When Matt Haney entered the California Legislature, he learned that he was part of a tiny minority: legislators who live in rent.
Mr Haney has never owned property and at 41 has spent his adult life as a tenant. His primary residence is a one-bedroom apartment near downtown San Francisco. Rent is $3,258 per month. (He also put down a $300 deposit for Eddie and Alice, two orange cats adopted from a shelter during the pandemic.)
Mr. Haney said of the renters in the Legislature, “When I went there last year, it looked like there were only three of us out of 120.” “It’s a very small number.”
To highlight his tenant situation and that of California’s 17 million tenant households — a little less than half of the state — last year, Mr. Haney and two assembly colleagues, Isaac Bryan and Alex Lee, founded the California Renters Caucus. A fourth assembly member, Tasha Borner, joined the caucus after its formation. The group added Ayesha Wahab, a state senator, after she entered office this year.
Mr Haney said for a while there was a sixth, more politically conservative member who attended a meeting but never returned. It is possible that his other co-workers are also tenants and have not moved out yet.
“It’s not necessary to be a tenant that people do projects or put on their website,” Mr. Haney said.
It seems like a lot is changing. From cities and states to the US Congress, elected officials are exaggerating their status as tenants and forming groups to push for tenant-friendly policies.
Politics is about belonging. The candidates pet dogs and hold babies and talk about their kids. Given how many families are struggling with the cost of housing and have lost hope that they’ll ever be able to buy, it makes sense that elected officials would now start talking about being a renter.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed talks often about her rent-controlled apartment in the city’s Haight district. Lindsey HorvathA member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — the powerful body that oversees a $43 billion budget and more than 100,000 employees — predates the housing policy discussion with her position as a renter.
In June, federal legislators followed California with their own tenant caucus, though it has weaker criteria. Representative Jimmy Gomez, who is its chairman Congressional Renters Caucus well as expected Democrat from Los AngelesSaid his group targeted members of tenant-heavy districts, rather than actual renters, even if they own a home, as he does.
Mr. Gomez said, “Good elected officials are going to fight for their voters no matter what.”
Furthermore, he said, the strictest definition of “tenant” can obscure economic insecurity. For example, his parents were homeowners who never made more than $40,000 combined and lived in inland California without air conditioning. Others have nothing but rent for their $7,000-a-month penthouse.
“Are they considered the same?” They said.
Asked how many of his co-workers don’t own a home, Mr. Gomez said, “I believe it’s less than 10.”
In addition to advancing Democratic priorities like subsidized housing and tenant protections, these legislators are betting that being perceived as a pro-renter is politically advantageous in an era in which a growing number of Americans are renting for long periods, and often for a lifetime. Mr. Haney and Mr. Gomez both describe their caucuses — subgroups of legislators organized around a common purpose — as a first for their body. Which is easy to believe.
home ownership is synonymous with American Dream, It is supported by various federal and state tax exemptions and is so codified in American mythology and financial system that historians and anthropologists claim that it has become a symbol of enduring participation in society. The underlying message is that renting is, or should be, temporary.
“There is a fundamental bias against tenants in American sociological and political life,” said Jamila Michener, professor of government and public policy at Cornell. “So when policymakers say, ‘Hey, this is an identity that’s relevant, and that we want to adopt and trust,’ that’s important.”
about two-thirds of Americans owns their residence, and survey after survey shows that the aspiration to buy a home is no less strong today than it was in previous generations. But the number of renters has increased steadily over the past decade. 44 million homes nationwide, while penalizing housing costs have shifted from coastal enclaves metropolitan areas across the country,
Perhaps more importantly to politicians, renters are getting increasingly affluent – households earning more than $75,000 have been a major contributor to the increase in the number of renters over the past decade, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. At the same time, the struggle to find something affordable has increased from low-income renters to middle-income families, who are likely to have owned their homes in previous generations.
In other words, tenant households are now made up of households that are more likely to vote. And after a pandemic in which homeowners received trillions in home-equity while renters had to support eviction moratoriums and tens of billions in aid, the fragility of their position has become clear.
“As the cost burden shows up in places we don’t expect it, there appears to be more political momentum to address these problems,” said Whitney Airgood-Obrecki, senior research associate at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
By organizing around economic status, lawmakers are adopting a concept that tenant advocates call “tenants as a class.”
The idea is that while renters are a large and politically diverse group — low-income families on the verge of eviction, high-earning professionals renting by choice, couples whose desire for suburban living but inability to afford a down payment has made single-family home rentals one of the hottest corners of the real estate business — they still have common interests. These include rising housing costs and the volatility of leasing.
“I don’t think it’s a lens that’s going to capture race, gender, age, ability, and so forth,” said Mr. Bryan, a California Assemblyman and Renters’ Caucus member whose district is in Los Angeles. “I’m excited to join the first five legislators in California history who have developed a political consciousness around this position.”
The ranks of tenants also include legislators, even though there aren’t many of them, which is one of the points California lawmakers said they wanted to make by forming a tenants’ caucus. It also put them into the surprisingly thorny question of who is a tenant and who is not a tenant.
Does the list include lawmakers who rent housing in Sacramento but own a home or condominium in their district, a criteria a good portion of the legislature would qualify for? The group decided not to. How about Mr. Lee, an assemblyman and member of the tenants’ caucus, whose district residence is his childhood bedroom, in a house that once belonged to his mother? He has no property, that much is certain.
Despite having only five members, the California Renters Caucus, the state he represents, is racially diverse but dominated by Democrats (there are no Republicans in the caucus). Its members are white, black and Asian. Mr. Lee is a member of the Legislature LGBTQ Caucus, Ms. Wahab is the first muslim american Elected to the California Senate.
Politically speaking, the frontrunner is Tasha Borner, who lives in the San Diego suburb of Encinitas and is a more conservative member of the caucus (as the California Democrats would say). Ms Borner, 50, was not initially recognized as a tenant by her colleagues in the tenants’ caucus, despite being the group’s longest-serving member in the Legislature.
“No one ever calls my office because I’m a white mother living in Encinitas,” she said. “He thought, ‘She must be a housekeeper.'”
Ms. Borner often disagrees with her colleagues about the effectiveness of policies such as rent-control, she said, although she voted for a statewide rent cap several years ago. He is also more skeptical of state efforts to speed up construction by taking land-use controls from cities, and he voted against a bill that would have effectively ended single-family zoning in the state.
And yet Ms. Borner is also a lifelong tenant who has moved three times since taking office. Her current home is a three-bedroom apartment she shares with her two children and her ex-husband, as it is cheaper than the parents living separately.
“Rental families come in all shapes and sizes, and what I hope to bring is a little diversity,” she said. “We have our disagreements, as in any caucus, but coming together and saying, ‘Hey, this is a demographic that matters’ — that’s what matters.”