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Rising Rents In Santa Cruz Inspire Rent Control Push

The majority of people living in Santa Cruz are renters. But high rents are driving some of them out. One homeowner is leading an effort to change that.

Josh Brahinsky just became a homeowner. He lives on a tree-lined block in Santa Cruz with his wife, two boys, and their dog. But they also live with a tenant. The family rents out a bedroom.  And they plan to bring in more people by converting their garage into an apartment.

“We can’t afford the mortgage if we don’t also share the space, but we also want to create homes for our friends. Like everybody is getting booted out of town,” says Brahinsky.

As a contractor builds the new door frame, Brahinsky says his friends and neighbors are getting priced out. According to the real estate website Zillow, rents are growing at an aggressive rate in Santa Cruz, about twice the national average. The median rent is roughly $3,200 a month. That’s almost as much as San Jose.

Brahinsky says they will keep the rent on their new garage apartment affordable for whoever moves in. But he wants to help even more people. He’s an active member of the local group Movement for Housing Justice, which is affiliated with Tenants Together, a statewide group. Movement for Housing Justice is leading a campaign to establish rent control. Rent control limits how much a landlord can raise the rent. Right now in Santa Cruz, landlords can do whatever they want.  

“We have hundreds of people signed up already to gather signatures. The minute we said we are doing this, everyone was like how can I help, how can I help?” Brahinsky says.

Fourteen cities in California currently have rent control. Brahinsky hopes Santa Cruz voters pass it next November. The Santa Cruz measure proposes tying the allowable increase to the increase in the cost of living. It also proposes just cause eviction. Meaning a landlord would have to provide a reason when they evict someone. He and other advocates will start collecting signatures in January to get it on the ballot.

Tracy Cone says she will definitely add her name to that list. She rents her home with her boyfriend and children. And she rents her office. Her biggest fear is dramatic increases in both.

I don’t think I could sustain those in terms of my income, my income doesn’t, won’t match that,” Cone says.   

Cone is a self-employed acupuncturist.

“I’m paying more than 50 percent of my income toward rent. And it’s at the point where it’s difficult to save enough money to be able to buy something. You know the hope of doing that is diminishing every month. And so now I’m thinking, like, I don’t know how I’m going to stay here. I may just have to suck it up and go start a practice somewhere else, where I can afford to live,” says Cone.

She says unfortunately rent control would not help her. That’s because it doesn’t apply to commercial units for her office and because she lives in a single-family house.  A California law called Costa-Hawkins bans rent control on single-family houses, condos, and all homes built after 1995. That means about 77 percent of Santa Cruz’s housing stock would not be eligible for rent control.   

But it’s still a problem for landlord Darius Mohsenin. Rent control would affect every unit he owns in Santa Cruz.  

“Santa Cruz total, 53 units, spread across five buildings,” says Mohsenin.

Standing in front of one of those buildings on Broadway, he says rent control would discourage him from doing upgrades. He points to the double-pane vinyl windows he put in a few years ago.  It cost him $20,000.

“I would go and put my money in places in Salinas or other towns I have properties in, San Leandro, Vacaville. Because I just wouldn’t see a way to recoup my investment under a rent control initiative,” Mohsenin says.  

The second reason has to do with Costa-Hawkins, that state law which dictates how cities implement rent control. It gives landlords the right to raise the rent as much as they want in between tenants.

“It only benefits one group of people, the current tenant base, that’s it,” Mohsenin says.

But Homeowner Josh Brahinsky says rent control is about protecting the people who live in Santa Cruz now.

“It’s not a perfect system. It’s not going to make everything great. But it does mean that a substantial number of units will have the rent limited and that’s going to make a big impact on the community because those people will stay here,” says Brahinsky.

Santa Cruz residents could vote on rent control next November. There’s also a statewide effort to repeal Costa-Hawkins, which could go before voters on that same ballot.  

On Tuesday night, Santa Cruz City Council will be discussing housing issues. The meeting starts at 7:00 at City Hall.

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.