When Matt Haney entered the California Legislature, he discovered he was in a tiny minority: a renting legislator.
Haney, 41, has never been a landlord and has spent his adult life as a tenant. His primary residence is a one-bedroom apartment near downtown San Francisco. The rent is $3,258 per month. (He also put up a $300 deposit for Eddy and Ellis, two orange cats he adopted from a shelter during the pandemic.)
“When I arrived last year, it looked like there were only three of us out of 120,” Haney said of tenants in the Legislative Assembly. “It’s a very small number.”
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Seeking to highlight their renter status and the 17 million California renter households — just under half the state — last year, Haney and two Assembly colleagues, Isaac Bryan and Alex Lee, founded the California Renters Caucus. A fourth Assemblyman, Tasha Boerner, joined after the caucus was formed. The group added a state senator, Aisha Wahab, after she took office this year.
Haney said there was briefly a sixth, more politically conservative member who attended a meeting but never returned. It is possible that they have other colleagues who are tenants and who have not yet come out.
“Being a tenant isn’t necessarily something people project or put on their website,” Haney said.
It seems to be changing a lot. From cities and state houses to the US Congress, elected officials are increasingly playing up their status as tenants and forming groups to lobby for tenant-friendly policies.
Politics is about being relatable. The contestants pet dogs, hold babies and talk about their children. Given how many families are struggling with the cost of housing and have lost hope of ever being able to buy, it makes sense that elected officials are now starting to talk about being renters.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks frequently about his rent-controlled apartment in the city’s Haight neighborhood. Lindsey Horvath, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — the powerful body that oversees a $43 billion budget and more than 100,000 employees — predicts housing policy talks with her tenant status.
In June, federal lawmakers followed California with their own tenant caucus, though this one has looser criteria. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, who is chairman of the Congressional Renters Caucus as well as a Democrat from Los Angeles, said that instead of actual renters, his group targets members of districts with high renter density, even if they own a home, as he does.
“Good elected officials will fight for their constituents no matter what,” Gomez said.
Furthermore, he added, the strictest definition of “renter” can obscure economic insecurity. His parents, for example, were homeowners who never made more than $40,000 combined and lived in the California interior with no air conditioning. Other people rent a penthouse for $7,000 a month.
“Are they considered identical? ” he said.
When asked how many of his co-workers don’t own homes, Gomez replied, “My instinct is it’s less than 10.”
In addition to advancing Democratic priorities like subsidized housing and renter protections, these lawmakers are betting that being seen as pro-tenant is politically advantageous at a time when growing numbers of Americans are renting for longer periods, and often for life. Both Haney and Gomez describe their caucuses — subsets of lawmakers organized around a common goal — as a first for their body. Which is easy to believe.
Home ownership is synonymous with the American dream. It is supported by various federal and state tax breaks and so encoded in American mythology and the financial system that historians and anthropologists claim it has come to symbolize lifelong participation in society. The underlying message is that the rental is temporary, or should be.
“There’s a pretty basic bias against renters 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 an identity that we’re ready to own and embrace,’ that’s meaningful.”
About two-thirds of Americans own their homes, and survey after survey shows that the drive to own a home is no less powerful today than it was for previous generations. But the number of renters has risen steadily over the past decade to about 44 million households nationwide, while painful housing costs have migrated from coastal enclaves to metropolitan areas across the country.
Perhaps more important to politicians is that renters are increasingly affluent: Households earning more than $75,000 have accounted for the vast majority of the growth in 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 intensified from low-income renters to middle-income families who in previous generations would most likely have owned their homes.
In other words, renter households are now made up of families that are much more likely to vote. And after a pandemic in which homeowners have gained trillions in wealth from their home equity while renters have had to be propped up with eviction moratoriums and tens of billions in aid, the fragility of their position has been made clearer.
“As financial burdens appear in places where we don’t expect them, there seems to be more political momentum to address these issues,” said Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, senior research associate at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
By organizing around an economic condition, lawmakers are embracing 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 brink of eviction, high-income professionals renting by choice, couples whose desire to live in the suburbs but inability to pay a down payment has made renting single-family homes one of the hottest corners of real estate — they still have common interests. These include the rising cost of housing and the instability of being on a lease.
“It’s a lens that I think hasn’t been captured in the same way as race, gender, age, ability, etc.,” said Bryan, a California Assemblyman and Tenant Caucus member whose district is in Los Angeles. “I am thrilled to be among the first five legislators in California history to raise political awareness around this statute.”
The fact that the tenant ranks also include lawmakers, albeit few in number, is one of the points California lawmakers have said they want to make in forming the tenant caucus. It also plunged them into the surprisingly thorny question of who is and isn’t a tenant.
Does the list include lawmakers who rent accommodation in Sacramento but own a home or condominium in their district, a criteria that would qualify a good chunk of the legislature? The group decided no. How about Lee, Assemblyman and Tenant Caucus member whose district residence is his childhood bedroom, in a house his mother owns? He doesn’t own any property, so of course.
Although it has only five members, the California Renters Caucus, like the state it represents, is racially diverse but dominated by Democrats (there are no Republicans in the caucus). Its members are white, black and Asian. Lee is a member of the Legislature’s LGBTQ Caucus. Wahab is the first Muslim American elected to the California Senate.
Politically speaking, the outlier is Boerner, who lives in suburban San Diego Encinitas and is the most conservative member of the caucus (as do Democrats in California). Despite being the group’s longest-serving member in the Legislative Assembly, Boerner, 50, was initially not identified as a tenant by her colleagues in the tenant caucus.
“Nobody ever called my office, because I’m a white mom living in Encinitas,” she said. “They thought, ‘She must be a landlord. “”
Boerner often disagrees with her colleagues on the effectiveness of policies such as rent control, she said, despite voting for a statewide rent cap several years ago. She’s also more skeptical of state efforts to speed up construction by taking control of cities’ land use, and she voted against a bill that effectively ended single-family zoning in the state.
Yet Boerner is also a lifelong tenant who has moved three times since taking office. Her current home is a three-bedroom apartment which she shares with her two children and ex-husband, in part because it’s cheaper than if the parents had separate apartments.
“Families who rent come in all shapes and sizes, and what I hope to bring is a bit of diversity,” she said. “We have disagreements, like any caucus, but getting together and saying, ‘Hey, this is a demographic that matters’ – that’s the importance.”
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