Will Burbank Voters Weigh In On Rent Control? A Judge Will Decide

An apartment for rent in Central Los Angeles. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

Advocates of rent control collected 7,749 signatures to put a rent control ballot measure before voters in Burbank this November. The effort has a real shot: A majority of households in the city are renters, and a California-wide proposition to pave the way for rent control captured 54% of the votes in the city in 2018, even as it failed badly statewide.

But the rent control measure has been met with waves of resistance from Burbank's elected officials. First, the city clerk filed a legal challenge over the language on the petition. Then, Burbank's City Council — which earlier this year formalized their opposition to rent control — added their own challenge, charging that the initiative "fatally conflicts" with the city's charter.

In July, a judge found the city clerk's legal arguments "not persuasive." On Friday — the last day for ballot measures to appear in November — she'll hold a hearing on the city council's objections.

What she decides will determine whether Burbank voters have a chance to weigh in on rent control in their city, which would apply to units built before 1995. The measure would also give new powers to a Landlord-Tenant Commission and create new barriers to evictions.


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BATTLE OVER BALLOT

When Margo Rowder moved from East Hollywood to Burbank in 2017, she felt "sheer terror" about moving into a city without rent control, where landlords can evict without a stated reason.

Rowder had been active in Burbank politics even before she arrived, working on the campaign of city council candidate Konstantine Anthony. After moving to town, she founded the Burbank Tenants Rights Committee in 2019 and began collecting signatures for a ballot initiative on rent control.

"It's time to really think about — and do more than think about, actually help — the folks who are the backbone of our city stay in their homes," she told LAist.

Rowder personally gathered about 2,000 signatures, and Anthony collected another 3,000, she says. (Anthony is running for city council again this year; Rowder is managing his campaign.)

Burbank City Hall (City of Burbank)

Altogether, the county registrar found that the effort collected the 7,749 verified signatures — more than enough to qualify for the November ballot.

So Rowder was surprised when she learned about the city clerk's objections. So was attorney Fred Woocher, who represents the Burbank Tenants Rights Committee.

"When this first came to me, my take on the city clerk's position was 'this is just crazy'," Woocher said.

In a legal filing, attorneys for the city and clerk Zizette Mullins argue that the copy of the initiative that voters signed left out required language. So did a version published in the local newspaper. Judge Mary H. Strobel rejected that argument and ordered Mullins to certify the initiative. Mullins declined an interview request for this story.

But, by the time the judge ruled, Burbank's city council had filed their legal challenge. They argued that the initiative conflicts with the city's charter, and that the revamped Landlord-Tenant Commission "would create an entirely new branch of government in the City — with powers greater even than the City Council."

The opposition from Burbank's council comes a few months after they voted to adopt a legislative platform that opposes rent control.

While discussing the platform, Burbank Mayor Sharon Springer made her position clear: "I think it's just detrimental," she said, arguing that rent control disincentivizes new housing construction. Springer declined an interview but said in a statement that "Burbank is committed to our housing and affordable housing goals."

Woocher, the attorney for the tenants group, is wary of the council's legal arguments, calling it part of a "gauntlet of meritless legal challenges" in a court filing. He questioned why the city is using public funds to fight the measure, instead of letting voters decide.

"It sure looks to me like people are just coming up with some excuse after another to try and prevent this thing from going to a vote," he said in an interview.

Rowder, the advocate, was more succinct. "The claws have come out," she said.

Judge Strobel will decide on Friday whether voters in Burbank — with more than 100,000 people, one of L.A. County's more populous cities — will see the initiative on their ballots in November.

HOUSING POLITICS HEATING UP ACROSS CALIFORNIA

Tenants across California have been squeezed by soaring rents in recent years, but the issues have festered for decades.

"Rents are star-bound, squeezing the budgets of low- and fixed-income residents," declared a 1980 Los Angeles Times article. "The housing scene in the Glendale-Burbank area is bleak and authorities see little improvement in sight. Especially hard hit are renters."

Then and now, tenant advocates pitched rent control as a means of addressing the issue. Burbank's neighbor, Los Angeles, enacted rent control in the 1970s. Its other neighbor, Glendale, limited rent increases in 2018, stopping short of full rent control.

Landlords fiercely oppose it. "It just becomes a disaster for everybody living in a city," said Dan Yukelson of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles. He said it would lead to substantial overhead costs for the city, large corporations snapping up more properties, and less new housing.

He said that Burbank should give last year's AB 1482 — a statewide measure that caps rent increases at a maximum of 10 percent for many units — a chance to work.

The politics of housing have been heating up all over the state. "Calls for rent control in more places have probably gotten louder and more consistent," said Mike Lens, who studies housing at UCLA. "Policymakers are paying more serious attention to [rent control] as kind of an emergency response to these various rental affordability crises."

But it's a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type of solution, Lens added. Right now, Angelenos are contending with a shortage of affordable housing and rising homelessness. And that was before a pandemic and recession.

Fewer than 20 of California's 482 cities have rent control measures, according to the advocacy group Tenants Together. Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Los Angeles are among them, though the specifics differ from city to city.

Politicians often look less favorably on rent control measures than their constituents, Lens said. Partly, that's because landlords have more political power than their tenants, and are often big campaign donors and well-connected in city government. Lens pointed to the tens of millions that landlord groups spent to defeat Proposition 10, the 2018 ballot measure that attracted majority support in Burbank. (A sequel to that measure, Proposition 21, will appear before California voters in November.)

In Burbank, a small number of property owners control big chunks of commercial and residential land.

Similar pressures motivated Sacramento activists to collect signatures for a rent control ballot measure this year. It faced a legal challenge from the city council, as in Burbank. Last week, a judge granted the city's request to keep the measure off the ballot. Tenants there said they would lodge another legal challenge.

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