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Housing and Homelessness

Long Invisible In LA Politics, Renters Are Now Winning Major Elections

A man with medium-tone skin wears a suit jacket over an open collar blue button-down shirt with sunglasses hanging from the neckline. He holds a bunch of papers up in his left hand.
L.A. City Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martínez holds a copy of his lease during a recent vote on new tenant rights.
(Courtesy Los Angeles City Clerk)
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Most people in Los Angeles are renters. But most of their political representatives are not. With voters feeling increasingly priced out of homeownership in L.A., that’s starting to change.

Candidates who rent won a number of significant local elections in November.

LISTEN: LA Renters Are Starting To Win Elections Amid Housing Crisis

Hugo Soto-Martínez added a tenant voice to the L.A. City Council when he ousted incumbent Mitch O’Farrell. Lindsey Horvath became the youngest woman — and only renter — on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Though he didn’t draw attention to his housing status during his campaign, 32-year-old renter Kenneth Mejia won his race for L.A. City Controller.

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Housing policy experts say the number of renters in office remains small for now, but it’s likely to grow in future elections as housing costs rise.

“There's a wider group of people that are unable to afford rent, even if they earn fairly decent incomes,” said Michael Lens, a UCLA Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy. “It's probably overdue that we have more elected officials that do not own their own homes.”

A pivotal vote and an unusual prop

During a recent L.A. city council meeting featuring a pivotal vote on broad new renter protections, one councilmember brought an unusual prop.

“I wanted to bring my lease that I have as one of the renters here in the city council,” said Soto-Martínez, waving a copy of his lease.

What we're really talking about, my colleagues, is who does this city represent?
— Hugo Soto-Martinez, CD13

Addressing his fellow councilmembers, Soto-Martínez urged them to support expanding eviction protections to as many renters as possible, saying he knew the stresses of renting firsthand. Other councilmembers wanted to delay tenants from receiving those protections until the end of a first lease.

Soto-Martínez said, “What we're really talking about, my colleagues, is who does this city represent?”

In a city where only 36.9% of households own their homes according to the U.S. Census Bureau, homeowners continue to dominate political office.

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The situation in L.A. mirrors a broader political reality: Renters in higher office are few and far between. Lawmakers in the California Assembly recently formed a Renters Caucus. Out of 80 representatives in the legislative body, the caucus has only three members.

In L.A., Soto-Martínez is joined by a small group of councilmembers who don’t own the home they live in: Newly elected councilmember Eunisses Hernandez still lives at home with her family in Highland Park, part of district one. And Katy Young Yaroslavsky, the new councilmember for the fifth district, currently rents her home — but her family also owns a rental duplex in the city.

A generational shift

On the L.A. City Council, the balance of power remains heavily weighted toward homeowners. In fact, there are more councilmembers who are landlords than renters. Curren Price and Paul Krekorian routinely recuse themselves from votes on eviction protections, because they both own rental properties.

Last week, Soto-Martínez sat down in his sparsely furnished Echo Park office to talk about why a small but growing number of renters like him are getting elected.

“It's very generational,” he said. “My parents were street vendors, immigrants from Mexico. And they were able to buy a house, because buying a house was affordable.”

Today, only 13% of L.A. County households can afford the region’s $829,130 median home price, according to the California Association of Realtors. For many millennials like Soto-Martinez, buying a home in L.A. feels impossible.

 We are renters. That's who we are. I think that's the generation that's being elected.
— Hugo Soto-Martinez, L.A. city councilmember

“That's a lot of folks that are in my age group or younger,” he said. “We are renters. That's who we are. I think that's the generation that's being elected.”

A man with medium-tone skin and a close cut bear holds a white dog with curly hair and a red harness.
L.A. City Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martínez brings his dog Detroit to work at his council district office in Echo Park.
(David Wagner

Landlords feel ignored by renter lawmakers

L.A. landlords say they’re also seeing a generational shift in local politics.

Dan Yukelson, the executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater L.A., said landlords feel like they’re losing influence with younger lawmakers. He thinks renters in office will prioritize tenant protections over the rights of small landlords who’ve struggled during the pandemic.

“I think millennials are, in many cases, just complacent,” he said. “Some of the younger generations are satisfied with renting property, and don't necessarily have the impetus to own property and deal with all the responsibility that comes with it.”

Horvath, the L.A. County supervisor who is also a millennial renter, said that description is out of touch.

“It's pretty frustrating and infuriating to hear somebody characterize millennials and younger as if we're sitting on a pile of money and we're just misspending it,” she said. “That's not what's happening here.”

‘Our priorities are out of whack’

L.A. Eviction Guide
  • Worried about rent hikes, evictions or landlord disputes? Read LAist’s comprehensive guide to how tenant rights are changing throughout Los Angeles County.

Horvath blames student debt, high rents and soaring home prices for preventing her and her peers from buying houses.

Since taking office, Horvath has pushed to extend the county’s COVID-19 eviction protections. Horvath and her allies on the board were able to keep pandemic-era tenant protections in place through the end of March. L.A. County has maintained its COVID-19 rules much longer than other parts of the country.

“Renters are, more frequently, the folks who are falling into homelessness,” she said.

But more often, Hovath said she sees her colleagues prioritizing the concerns of landlords over tenants.

“I think our priorities are out of whack,” she said. “We have to make sure that we are listening to the people who need our help the most to stay in housing and be protected.”

A woman with light-tone skin and blonde hair stands leaning against a short wall. She has a bright blue shirt, dark jacket and glasses.
L.A. County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath stands outside her office in downtown Los Angeles.
(David Wagner

Why voters are suddenly putting renters in office

Lens, the UCLA professor, said efforts to diversity L.A. politics have long focused on race, gender and sexuality. But until recently, renters haven’t received the same attention.

In the past, political leaders have viewed renters’ concerns as issues of poverty, Lens said. But with college graduates and wealthier residents now finding themselves priced out of homeownership, a broader coalition of renters is starting to demand representation.

“It does, I think, matter to have representation along that axis,” Lens said, “because it's a pretty fundamental part of who we are and how we live in a city.”

But Lens pointed out that not all renters want the same thing. Some believe affordability problems can only be solved by constructing a lot more housing. Others think the main problem is a lack of strong renter protections.

“As long as those two camps aren't talking so nicely to each other — and that's generally how things are right now — it's going to be hard for a renter politician to be fluidly in support of both of those sets of interventions,” Lens said.

‘There’s nothing like experience’

Cynthia Strathmann, executive director of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, said homeowners can successfully advocate for renters. She pointed to L.A. City Councilmember Nithya Raman and former councilmember Mike Bonin as examples who have championed tenant rights.

“For elected officials in Los Angeles, where a majority of the people are renters, all of them should be able to address the situation of renters,” Strathmann said.

But seeing renters in office has given some tenant organizers more hope of passing renter-friendly policies. Kelli Lloyd with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment has already seen changes in political discussions around major housing policies.

“There's nothing like experience to make a person vote in a way that's compelling — to make a person vote in a way where they can't be swayed by other interests,” Lloyd said.

A person holds a handwritten sign on a poster board that reads: # Eviction Free L.A.
Renters and housing advocates attend a protest on Aug. 21, 2020, in L.A.
(Valerie Macon
AFP via Getty Images)

L.A.’s city council has already passed some major new tenant protections. In recent weeks, they’ve voted to expand eviction protections to nearly 400,000 more renter households, and to require landlords to pay relocation assistance to tenants priced out by large rent hikes.

Soto-Martínez wants to go further, providing new rental assistance to seniors and giving tenants the right to a free attorney in eviction court. To get there, he thinks more lawmakers need to know what it’s like to be a renter in L.A.: to spend half your paycheck on rent, to have your landlord ignore repairs.

“It's that indignation that, unless you live it in the flesh, I don't think you understand,” Soto-Martínez said.

What questions do you have about housing in Southern California?

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