Three months after the Biden administration unveiled a nonbinding “Blueprint for Renters Bill of Rights” that was applauded by corporate landlords for doing little to rein in unfair rent increases and evictions, a new report by government watchdog Accountable.US showed on Monday that those same property owners reaped enormous profits in 2022 as they demanded more of their tenants’ incomes in rent and excessive fees.
The group found that the six biggest property management companies in the United States—Starwood Property Trust, Mid-America Apartment Communities (MAA), Invitation Homes, AvalonBay Communities Inc., AMH, and Tricon Residential—brought in $4.3 billion in net income last year, over $1.3 billion more than in 2021.
That financial windfall came as the companies were raising rent prices and engaging in what Accountable.US called “abusive tactics” to evict people, in some cases after they had applied for rental assistance.
Starwood Property Trust increased rent by 30% or more at some of its thousands of properties in 2022 and saw its net income skyrocket by 115% to more than $1 billion—$591 million of which it spent on dividend payments to shareholders.
AMH and Tricon Residential credited their “pricing power” and “strong rent growth” for helping them secure $310 million and nearly $780 million in net income last year, respectively. The former company recorded a 47% increase while the latter’s income grew by 70%.
MAA also reported that “higher fee income” and “continued growth in average rent per unit” were behind the ballooning of its net income, which grew by nearly 19% to more than $654 million.
“This is egregious,” said tenants’ rights organizer René Christian Moya of the report’s findings.
Four of the companies included in the Accountable.US report are members of the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC), which celebrated the omission of national rent control measures in the renter protections that President Joe Biden proposed in January while also claiming the proposal’s recommended regulations would be too “onerous” on landlords and would “discourage much-needed investments in housing supply.”
Part of the companies’ financial windfall was driven not by rent increases but by fees the landlords have piled on top of rent, including late fees, and extra charges for “smart locks,” pets, and using online systems to pay rent.
“Corporate landlords ‘squeeze more revenues from portfolios’ by charging a range of ‘ancillary’ fees, resulting in ‘fee revenue vastly outpacing rental growth,'” said Accountable.US.
Invitation Homes is one landlord that’s been accused in the past of “fee-stacking” by tenants who filed a class-action lawsuit in 2018—all while providing tenants with homes where they face “leaky pipes, vermin, toxic mold, nonfunctioning appliances and monthslong waits for repairs,” according to the report.
The record profits, dividend spending, and poor service of the six companies, said Accountable.US—in addition to shelter costs rising by a “striking” 8.6% overall in the consumer price index last month—demonstrates that “aggressive interest rate hikes” imposed by the Federal Reserve “have done little to deter profiteering from corporate landlords.”
The group called on Congress to work with the Biden administration to “stabilize runaway housing costs,” for example by passing legislation proposed by Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) last month which would invest $200 billion in affordable housing, or a bill introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) to end rent-gouging by coporate landlords.
“The nation’s largest landlords have shown their burdensome rent hikes are based on greed, not need, after reporting billions of dollars in higher profits over the last year,” said Liz Zelnick, director of Accountable.US’ Economic Security and Corporate Power program. “These companies fueling the housing affordability crisis are among many corporations across industries that have shamelessly profiteered, undeterred by the Fed’s repeated interest rate hikes.”
“Higher interest rates have not curbed inflation sufficiently and have done nothing to combat corporate greed,” Zelnick added, “and instead are causing severe economic consequences for everyday Americans, from lower wages to lost jobs.”
How Investors Accelerate the Affordable Housing Crisis
With billions of dollars of cash on hand, and millions of working-class families unable to find affordable housing, corporations are increasing their share of the housing stock and expanding their portfolios. A 2021 report co-authored by the Institute for Policy Studies, Bargaining for the Common Good, and Americans for Financial Reform Education Fund demonstrated how corporate and institutional investors were well positioned to take advantage of a red-hot real estate market. In the final quarter of 2022, investors purchased more than $31 billion worth of residential property in 40 of the largest metropolitan markets in the country – not a small sum.
Digital technologies helped facilitate this process. New business models like iBuying – which allow companies to instantly assess the value of and make offers on properties that are then resold – provide corporate landlords with privileged access to residential homes. Real estate tech companies are transferring close to a quarter of their inventory directly to institutional investors off market. Even when these tech firms go belly up, thousands of homes are snapped up by Wall Street, granting the latter greater undue market power.
All of this translates to a more expensive real estate for working families, as unlisted corporate purchases lower the housing supply available to thousands of households. As a result, four out of five homes are now classified as unaffordable to median income earners, up from just half a decade ago.
“Housing affordability is at the lowest level in history,” declared Taylor Marr, deputy chief economist at Redfin, in a recent interview.
The ever-expanding presence of corporate landlords also increases precarity for renters. Large portfolios incentivize the development and use of software to automate property management and eviction filings to the detriment of tenants. The aggressive pursuit of evictions and unwillingness to negotiate alternative resolutions to ensure families remain housed highlights the need for more robust tenant protections.
Potential Revenue from a Tax on Investor Purchases of Residential Properties
A tax on institutional investors could dissuade corporate purchases, giving working-class households an equitable opportunity to buy a home while also generating revenue for affordable housing. To illustrate the potential revenue a 10 percent tax on investors could generate, the Institute for Policy Studies analyzed the sale records of Boston, Massachusetts in the final quarter of 2022. Any record where the buyer’s name included the words “LLC”, “Trust”, “Corporation”, “Partnership”, “Inc”, or “Homes” is categorized as an investor. The methodology excludes all transfers where the transaction was less than $1,000.
Investor purchases accounted for 24 percent of all residential real estate sales in Boston between October and December of 2022. The total value of their residential acquisitions was $820 million, with a median sale price of $1.1 million. A 10 percent tax on all investor purchases could yield $82 million in revenue.
Boston is just one city where investors are snatching up residential properties. If a 10 percent tax on investor purchases were in effect in Boston as well as the country’s nine other top housing markets, it could’ve generated a total of $1.4 billion just on 2022 fourth quarter sales alone.
The time for our elected representatives to address the affordability crisis and guarantee dignified housing for all is now.
The solution is straightforward: the federal government should ramp up the production of decommodified public housing to put downward pressure on real estate prices. All newly constructed housing should serve the social needs of our communities instead of further enriching corporations and institutional landlords.
A federal tax on institutional buyers has the potential to generate significant revenue to help fund the construction of new public and social housing.
The lack of housing affordability is the direct result of commodification – the use of residential real estate as an asset for the purposes of financial speculation and capital accumulation. The sooner we start treating housing as the public good that it is, the sooner we can create an economy that works for everyone.
Vivian Thomas Smith loved her apartment. For nearly three decades, she and her husband, Bradley, had lived in a modest one-bedroom at 2420 Morris Avenue, just two blocks from the raucous beauty of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. The brick apartment complex was a co-op where some families, like theirs, still rented. Vivian, 71, was a retired secretary who had worked for decades at Montefiore Medical Center. Bradley, 81, had also been employed by Montefiore, doing maintenance work before his retirement. Vivian watched her neighbors’ kids grow up. When her own son got sick, her friend down the hall helped nurse him through the long illness that preceded his death. Vivian may have worried about the increasing crime in her neighborhood, but when she walked through her building’s beautifully tiled lobby, she felt secure that she and Bradley would stay there for the rest of their lives.
That all changed in November 2020, when the private equity firm Glacier Equities bought all the rental units in her building. Just over a year later, on December 1, 2021, the Smiths got a letter offering them an ultimatum: buy your apartment or leave when the lease expired on March 31, 2022. “Out of the clear blue sky. No reason, nothing. For 27 years we were never late on rent, never missed a month,” Vivian said.
The couple wanted to buy, but bills from their son’s illness had wrecked their credit. No bank would give them a mortgage. At the same time, their economic situation made finding a new rental almost impossible. Because of the small pensions they received in addition to their Social Security, they made too much money to qualify for subsidized housing. Yet they made nowhere near enough to rent a new apartment.
“We spoke to housing lawyers. The first one said ‘cause our apartment was not rent-stabilized, ‘You don’t have a choice. You have to leave,’” Vivian said.
Throwing an elderly couple out on the street might be monstrous, but it’s perfectly legal in New York State. If, like the Smiths, you are a tenant in one of the state’s 1.6 million market-rate apartments, your landlord can get rid of you at the end of your lease—no reason necessary—by means of what’s called a holdover eviction. And landlords do it all the time. The more than 32,000 holdover eviction cases brought before New York State housing courts in 2022 represent a small sliver of the problem; unable to afford the stress and financial costs of a legal battle, many tenants just pack up and leave.
A bill that had been making its way through the state Legislature for several years could have been a life raft for the Smiths. Backed by a coalition of housing organizations, the legislation—dubbed the Good Cause Eviction bill—required most landlords to offer lease renewals to tenants like the Smiths, who had paid their rent on time and stuck by the terms of their leases. It also limited rent increases to prevent landlords from forcing people out by raising their rent hundreds of dollars a month.
This bill could have saved the Smiths, and countless other New Yorkers, from eviction. But despite loud, passionate, and relentless campaigning by housing activists and tenants—including Vivian Thomas Smith—lawmakers refused for years to even put Good Cause legislation up for a vote. The Smiths, and all the other tenants like them, were on their own.
The story might have ended there, in defeat. But movements are stubborn creatures. If people fight long enough, they learn that losses are temporary and that victory can only come through a refusal to retreat. Last December, just a month after Democrats held their statewide majority in the midterms, the tenants’ rights group Housing Justice for All renewed its Good Cause campaign and then went even bigger, unveiling “Our Homes, Our Power,” a package of five bills intended to address the worst housing and homelessness crisis in decades. All of the proposals are important, but Good Cause remains the most crucial—not only because it has the power to save people right now, in the present, by slowing the constant stream of evictions, but also because it’s the only one that fundamentally reshapes the relationship between landlord and tenant. Housing activists have until June 8 to persuade state legislators to stand up to the real estate industry and protect their constituents.
New York City is brutal to renters. As of 2017, half of us spent a third of our income on rent; a third of us spent more than half. The competition for an affordable place is harrowing, with the vacancy rate for apartments that rent for under $1,500 a month hovering at less than 1 percent. Many of us pay nonrefundable application fees just to get our foot in the door, followed by thousands of dollars to the landlord’s broker, and often thousands of dollars more in glorified bribes to the landlords themselves. If we are lucky enough to score a place, it had better be rent-stabilized (a rare prize when landlords are pulling tens of thousands of rent-stabilized units out of circulation every year) if we want to stay. A lease on a market-rate apartment gets us only 12 months of stability. After that, we’re vulnerable to whatever unconscionable rent increases the landlord feels like imposing, or we are back on the apartment hunt—or, for many low-income people, the street—again.
Ideally, this collective precarity should unite people. As Anh-Thu Nguyen, a labor and tenant organizer in Brooklyn, told me, “I don’t care if you’re some bro in the West Village paying $5,000 a month, or a little old lady in Spanish Harlem in a rent-stabilized place for 30 years. You represent a class. That class is the landless…. You want stability, a place you can call home.”
Instead, communities often wind up pitted against each other. One group is forever being forced out, then pushed into areas where another group, often poorer, is being forced out too. This gentrification gets blamed on tenants, even though landlords are the ones raising the rents. When a landlord evicts an abuela and rents her apartment to an NYU grad student, politicians point to gentrifiers or transplants, not the landlord, as the problem. They seldom mention that there was an actual bill that could have kept the abuela in her home.
This is not just theoretical. Good Cause Eviction has long been the law in New Jersey, where cities like Trenton and Jersey City have some of the lowest eviction rates in the country. It also exists in cities like Montreal, as well as in Japan.
Good Cause was first proposed in 2018 by a collection of tenant groups in New York State that was then called the Upstate Downstate Alliance (it eventually became known as Housing Justice for All). In 2019, it found a legislative champion when democratic socialist Julia Salazar came to the state Senate.
One of Salazar’s first acts was to write the Good Cause Eviction bill. The bill was then folded into a major package of housing reforms, including legislation that makes it much harder for landlords to kick out rent-stabilized tenants by renovating buildings in order to raise rents and prevents them from taking apartments out of stabilization once the rent reaches a certain threshold. While those reforms were passed into law, the party leadership refused to bring Good Cause up for a vote. This was largely due to the resistance of the real estate lobby, which found Good Cause threatening precisely because it diminishes some of landlords’ unchecked power.
By April 2020, more than 16 percent of the state’s population was out of work. For hundreds of thousands of tenants, making rent became impossible. If they didn’t pay, what then? Would the courts really send sheriffs to chuck their possessions out onto the sidewalk, then shuttle them to crowded homeless shelters?
A movementerupted to cancel the unpayable rents—led by both established tenant groups and young people radicalized in the uprising that emerged after George Floyd’s murder. Banners were dropped from bridges. Raucous protests were held outside the homes of recalcitrant politicians. It made only a modest impression. While the state and federal governments did act, declaring moratoriums on evictions starting with the CARES Act in March 2020, they wouldn’t cancel rents. Bills still came due each month, and the debts metastasized. Two years later, 595,000 New York City renters were still behind—and landlords were anxious to get them out.
With the arrival of the Covid vaccine, the bars reopened, restaurants buzzed, and the rich flooded back to the city like some revanchist army. For landlords, these returnees were more enticing than those of us who stayed, whether or not we owed back rent.
The federal moratorium expired in October 2021 and the state moratorium in January 2022. Immediately, the evictions began.
The pandemic was a bonanza for institutional investors in residential real estate. The most famous villain is BlackRock, the multinational investment behemoth, but Glacier Equities has also done a number on New York City. Glacier is a real estate private equity firm, or REPE. A REPE raises cash from private investors to buy a property—say, an apartment building. The REPE then tries to get tenants out, often neglecting the building or hiking rents. Finally, the REPE sells the building, gobbling up the profits for its investors and itself. Over the past two decades, Glacier has flipped—or as it says on its website, “acquired, developed, and sold”—2,200 condos and co-ops in and around New York City. During the first year of the pandemic, it snapped up 255 units in Bronx and Manhattan co-ops. The Smiths’ apartment was one of them.
When the Planning Commission approved a condo project at 1863 Mission in 2018, the staff wrote:
The Project will add 37 units to the City’s housing stock, including 15 two-bedroom, family-sized units and will replace long vacant site that has been a blight to the neighborhood with a high quality mixed-income development.
That’s typical. We hear this over and over when developers want to build market-rate housing: Families in San Francisco need places to live.
When the supes rejected the Environmental Impact Report for 469 Stevenson, Yimby Law noted:
Hundreds of families were denied housing in San Francisco because of Supervisors Gordon Mar, Dean Preston, Myrna Melgar, Connie Chan, Rafael Mandelman, Aaron Peskin, Hillary Ronen, and Shamann Walton.
But as of today, the planners have agreed that at least seven of the units at 1863 Mission will not be available for families who need housing. They will be corporate rentals, in essence high-priced hotel rooms for people who are in the city for more than 30 days but less than a year.
It’s called “intermediate length occupancy,” and the Planning Commission, without dissent, gave the owners of 15 units in six buildings the ability to take housing out of the rental or ownership market and turn it into ILOs.
Teresa Flandrich, a longtime North Beach housing activist, told the panel that the units at 240 Lombard were owned by an absentee corporate rental firm. “I think of individuals who are searching for homes,” she said, mentioning as neighbor who lost her home to a fire and needs a new place to live. “This is not providing housing for San Francisco residents,” she said.
Sup. Aaron Peskin, who sponsored the legislation, noted in 2020 that there are legitimate uses for these types of rentals:
“There are legitimate reasons for this type of use,” he said. There are, for example, musicians or actors who may be in the city for a six-month run at the opera or a stage production. Some people need short-term rentals while their normal residence is being repaired after a fire or flood.
“I am open to this kind of housing,” Peskin said, “but we clearly need reasonable regulations. We need to know what’s housing for people who want to live here and work here.”
So: The supes voted to limit the number of these rentals, and to require a conditional-use hearing at the Planning Commission each time a landlord applies for a permit.
The idea: If people oppose the conversion of, say, a building they live in or a neighboring building into a hotel, they can come to the commission and make the case.
But the planning staff doesn’t see this as a serious obstacle. In fact, staffers today told the commissioners that in the future, all of these ILO conversions will be placed on the Consent Calendar as items that are non-controversial.
“I didn’t want full-time renters,” she told me. “I don’t want to be stuck with the problems.”
Solomon said she thinks that the rent laws are “stacked against the landlord” and “have morphed into something socialist. The city has taken away all the landlord rights.”
The problem is that the city doesn’t allow residential units like these three flats to be kept out of the housing stock and turned into hotel rooms. A neighbor. Alfonso Faustino, told me that he has filed numerous complaints with various city agencies – and indeed, Department of Building Inspection and City Planning records show that the property has been investigated for illegal short-term rentals.
“She is taking precious housing out of the market,” Faustino told me.
The commission determined that she was acting in violation of city codes:
The project sponsor has received a Notice of Violation for the use of the subject building for short-term accommodation by transient guests. The property owner is seeking to legalize the use of the subject property for short-term rentals.
Solomon, who now owns a condo at 1450 Greenwich, showed up at the hearing to say that she likes to rent out her place to performers when she is out of town, which seems to be most of the time (“I travel a lot,” she said).
Eric Basart, who also lives in the building, wrote to the commission:
Does our neighborhood need a high priced hotel, whose “tenants” are corporations and wealthy tourists? Although there are numerous surrounding hotels, Solomon’s proposed corporate/tourist hotel has historically charged more than double the median nightly hotel rate in the area, and does not fit in with the surrounding residential context on Russian Hill, the long-term renters and owners who reside in building, or the residential district in which the subject property is located?
The ILO rent, Basart said, is more than $6,000 a month—almost double what traditional renters are paying for a one-bedroom unit in Russian Hill these days.
The bottom line: Landlords can make a lot more money right now with these ILO corporate rentals. They also avoid those pesky tenant laws like rent control and eviction protections.
Thanks to Peskin, the number is limited. And I’m not going to argue that this use is always wrong.
But people who, say, are displaced by fire or are arriving here looking for a permanent place to live and need shorter-term housing are not going to be able to afford these units unless they are rich, or some corporation is paying for it.
If I were writing the law, I would add this:
No building that is ever sold to the city as providing “needed housing for families” should be eligible to become corporate rentals. Because that becomes a total lie.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down part of a Seattle ordinance in a ruling that will affect laws in Oakland and Berkeley that ban nearly all questioning about a rental housing applicant’s criminal record. Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
Landlords can ask applicants for criminal history, court says in ruling that impacts Oakland, Berkeley
Cities can’t completely prohibit rental property owners from asking prospective tenants about their criminal history, although they can prohibit owners from excluding all tenants who have criminal records, a divided federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The 2-1 ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down part of an ordinance in Seattle and also will affect laws in Oakland and Berkeley that ban nearly all questioning about an applicant’s criminal record. But the court approvingly cited a 2014 San Francisco ordinance that lets owners of affordable housing consider a would-be renter’s convictions from the previous seven years.
That ordinance, the Fair Chance law, allows an owner to reject an applicant whose record raises serious concerns about safety, as long as the renter has a chance to present evidence of rehabilitation and recommendations from others.
While San Francisco argued in a court filing that cities should be allowed to go further and ban nearly all inquiries about tenants’ criminal records, the court said the Fair Chance law showed that a local government could protect prospective renters from discrimination while remaining “significantly less burdensome on speech” by the property owners.
On the other hand, Judge Kim Wardlaw said in the majority opinion, owners have no right to automatically exclude all tenants with past criminal convictions. Laws in Seattle and other cities against such prohibitions serve the legitimate purposes of “reducing barriers to housing faced by persons with criminal records and lessening the use of criminal history as a proxy to discriminate on the basis of race,” Wardlaw wrote.
She said formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times as likely as the general population to experience homelessness or housing insecurity, and the disparities were far more likely to affect racial minorities than whites.
The court set aside a federal judge’s 2021 ruling upholding the entire Seattle ordinance and told the judge to decide whether the city’s ban on excluding all applicants with criminal records could stand on its own.
Wardlaw’s decision drew partial dissents from the other members of the panel. Judge Mark Bennett said a property owner “who prioritizes the safety of other tenants” should be allowed to reject any applicant with a criminal record. But Judge Ronald Gould said cities that seek to protect tenants against discrimination should be able to bar all questioning about criminal history.
Property owners could still get pertinent information about an applicant’s “rental history, income history, character references, job history,” and could ask for references from others who have rented to the prospective tenant, Gould said.
The federal government, under Presidents Barack Obama and Biden, has issued “guidance” statements saying property owners nationwide should consider ending all questioning about prospective tenants’ past convictions. “Criminal history is not a good predictor of housing success” and its use can result in discrimination, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said in a report last June.
Tuesday’s ruling was praised by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit property-rights supporter representing owners who challenged the Seattle ordinance.
“The Ninth Circuit’s decision recognizes that the First Amendment protects the right to ask questions and receive information relevant to our livelihoods,” said Ethan Blevins, the foundation’s lawyer in the case.
Despite the court’s favorable reference to San Francisco’s approach, Jen Kwart, spokesperson for City Attorney David Chiu, said the city would have preferred a ruling that barred all inquiries into rental applicants’ criminal records.
“We are disappointed the court struck down this portion of Seattle’s ordinance because we believe strongly in reducing barriers to formerly incarcerated people,” Kwart said.
The Symposium takes its name from its venue, UCLA’s historic “Lodge-Conference Center and Family Resort” at Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains, about 100 miles east of the campus. Last October it convened there under the theme “California’s Housing at the Crossroads,” with the declared intention to “examine California’ housing crisis and the solutions needed to fix it.”
According to its website, the Symposium is ITS’s “signature annual event,” dedicated “to bring[ing] researchers and practitioners together to address pressing transportation, environmental, and development issues in a setting conducive to peer interaction and collaborative learning.” But to all appearances, that setting is more conducive to elite networking and indoctrination.
I say “to all appearances,” because despite being sponsored by a public institution, staged at a publicly owned venue, and funded in large part by public agencies (more about that below), the UCLA Lake Arrowhead Symposium is a decidedly private event. As at the mother of all such gatherings, the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, attendance at the Symposium is by “invitation-only.” Would-be participants have to be nominated by an organization. (An online form asks the nominating organization to indicate whether it is a government, private sector, nonprofit, or academic entity; apparently the ITS doesn’t realize that nonprofits are private.) The Symposium team reviews submissions and decides whom to invite. Scholarships are available:
Priority will go to those who work to advance equity in transportation as part of their compensated or uncompensated work, those for whom the Symposium would aid in their professional development, and those with a diversity of perspectives and lived experiences or who have been marginalized from governmental and academic power structures.
In most cases, no refunds. That’s because, “[o]nce you register, we pay for you to attend even if you cancel.” The 2022 Symposium ran from Sunday, October 16, at 1:30 pm to Tuesday, October 18, at 1 pm. I’ve seen a receipt for one ticket that cost $1,195.
Despite its prioritization of equity and diversity in awarding scholarships, the UCLA Lake Arrowhead Symposium is an exclusionary gathering—even more exclusionary than Davos. The World Economic Forum publicizes it proceedings—to be sure, in carefully curated podcasts and briefs. But at least WEF cites people who attend the event.
No such citations emanate from the Symposium. I haven’t found a single news story that reported on its proceedings, much less cited anyone who was there.
That figures. The Institute of Transportation Studies conducts the Symposium under what’s known as the “Chatham House Rule:” “Participants are free to use and share the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker[s] should be disclosed. This is known as the Chatham Rule.”
I’d never heard of Chatham House or its Rule. Googling revealed it to be a venerable London think tank founded after the first World War. According to Inderjeet Parmar and Shihui Yin, writing in The Wire in 2020, it is “one of the world’s oldest and most influential think tanks.” Its mission is to defend the “liberal international order that grew out of imperial-internationalism” and “further embedded Western power in world affairs.” Now that order is “unravelling at home and challenged by rising powers abroad.”
As such, Chatham House makes an apt model for the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, which is committed to California’s failing neoliberal housing agenda and the belief that the private real estate industry would solve the state’s affordable housing crisis if only it were freed from regulatory constraints.
Given the blackout on the Arrowhead Symposium, how do I know that?
For starters, the neoliberal bias is evident from the lineup of speakers posted on the event’s home page. In 2022 they included Gustavo Velasquez, Director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development; Jerusalem Demsas, described by ITS as “a policy reporter for The Atlantic” who is a favorite of the Yimbys; Chris Elmendorf, UC Davis Professor of Law and de facto member of the San Francisco Chronicle editorial staff; Annie Fryman, former legislative aide to Scott Wiener, now Director of Cities at ADU firm Abodu who, according to the SF Standard, will have a position at SPUR funded by big tech donors; Meea Kang, senior vice president of development for Related California; and Michael Lens, Michael Manville, and Paavo Monkkonen, UCLA planning professors, whom some 48 hills readers may recognize from their 2020 exchange with myself.
Missing from this roster are any dissenters from the dominant, neoliberal paradigm.
That’s a problem, because there’s a big difference between the World Economic Forum and Chatham House on the one hand and the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies on the other: The former are private institutions, the latter is a public one—and more importantly, a public institution officially dedicated to education. Genuine education involves debate, especially debate about conventional wisdom.
Last August, I emailed Juan Matute, ITS Deputy Director (Director Brian Taylor was on leave) the following questions:
May reporters attend the Symposium?
The themes of the 2022 Symposium, the sources of and solutions to California’s housing woes, are highly controversial, yet the announced speakers are all from one side of the debate. How do you square that partiality with UCLA’s identity as a public institution, and one dedicated to education to boot?
Along the same lines, why are participants asked to “refrain from attributing statements or quotes to speakers or other attendees”? And why is the Steering Committee content password-protected?
Matute emailed back a reply that further attested to his and presumably ITS’s insularity, doctrinaire pedagogy, and disdain for journalists. I’ve annotated his response:
Question: May reporters attend the Symposium?
Matute: Reporters may attend the Symposium. However Chatham House Rules [sic] have applied to the Symposium since it origins in the early 90s and this helps to promote constructive dialogues. Reporters who are invited to attend agree to certain terms and conditions in advance.
How long ITS has applied the Chatham House Rule to the Symposium is irrelevant. Such censorship violates the principles of a great university—indeed, it violates the principles of UCLA:
UCLA’s primary purpose as a public research university is the creation, dissemination, preservation and application of knowledge for the betterment of our global society.
To fulfill this mission, UCLA is committed to academic freedom in its fullest terms: We value open access to information, free and lively debate conducted with mutual respect for individuals, and freedom from intolerance. In all of our pursuits, we strive for excellence and diversity, recognizing that openness and inclusion produce true quality. These values underlie our three institutional responsibilities: education, research and public service.
As for reporters agreeing to certain terms and conditions in advance of attendance: To my knowledge, Jerusalem Demsas was the only reporter who attended the 2022 Symposium. ITS did not respond to my California Public Records Act request asking to see contracts with all the presenters. So I have to assume that Demsas “agree[d] to certain terms and conditions in advance”—among them, not to cite any of the participants, including herself, by name. That’s an unusual rule for a journalist to accept. We sought to contact Demsas through social media and the Atlantic, but never heard back.
Question: The themes of the 2022 Symposium, the sources of and solutions to California’s housing woes, are highly controversial, yet the announced speakers are all from one side of the debate. How do you square that partiality with UCLA’s identity as a public institution, and one dedicated to education to boot?
Matute: It seems that public support for the types of housing policy solution that I understand will be discussed at the Symposium is roughly at the same level as the percentage of Americans who support transitioning the U.S. economy to 100% clean energy by 2050 or increasing federal funding for low-income communities who are disproportionately harmed by air and water pollution (sources 1, 2, 3). UC has research and events to advance these state and federal policy objectives. What about the Symposium do you see as controversial?
My reply: You asked what about the Symposium I see as controversial and sent links to two articles that report support for more housing (one, a poll of LA residents; the other, a Zillow survey of residents of 26 metro areas) and a third link to an article about a survey of 1,000 U.S. adults, the majority of which support more housing.
Somehow you seem to have missed the broad opposition to the state of California’s legislative housing tsunami, with its exponential increase of Regional Housing Need Allocations and associated penalties for [not] meeting the RHNAs. Four cities sued SANDAG [San Diego Association of Governments] over their RHNAs. The California Supreme Court denied their appeal of the lower court’s ruling against their case, but the point is that the state’s ascendant housing policies are hotly disputed. California’s own auditor has issued a critique of HCD’s methodology to which the agency has yet to respond.
I could cite more sources, but the above suffice to indicate the controversial nature of the topics on the 2022 Symposium agenda.
Moreover, what is (or ought to be) controversial isn’t merely the issues; it’s that the Symposium’s presenters are all on one side of the disputes.
UCLA is a distinguished public university. As such, it ought to be sponsoring a debate about controversial matters, not an exercise in indoctrination.
Question: Why is the steering committee content password-protected?
I asked that question because when it comes to major donors, the Symposium is run on a pay-to-play basis. “Sponsorship Opportunities” listed on the Symposium home page include representation on the 2022-2023 Arrowhead Steering Committee for all levels of donors.
Diamond Sponsors ($20,000-plus—$15,760 tax-deductible) got complimentary registrations (or donate to the scholarship pool), an opportunity to nominate a speaker for UCLA’s review, exclusive display of promotional materials in meeting room on the day sponsored, arrangements for a two-hour private breakout meeting for your organization, logo placement on printed symposium materials, an opportunity to network with speakers, faculty, prominent public officials and more.
Platinum Sponsors ($10,000, Gold Sponsors ($7,500), Silver Sponsors ($5,000), and Bronze Sponsors ($3,000) got “opportunities” and tax deductions gauged to the size of their donations.
The Symposium website lists two Diamond Sponsors: the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and Metro; two Platinum Sponsors: Caltrans and the Southern California Association of Governments; seven Silver Sponsors: the California Air Resources Board, Cambridge Systematics, HDR, an international firm specializing in architecture, engineering, environmental, and construction services, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the National Center for Sustainable Transportation, San Diego Association of Governments, WSP, an international engineering professional services firm; and one Bronze Sponsor: Fehr & Peers transportation consultants.
Matute: The Steering Committee portal is password protected because it contains information deemed to fall under Protection level 2 for UC’s Information Security Policy.
UC defines Protection Level 2 as follows:
Institutional Information and related IT Resources that may not be specifically protected by statute, regulations or other contractual obligations or mandates, but are not generally intended for public use or access. In addition, information of which unauthorized use, access, disclosure, acquisition, modification or loss could result in minor damage or small financial loss, or cause minor impact on the privacy of an individual or group.
On August 19, 2022, I submitted a Public Records Act request to UCLA asking to see the roster of the current Arrowhead Steering Committee; the itemized budget for the 2022 Symposium all contracts between the 2022 Symposium, including contracts between UCLA and the funders of the 2022 event; all communications between the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, the Arrowhead Steering Committee, other UCLA offices, and any other parties involved in organizing, presenting, and/or funding the 2022 event.
On October 28, the UCLA Information Practices office sent me the Steering Committee roster and copies of a few cancelled checks from sponsors. Missing were the other requested documents. The cover letter stated that “[r]edaction of the exempt material is based upon Cal.Govt. Code § 6254(c), on the grounds that release of such material would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
On November 21, 48 hills attorney Tom Burke asked Robert Baldridge, the director of UCLA Information Practices office “how privacy can be used as a basis for withholding the remaining records requested.”
Robert Baldridge replied: “Please know that no documents were withheld from the records we collected from the Institute Transportation Studies. The privacy exemption was only cited with regards to the bank account numbers found on pages 4, 5, and 6 of the attached, which were redacted.”
Burke shot back:
Regarding the CPRA matter, will you please confirm that no records were withheld from the documents received from the Institute of Transportation Studies?
Reviewing the records that UCLA produced, there was no response for the following:
· An itemized budget for the 2022 UCLA Lake Arrowhead Symposium;
· Contracts between UCLA and all the presenters at the 2022 Symposium; and
· All communications between the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, the Arrowhead Steering Committee, other UCLA offices, and any other parties involved in organizing, presenting, and/or funding the 2022 event.
Is it UCLA’s position that, after a diligent search, these records do not exist?
I look forward to your response.
Baldridge replied: “Yes, I am confirming that no records were withheld from the documents received from the Institute.”
On January 11, 2023, I emailed Matute. After summarizing the history of my Public Records Act request up to Baldridge’s statement that the University had already produced all responsive records in its possession, I asked: “Does that mean that the request budget contracts, and communications do not exist?”
Michelle Mattera knows as much about combating landlord deceit and abuse as any San Francisco tenant. She has fought three separate eviction attempts by different landlords in her 18 years at the edge of Pacific Heights and the Western Addition.
Michelle found her first eviction notice pinned at her door after her honeymoon in 2007. The landlord’s lawsuit claimed she had committed a nuisance by keeping a dog – a patently dishonest claim given the landlord’s prior consent about her pet. At times overwhelmed, she’s managed to withstand each lawsuit’s emotional, physical, and financial stress.
Dave Crow, then an attorney at the San Francisco Tenants Union, represented Michelle and successfully helped get the case thrown out. Michelle believes the case was retaliation for requesting repairs for the apartment, a beautiful 1907 Victorian that had fallen into disrepair. The Department of Building Inspection had issued over 75 citations on the property, but the owner refused to make needed repairs. Her eviction would mean the landlord could raise the rent to the market rate. “This is all about greed,” Michelle says.
After the lawsuit was defeated, the landlord held onto the property for many years before deciding to sell in 2015. At that point, Michelle experienced a “feeding frenzy” of realtors in her apartment who routinely violated the tenants’ privacy. She learned to assert her rights and demand that the realtors show identification before entering her home.
When the sale eventually went through, the new owner quickly attempted an owner move-in eviction, which Michelle also believed was fraudulent. The landlord withdrew their eviction case shortly after Tenderloin Housing Clinic began representing Michelle, opting to put the building back on the market again.
Faced with even more uncertainty, Michelle realized that “the vipers keep coming because they are so greedy.” The building was sold in 2018 to a group of real estate developers operating behind a shady LLC. They sought to buy out the tenants in the property. Michelle refused the offer, believing it to be wholly inadequate. If she were to accept the buyout, it would lock her out of affordable, rent-controlled housing in San Francisco forever.
The owners served her with an Ellis Act notice in late 2019, claiming they sought to exit the rental market. Michelle was represented by Steve Collier of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. After more than a year of litigation, the San Francisco Superior Court threw out the landlord’s case. The landlord appealed the ruling to the California Court of Appeal. Last August, the First Appellate District upheld the Superior Court ruling, affirming that the eviction notice was defective.
Despite the legal costs incurred by the landlord in their attempt to evict Michelle, she doesn’t believe they are finished, and it’s only a matter of time before they attempt another Ellis eviction. Legally nothing prevents the landlords from refiling as many times as necessary until they meet the procedural requirements under the Ellis Act. Michelle believes she has only been able to remain in her home because of the incompetence of her would-be evictors.
Michelle’s best hope for permanent housing security would be if the California legislature decided to finally take up the cause of reforming the Ellis Act. Meant initially to allow landlords to exit the rental market and keep their properties vacant, court rulings have expanded the law to enable conversions.
The consequences proved dire for tenants as real estate speculators have evicted tens of thousands, permanently reducing affordable housing stock. Reform attempts have sought to deter real estate speculation by requiring landlords to own a property for three years before evicting.
These attempts came close to passing the Assembly, but no legislator wants to sponsor the bill in the upcoming session. Until Sacramento takes fundamental tenant rights seriously, the cycle of speculation and displacement in California cities will continue (March 22 is the final date for an Ellis reform bill to be introduced).
Michelle’s experiences have prepared her for anything now. “I relish in pushing back against their money and power,” she says, but notes the consequences, “You don’t hear about the toll it takes. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in so long.”