Despite fast-rising rents, the right moment has not arrived for rent control in Fresno

The Fresno City Council recently came under criticism for something that has not been done — rent control.

Some activists decided it was a good idea to get personal with their attacks. Specifically, they went after four of the seven council members because they happened to be owners of rental properties.

“They are landlords on the dais,” said Shar Thompson, the Central Valley regional coordinator with Tenants Together and a District 3 resident.

Her inference was that the property-owning council members have a vested interest to make sure that rent-increasing capping measures are not adopted.

As reported by Fresno Bee staff writer Melissa Montalvo, councilmembers Mike Karbassi, Garry Bredefeld, Miguel Arias and Annalisa Perea own and rent out properties.

For activists hoping to achieve rent control through a political body, it was a curious strategy. No doubt, the advocates are frustrated by how rents in Fresno in recent years have risen faster than almost anywhere else in the nation.

Rent hikes

As Montalvo notes, Fresno saw some of the highest rent jumps in America during the pandemic. That was when prices for one-bedroom apartments skyrocketed by 28%.

She cited an analysis done by an organization called Construction Challenge that found Fresno was 11th out of the 56 largest US metro areas for having the highest average increase in rents — about 33%, compared to a nationwide increase of just over 24% — from 2018 -19 through 2022.

One of the speakers at the recent demonstration, Marisa Moraza with Power California, a youth-oriented advocacy group, said more than 26,000 households in the city spend more than half of their income on rent. A Fresnoland analysis of US Census Bureau data determined that 60% of Fresno renters are cost burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income in rent.

Economics & politics

So what is holding Fresno back from adopting rent control? To better understand the dynamics, I talked with two city leaders — Major Jerry Dyer and Council member Arias. Their answers boil down to economic and political realities.

Dyer, himself the owner of several rental properties, believed that placing a cap on rents would lead to two outcomes: Landlords would stop taking care of their properties, and builders would stop constructing rental units.

Rent control would “promote the decay in multifamily units based on the fact landlords will not invest in properties in the way they would because of the lack of rent,” Dyer said.

“The second part of that is it would dissuade builders from building apartments in our city. I had a difficult enough time persuading developers to build in in-fill areas of Fresno. Oftentimes, they tell you it does not pencil out. If you further that by controlling rent, they are just not going to build if it puts them in the red.”

That said, the city has code enforcement powers to force negligent landlords to keep up their properties. And the city can use enticements such as fee reductions to try to lure new construction.

Arias raised the politics of the issue as a sticking point for him: Rent control is opposed by the business community, real estate industry and apartment owners.

“The special interests are adamantly against it,” he said. “They control $50,000 to $100,000 each to unseat a council member.

“They spent $200,000 collectively against me the first time Iran for council, and the second time they did not even interview me.”

Arias, who owns rentals in Mendota, called the activists’ criticism “fair, but lazy,” in that the advocates do not engage enough with the political forces opposing rent caps.

He predicts the city will ultimately have rent control, but only when most of the council members are tenants themselves.

Be more effective

Given Fresno’s high poverty rate, preponderance of low-wage jobs and historically stubborn unemployment, the city would seem tailor-made for rent control. And it should be in general interest: People who have to worry about affording housing are unable to be productive members of the city.

Rather than publicly shaming council members, advocates for rent control should ask how they might help in the political and fund-raising arenas. That would be more effective.

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