Californians overwhelmingly rejected a state ballot measure using the tagline “Because the rent is too damn high!” that would have enabled local governments to impose rent control on their own terms, in the midterm elections.
In a bid to offer relief to renters suffering at the hands of the state’s housing crisis, Proposition 10 aimed to overturn the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which was passed by the State Legislature in 1995 and prevents cities from imposing rent control on single family dwellings, condominiums and housing built after 1995.
But the campaign faced deeply entrenched special interest groups with even deeper pockets, as donors representing the concerns of investors, realtors, landlords and property owners raised more than $76 million to fight Proposition 10, according to campaign finance records — nearly three times as much money as groups supporting the measure, such as the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the California Democratic Party.
Ultimately, a whopping 61.7 percent of voters rejected Proposition 10. San Francisco was the lone Bay Area county to favor its passage, with 51.6 percent voting “yes.”
It was narrowly defeated in Alameda County as 48.6 percent of voters in the east bay county favored it. Other Bay Area counties more decisively opposed the measure, falling closer in line with the overwhelming statewide sentiment.
Some have speculated that the proposition’s structure and language may have factored into its ultimate defeat.
“The wording of a proposition can have a huge impact on its ability to succeed,” said Dr. Rebecca Eissler, assistant professor of political science at SF State. “You’ve got so little space to tell a voter, who is uninformed on the issue on election day and is just looking at the ballot and using the clues on the ballot itself to figure out what they want to do.”
A USC Dornsife and Los Angeles Times poll of 1,180 eligible California voters found, just weeks before the midterm election, that most people believed lack of rent control was the most significant contributor to California’s housing crisis.
In actuality, the top contributor, according to experts, is insufficient housing stock. But the fact that Californians overwhelmingly seemed to view rent control as a solution to the housing crisis, yet still rejected Proposition 10 by a landslide, could indicate significant confusion about the exact nature of the ballot measure.
“Particular words that are visible [on the ballot] send signals, and if they’re not sending clear enough signals, you can strategically have not helped yourself,” Eissler said. “I think that contributed to the defeat of 10.”
Eissler also thinks Proposition 10 detractors took advantage of the fact that the measure was so non-specific and unpredictable. If passed, it simply repealed Costa-Hawkins, allowing local governments to enact rent control with no state framework or oversight.
“Sometimes specificity or generality can be a weapon used by the [opponents] of a campaign,” she said.
Proposition 10 authors probably viewed local government autonomy over rent control as a feature, not a bug, Eissler said. But, she added, she thinks opponents were able to leverage an innate fear of change and the unknown.
“Because of the uncertainty of how [rent control] would be implemented in various locations, I think it was easier for an argument to be built to convince people to not take a risk,” Eissler said.
“Often when people are faced with a proposition, ‘no’ just means the status quo is maintained — the world you know is maintained — and a ‘yes’ is a risk. So if you aren’t sure about what the risks are, [you] just stay with what you know.”