When Matt Haney entered the California State Legislature, he discovered he was part of a small minority: a legislator for hire.
Mr. Hani has never owned any property and has spent his 41 years as a tenant. His primary residence is a one-bedroom apartment near downtown San Francisco. The rent is $3,258 per month. (He’s also paid a $300 deposit for Eddy and Ellis, two orange kittens he adopted from a shelter during the pandemic.)
“When I got there last year, there seemed to be only three of us out of 120,” Mr. Haney said of the legislature’s tenants. “That’s a very small number.”
In order to highlight the state of their own renter and the 17 million California households that rent—just under half the state—last year, Mr. Haney and two fellow associations, Isaac Bryan and Alex Lee, founded the California Tenants Caucus. A fourth caucus member, Tasha Boerner, joined after the caucus was formed. The group added Senator Aisha Wahab after taking office this year.
Mr Hani said there was briefly a sixth, more politically conservative member who attended one meeting but never returned. It’s possible that they have other housemates rented and haven’t moved out yet.
“Being a renter isn’t necessarily something people plan to do or put on their website,” said Mr. Hani.
It seems like a lot is changing. From cities and government homes to the US Congress, elected officials are increasingly playing up their status as renters and forming groups to lobby for renter-friendly policies.
Politics is about being relevant. Candidates pet dogs, hold babies, and talk about their babies. Given the number of families who are struggling with the cost of housing and have given up on ever being able to purchase it, it only makes sense that elected officials would now start talking about being renters.
London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, speaks frequently of her rented apartment in the city’s Haight-Ashbury district. Lindsey Horvatha member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors—the powerful body that oversees the $43 billion budget and more than 100,000 employees—supports housing policy discussions with her tenant status.
In June, federal lawmakers followed California with a caucus for renters, though that council has looser criteria. Actor Jimmy Gomez, who heads up Congressional Landlords Caucus as well as a Democrat from Los AngelesInstead of actual renters, he said, his group targeted members from densely populated neighborhoods, even if they owned a home, as he does.
“Good elected officials will fight for their constituents, no matter what,” Mr. Gomez said.
Besides, he added, a stricter definition of “tenant” could obscure economic insecurity. His parents, for example, were homeowners who never made more than $40,000 together and lived in inland California without air conditioning. Other people have nothing to do but rent a $7,000-a-month penthouse.
“Do they consider the same thing?” He said.
When asked how many of his colleagues are homeless, Mr. Gomez said, “My hunch is that it’s less than 10.”
In addition to advancing Democratic priorities like subsidized housing and renter protection, these lawmakers are betting that being seen as pro-tenant is politically advantageous in an era when more and more Americans rent for longer periods, often for life. Both Mr. Hani and Mr. Gomez describe their caucuses — subgroups of lawmakers organized around a common goal — as the first for their bodies. Which is easy to believe.
Homeownership is synonymous with The American dream. It is backed by numerous state and federal tax breaks, and is so encoded in American mythology and the financial system that historians and anthropologists maintain that it has come to symbolize an enduring involvement in society. The underlying message is that rent is temporary, or should be.
“There is a foundational anti-tenant bias in American social and political life,” said Jamila Michener, a professor of government and public policy at Cornell University. “So when policy makers say, ‘Hey, this is a relevant identity, an identity that we’re willing to have and rely on,’ that counts.”
About two-thirds of Americans They own their homesAnd survey after survey shows that the aspiration to own a home is just as effective today as it was in previous generations. But the number of tenants has grown steadily over the past decade to approx 44 million households Nationwide, while penalizing housing costs migrated from coastal enclaves to metropolitan areas across the nation.
Perhaps most notable to politicians is that renters are getting richer — households making more than $75,000 account 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 escalated from low-income renters to middle-income families who, in past generations, would have been very likely to own their own homes.
In other words, tenant households now consist of families more likely to vote. And after a pandemic in which homeowners gained trillions in homeownership wealth while tenants had to be supported with an eviction moratorium and tens of billions in aid, the fragility of their situation has become even more apparent.
“With cost burdens emerging in places where we least expect them, there appears to be more political momentum around addressing these problems,” said Whitney Airgood Obrecki, senior research associate at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
By organizing around an economic state, legislators are adopting a concept that tenant advocates refer to as “tenants as a class.”
The idea is that while renters are a large and politically diverse group—low-income families on the verge of eviction, high-income professionals renting by choice, couples whose desire to live in the suburbs but their inability to afford a down payment has made single-family home rents one of the most important pillars of the real estate business—they still have common interests. These include the increasing costs of housing and the instability of the lease.
“It’s a lens that I don’t think was captured in the same way as race, gender, age, ability, et cetera,” said Mr. Bryan, a California assemblyman and a Los Angeles renter association member. “I am excited to be among the first five legislators in California history to develop political awareness about this situation.”
The ranks of the renters also include legislators, though not as many of them, is one point California lawmakers said they wanted to make by forming the renters caucus. It also plunged them into the surprisingly thorny question of who is a tenant and who is not.
Does the list include legislators who rent a residence in Sacramento but own a home or condominium in their area, a criterion that would qualify a large portion of the legislature? The group decided not. What about Mr. Lee, a member of the Society and a member of the tenants’ pool, whose domestic residence is his childhood bedroom, in a house owned by his mother? He doesn’t own property, for sure.
Although it has only five members, the charter caucus in California, like the state it represents, is racially diverse but controlled by Democrats (there are no Republicans in the caucus). Its members are white, black and Asian. Mr. Lee is a member of the legislature gay gathering. Mrs. Wahab is the first Muslim American Elected to the California Senate.
Politically, the outlier is Tasha Boerner, who lives in Encinitas, a suburb of San Diego, and is the most conservative member of the caucus (as California Democrats go). Despite being the group’s longest-serving member in the legislature, Ms. Boerner, 50, was not initially identified as a tenant by her fellow tenants.
“No one ever called my office because I’m a white mom who lives in Encinitas,” she said. “They thought, ‘You must be a homeowner.'” “
Ms. Boerner frequently disagrees with colleagues about the effectiveness of policies like rent control, she said, even though she voted for a statewide rent cap several years ago. She is also more skeptical of the state’s efforts to speed construction by controlling land use from cities, and she voted against a bill that effectively ended single-family zoning in the state.
However, Mrs. Boerner is also a tenant for life and has moved three times since taking over. Her current home is a three-bedroom apartment that she shares with her two children and ex-husband, in part because it is cheaper than if the parents had separate quarters.
“Families who rent come in all shapes and sizes, and what I hope to achieve is a little bit of diversity,” she said. “We have disagreements, like any caucus, but we come together and say, ‘Hey, this is an important demographic’ — that’s the importance.”