The message Xochitl Rodríguez had for her Delano City Council members during the April 3 meeting was clear, strong and to the point: “I don’t want to be 27 (years old) and still live with my mom.”
Like Rodríguez, more and more people are having housing affordability challenges, due to either inflationary factors such as the increase in construction costs or directly to the shortage of homes.
According to a recent study by Habitat for Humanity, the United States has a deficit of 3.8 million homes, with the greatest supply shortages at low-income price points. The 2022 State of the Nation’s Housing Report describes the deficit as a fundamental driver of affordability challenges.
Locally, the housing crisis greatly affects tenants living in rural towns in the Central Valley, in many cases with seasonal agricultural jobs and incomes that do not go hand in hand with the increase in costs of rents.
As is the case of Oralia Pérez, a 68-year-old retired woman, who said she pays $1,000 for a room in a two-bedroom house. The $840 she receives from her Social Security pension is not enough to cover her housing expenses, so she is forced to work five months a year in agriculture.
“I started paying $900 and now I pay $1,000, and they told me that in April I will pay more,” Pérez told the Council. “We can’t make it with that. It’s not right, it’s not fair.”
Both the testimony of Rodríguez and Pérez and the participation of several others who attended the City Council meeting were the result of an organized movement that began years earlier during the Covid-19 pandemic.
More than 20 people, among them residents and young activists, voiced their concerns regarding the need for affordable housing and asked Delano officials to pass a rent stabilization ordinance proposed by the community through the organizing work of the Fair Housing Coalition.
“Some of you campaigned on supporting the issue (rent control). I hope that you honor that,” said José Orellana, organizer and co-founder of LOUD for Tomorrow, before the Council members cast their vote.
LOUD for Tomorrow is a youth organization that is part of the Housing Justice Coalition, which includes groups such as Central Valley Empowerment Alliance (CVEA), Delano Guardians, Tenants Together and Unidad Popular Benito Juarez, among others.
According to Orellana, the average monthly cost for a two-bedroom apartment in Delano is $1,468, difficult to afford not only for tenants with seasonal agricultural jobs but also for workers in other occupations.
Another resident, who said he works full-time for Amazon, shared his problems finding housing. With a monthly salary of $2,500 and a family with seven children, he said he is not allowed in a two-bedroom house, which is what he can afford with his income.
A home with more rooms is out of reach for him. “Paying $1,700 in rent is very hard for us; not even working more than 40 hours,” he says. “I still don’t qualify. With these prices, it is impossible.”
Although the ordinance did not pass, with Council Member Liz Morris and Mayor Pro Tem Salvador Solorio-Ruiz voting against it, a housing study was approved instead. The study, proposed by Council Member Veronica Vasquez, will evaluate the costs and feasibility of implementing such a measure.
Vasquez, who has shown support for the ordinance, urged her fellow Council members to stop postponing the matter. “Why must we continue to put this on hold, why do we have to depend on other people?” Vasquez asked.
“I’m here now and ready to be part of the solution,” she said, “Why be so resistant? The study is going to bring everyone to the table to come up with solutions.”
Mayor Joe L. Alindajao was absent and Council Member Mario Nunes Jr. excused himself. Both are landlords, and Nunes did not take part in the discussions.
How It All Started
Pérez said that she had been following the news about the rent discussion for a couple of months before her participation in the Council meeting.
“I would watch in the news how they were talking about the Council and meetings; where are these meetings taking place, I want to go,” Pérez said she would question herself.
“I was tired of seeing the rent going up and up and spending all the money on that.”
One day, she found out that one of her neighbors, Gina Martinez, was a volunteer organizer for Delano Guardians, and Pérez was invited to attend their meetings. “I did have a little fear, to tell you the truth, but I was upset that rents are very expensive and houses are in poor condition,” Perez said, and added that in her current home she has access to a bathroom and a small kitchen. Her landlord charges her a flat fee for water but never shows her the original bill.
“Oftentimes [tenants] don’t dare to report damages for fear of being evicted,” said Anaí Paniagua, a co-founder and organizer of LOUD for Tomorrow.
Although the youth organization has existed since 2018, as a fiscal project of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE), it was in 2020 when they went into full organizing around the housing issue.
According to Paniagua, after a series of unjust evictions due to the lack of employment generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, they began to organize town meetings to find ways to help their community. “Technically we didn’t have funding, we only had one staff member, but we realized other organizations were talking about the same subject.”
This was how they approached Tenants Together, an organization that, according to Paniagua, “has provided us with valuable technical help and guidance.”
Work in Fresno
“In Delano, they have been organizing around rent control for over a year. I was reached out [to] by the Central Valley Empowerment Alliance (CVEA), [so] we got the organizations together and formed the coalition,” said Shar Thompson, Tenants Together’s Central Valley regional coordinator.
“Our working people who work in the fields are paying more than 60% of their monthly income in rent,” Thompson said. “Having to choose between housing or food makes it harder for people.”
According to Thompson, Merced is currently the only city in the Central Valley with a rent control ordinance, although it is only for emergency situations.
The work being done in Delano, mainly with the involvement of young people, is inspiring, according to Thompson. “They inspire us to move forward and be more creative in organizing.”
“In Fresno, we are further behind,” she added. “We urge [Fresno City] Council members to put it on the agenda as they did in Delano. But none of our Council members believe a rent control ordinance should be imposed in Fresno.”
According to Thompson, Fresno City Council members believe the issue is a matter of supply and demand and that a rent control ordinance would affect development and cause mom-and-pop landlords to go bankrupt and lose their homes. These are the same arguments that most opponents of rent control use.
“We believe rent control is one major piece to make cities more affordable to live in,” Thompson said. “It also helps the community to put more money in renters’ pockets, which they end up spending back in the local economy.”
According to Tenants Together, about 54% of Fresno households are renter-occupied and the average price of an apartment in Fresno is $1,400. Thompson said there are other groups in Fresno currently working on rent control campaigns.
Proposed Ordinance and Current Legislation
During the organizing process, Paniagua said they realized that the Delano City Council was not showing sufficient commitment to the community.
Although former Mayor Bryan Osorio had instructed City staff to draft a rent stabilization program back in December, the issue was not included in the City’s general plan for 2030.
“The City Council did not engage with the community to look for solutions, it was as if they told us ‘this is how things cannot be done,’” Paniagua said and added that no one was advocating during Delano’s Council meetings.
“We got the ball rolling, and we want to hold [Council members] accountable,” she said.
Currently, California has a state tenant protection law (AB 1482) that restricts rent increases to no more than 5% plus inflation in any 12-month period, or 10%, whichever is lower.
The proposed ordinance in Delano would limit increases to 70% of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and restrict rent increases to no more than 3% in any five-year period.
The CPI is a monthly inflation indicator that measures the percentage change in the price of goods and services consumed by households within the country.
The City Council members that voted against the rent control measure argued similar reasons as those exposed by some landlords who attended the meeting. Gabriel Rodriguez, a 60-year-old retiree, said he was a landlord “worried about the future” because he invested in rental properties to pay for his children’s education.
Another landlord invited the community to work together and “to be careful with outside voices,” he said in clear reference to the outside guidance Delano tenants are receiving from organizations. Both asked the Council to make the best decision.
Council Member Morris and Mayor Pro Tem Solorio-Ruiz defended their decision citing supply-and-demand reasons and said the measure would create costs to the City in consulting and legal fees as well as other administrative expenses. They also said the ordinance could cause an incremental increase in property taxes.
Both denied running on a rent-control campaign platform.
“I didn’t make such a promise, I don’t know where you got that from,” Morris said.
Solorio-Ortiz said that he spoke of the housing crisis during his campaign but made no promises on rent control. “This idea that I campaigned on rent control is not true,” he said. “I campaigned to tackle the housing crisis. Other than that, we never heard of this (rent control) and no one brought this forward.”
Far from feeling defeated by the non-approval of the ordinance, the young activists and the coalition see the positive side. With the decision to conduct the housing study, the City’s resources, such as City lawyers, will be involved in the drafting of a new proposal.
“We take the measure as a step forward,” Paniagua said, “Our ancestors will be happy. We are drawing the blueprint on how to do it” she said in reference to the farmworker movement in the 1960s led by activist Cesar Chavez to obtain better working conditions that originated in Delano.
“We are learning as we go and want to set an example for other cities in the Valley,” she said. Paniagua also mentioned the coalition is considering taking the measure to the polls and letting voters decide.
“What Vice-Mayor Solorio said denying what he promised during his campaign is a complete lie,” says Arturo Rodríguez, organizing director of the CVEA. “He campaigned hard on this. But he should not forget that people still vote, and they can make sure he does not get elected again. It’s just the way politics works in general.”