“¡Escuchen todos!” announces Angel Carvajal, a volunteer with Tenants United Santa Ana (Tú Santa Ana), in front of an Orange County Transportation Authority bus. With El Centro Cultural de Mexico organizer Gema Suarez by her side, the duo make the case for rent control to working-class people whose daily commutes consist of waiting in the heat for their next ride. They canvass for signatures seat by seat and are met with gratitude; most of the bus riders are renters.
Tú Santa Ana has been somewhat unorthodox in its grassroots approach, but that’s exactly what makes it different from well-funded, nonprofit-driven campaigns. “We really wanted it to be a campaign that’s community led,” says Jonathan Bibriesca, a proponent for the City of Santa Ana Rent Stabilization and Renters’ Rights Act.
Despite thinking outside the box, Tú Santa Ana missed an opportunity to take rent control to the ballot box in November. Bibriesca says they’ve gathered about 70 percent of the 9,854 required signatures, too few in time for the Aug. 3 deadline for the November election, but more than enough to make an Oct. 15 deadline for the 2020 ballot very plausible.
Rents are sure to rise in Santa Ana in the next two years, but this isn’t the end of the fight for tenants rights in a city that is 56 percent renter-occupied.
The very idea of rent control is increasing in popularity. The Affordable Housing Act, also known as Proposition 10, is even on the statewide ballot this year. It would repeal Costa Hawkins, a law that prohibits rent control (if cities even have it) from being applied to certain buildings built after 1995, among other actions. Yet tenants rights activists in Southern California cities like Long Beach, Inglewood, Glendale, Pasadena, and Santa Ana all failed to gather enough signatures to get on the November ballot.
By contrast, a coalition of labor unions organizing in Anaheim for Disney Resort workers gathered more than 20,000 signatures in just weeks to put a living wage ordinance on the ballot. Critics of Tú Santa Ana have wondered why they couldn’t do the same, but their path to the ballot box has been markedly different. With an uncaring city council, Tú Santa Ana formed a budding coalition in trying to put the issue of rent control directly before voters. Most of the organizations within the coalition like Vecindario Lacy en Accion, Chispa, Protege Santa Ana, Chicanos Unidos, El Centro Cultural de Mexico, and Latino Health Access, are smaller-scaled.
Before they could even begin gathering signatures, they first had to raise funds to officially post a “notice of intent to circulate petition,” which comes with a $200 fee, and cover the printing costs for the ballot petitions themselves. But on top of all of the logistics of running a campaign, many of the volunteers gathering signatures work full-time jobs outside of Tú Santa Ana.
“Most of the people collecting signatures are people that have themselves been evicted or intimidated,” Bibriesca says. “The amount of resources we have is very limited. Nonetheless, we have collected the amount of signatures that we have with just volunteers.”
Tú Santa Ana began gathering signatures the first week of May with hopes of getting rent control on the November 2018 ballot. After missing the benchmark, they’ve adjusted their strategy and now have 2020 in their sights. These next two years gives Tú Santa Ana enough time to speak with more community members and create support systems for tenants facing eviction, intimidation, and rent increases.
“The most important thing is inviting them to be part of the movement and ensuring that we build a strong tenants movement in Santa Ana,” Bibriesca says.
Community members can expect more “Know Your Rights” workshops and a rapid response team specifically for renters who need advice or help. But for many residents, two years is a long time to wait. Idalia Rios, a community organizer for both Tú Santa Ana and Vecindario Lacy en Accion, has been living paycheck to paycheck these past few months since her rent was increased by $200. “Right now, I have no dollars in my pocket because I had to pay rent,” Rios, a single mother, says. “I’m just trying to stretch my budget as much as I can.”