realtors—that Ellis evictions reduce the affordable rental supply. Promoting development without backing the preservation of existing rental housing is a failed strategy.

We limited the bill to the 21 cities with local rent control laws to win votes of members whose districts do not have Ellis Act evictions . But many Assembly Democrats in the Inland Empire, Orange County and Central Valley did not want to risk alienating real estate interests for a bill that helped tenants outside their districts.

That’s always been a challenge for pro-tenant legislation in Sacramento. Realtors are in all districts and make campaign donations everywhere—tenant activism is still growing across the state.

This campaign is a good reminder that as much as they talk about housing production, realtors and landlords save their political capital for stopping tenant protections.

Here’s why I see AB 854 laying the groundwork for success next year.

A Truly Statewide Campaign

Unlike past Ellis reform efforts this was truly a statewide campaign. It began in the summer of 2020 when I contacted Sarah Abdeshahian to see if she would run a statewide campaign for Ellis Act reform. Sarah had just graduated UC Berkeley and was working on campaigns around the November 2020 election. I saw what she accomplished in Berkeley while still a student and knew she was who we needed. Fortunately, she took the job.

While recruiting Sarah I contacted Larry Gross to see whether he would be on board. Larry immediately embraced a statewide Ellis Act campaign. This gave us the north-south connection we needed. At the time groups that work on statewide tenant issues like ACCE, Tenants Together, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty were focused on getting the eviction moratorium extended; working on an Ellis Act bill was not an immediate priority. All of these groups eventually became centrally involved in the AB 854 campaign.

Many doubted the bill’s prospects. But I felt that a similar bill got pretty far in 2014 prior to the state’s worsening homelessness and housing crisis (it passed the Senate and failed in Assembly Housing); housing affordability and evictions are far more front-burner issues today

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Newly elected Assemblymember Alex Lee from the South Bay agreed to sponsor what became AB 854. I did not know the then-25 year old Lee at the time. I saw through this campaign that Lee is among the state’s hardest working and politically committed legislators. He is a true gem.

A Two-Year Bill

Despite Herculean efforts by Alex Lee and David Chiu, we failed to get the bill out of Assembly Housing in 2021. This led us on a long campaign to win enough support from the Housing and Appropriations Committees to ensure a floor vote by the January 31 deadline.

We began by building a relationship with Sharon Quirk-Silva, whose opposition to the bill stalled its advancement last year. She ended up voting in favor of AB 854 at the January 2022 Housing Committee.

We then set up zoom meetings with every Assembly Democrat. I would explain how the Ellis Act was wrongfully expanded and rewritten by the courts. Larry then described the negative impacts of the 27,000 plus units lost in LA, and its connection to the city’s rising homelessness. Archie Silvester, a tenant facing an Ellis Act eviction in Los Angeles would then talk about his low-income, elderly neighbors who have lived in their home for 42 years. Archie’s story about their potential displacement powerfully made the case for AB 854.

Many offices knew little about the Ellis Act. This line was repeated even after we had repeatedly sent fact sheets about AB 854. Looking back that reflected what we saw in the past week: members weren’t interested in discussing specific problems they had with the bill. Their lack of engagement reflected an inability to defend encouraging speculators to evict 93 year old tenants; they had heard from Big Real Estate that any attempt to “limit the Ellis Act” was not to be allowed.

We offered many amendments to address members’ concerns. But few members wanted to consider amendments; their allies wanted AB 854 killed.

I think some legislators who backed AB 1482 in 2019—statewide anti-rent gouging and just cause—felt that they had done all they needed to do for tenants. We look forward to new members in some of these seats.

Many staff told us they had no idea what their member felt about the bill; it wasn’t until last week as the floor bill loomed that we learned that we would not have votes we counted upon.

Laying the Groundwork for 2023

The campaign for AB 854 galvanized activists across the state. We got support from both YIMBYs and NIMBYS and had a bigger collection of endorsements than prior Ellis bills. Looking to the Assembly composition in 2023, the Gonzalez and Chiu seats will be filled with Ellis reform backers. Other bill opponents are retiring and will likely be replaced with bill supporters in the November 2022 elections.

We got a huge endorsement for AB 854 from the Los Angeles Times and two great stories on the campaign in the San Francisco Chronicle. We got the support of local governments and Democratic Party’s across the state, including the California Democratic Party.

I say in The Activist’s Handbook that sometimes activists do everything right and still do not win. That’s how I feel about our AB 854 campaign. Yes, we could have met with more members personally but that became near impossible due to COVID 19. We couldn’t walk through the halls of the Capitol talking to aides and members and setting up appointments as I did in 2003 when we passed the Leno bill exempting San Francisco SRO’s from the Ellis Act ; all contact had to be via email and zoom.

We built the statewide grassroots campaign that will eventually bring victory.

As Larry Gross puts it, “This Ellis Act reform fight must continue. It took landlords 17 years (1978-1995) to past the Costa-Hawkins Housing Act, introducing bills every one of those years. We must do the same. We must fight on. Things will continue to get worse for tenants if we don’t.”

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw

My deepest thanks to all who helped on this campaign. I am more invigorated than ever in the battle to stop speculator evictions. There are many ways in addition to legislation that can help deter speculators from wrecking tenants’ lives—we’ll be discussing those in the weeks and months ahead.

Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron