Over the last five years, Pasadena, Calif., residents have come together and organized the Pasadena Tenants Union to combat the city’s rising housing costs. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, PTU quickly mobilized to protect tenants by successfully campaigning for an eviction moratorium. The group is currently fighting to get a city charter amendment passed that would establish rent control, just cause eviction and a rental housing board.
The current campaign depends on a grassroots movement of on-the-ground volunteers gathering signatures to put the amendment on the ballot, to be voted on later this year.
Jane Panangaden, a PTU member, told Liberation News, “There are two phases of the campaign. We are in the first phase right now, which is qualifying the amendment to be on the ballot. To do that we need to get signatures from 15% of all the registered voters in Pasadena, which ends up being around 15,000. It’s a really heavy lift.” She further explained that since this is a charter amendment, and once passed, it cannot be modified by city council, but only by another vote. This is why the threshold for signatures for ballot access is very high. But if passed, the amendment would be a robust addition to the charter that could not be gradually whittled away by politicians in office.
The specific policies introduced by the amendment would work in tandem. Panangaden elaborated, “If you try to create eviction protections without rent control then landlords can just hike rent to prices people can’t pay to evict people. Rent control without eviction protections and vacancy control — which would prevent rent increases during vacancies — causes landlords to evict tenants frequently to increase rents.”
Once PTU has gathered enough signatures it will still need to convince voters to vote in favor of the amendment.
The need for such robust legislation is urgent. Lifelong Pasadena resident and PTU member Liberty explained, “A lot of people I know have been displaced out of the community or have a hard time staying, and the housing situation here is pretty untenable. It’s changed a lot since I grew up here and not always for the better.”
August Busch, another PTU member, expressed similar sentiments, “It’s pretty apparent that we’re in a crisis in Pasadena.”
The signature-gathering campaign goes on. To address the crisis in the meantime, the PTU has helped assemble a rapid response unit that is ready to respond to tenant harassment or eviction. “We get calls on our hotline, like 5-10 per week … just one abuse after another … whether it’s massive rent increases, like 20-60% due to loopholes in current laws, or landlords that serially harass their tenants, or impose absurd conditions on them,” PTU member Aaron Markowitz said.
While PTU fights for the rights of renters in their city, organizations across the state are involved in similar struggles. In the nearby city of Alhambra, the Alhambra Tenants Union formed to provide mutual aid to those facing housing related issues, to hold workshops on tenant’s rights, and to advocate for policy changes for their city.
Similarly, in Los Angeles the Union de Vecinos (UDV) provides rental relief to residents and opposes the city’s increasingly anti-homeless policies.
The need for tenants organizations is more crucial than ever as renters make up 45% of all households in California and many currently struggle to pay rent due to hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While California’s “Housing is Key” program has allocated $5.2 billion for rental relief for tenants affected by COVID-19, renters still require $4.2 billion more than the program’s currently allocated funds. A recent boost by the U.S. Treasury Department of $68.7 million, while helpful, barely makes a dent in the total amount needed.
To ensure adequate housing for all it must be treated as a human right, not as a commodity. While others may dismiss this as nothing more than a lofty ideal, the people see it clearly and are willing to fight for it. Getting started on this task may appear daunting, but in the words of PTU organizer, Liberty: “Start and organize with who is with you. There are so many people to start with. Eventually maybe you’ll get others on your side, but start with where you’re at.”
Visit http://pasadenatenantsunion.org/en/joinus.html if you’re interested in supporting or joining PTU.
Featured photo: Pasadena Tenants Union