RICHMOND, Calif. (CN) – A powerful landlord's group has sued to block a rent-control law passed by voters in the Bay Area city of Richmond this past fall, the group’s second fight in a month over voter-approved measures many believe could address the area’s housing crisis.
The California Apartment Association, an industry group that represents 50,000 landlords in the state, claims in a lawsuit filed Jan. 6 in Contra Costa County Superior Court that the Richmond law, known as Measure L, essentially steals from landlords and gifts the booty to tenants in a "windfall" that violates the U.S. and California constitutions.
The association wants the measure declared unconstitutional, and preliminary and permanent injunctions barring Richmond from enforcing it. It had also sought a temporary restraining order to immediately block the law, which took effect on Dec. 30, but Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Judith Craddick denied the request.
Craddick, however, scheduled an expedited hearing on the association’s request for the restraining order for Jan. 27.
"We were obviously disappointed the judge did not grant the temporary restraining order," Joshua Howard, the association’s senior vice president for Northern California, said. "However, we were encouraged that she recognized the various important issues raised in our complaint."
Measure L caps rent increases on apartment units built before 1995 to the rate of inflation – about three percent – and requires landlords to provide a valid reason for evicting a tenant, such as not paying rent. The initiative passed with 64 percent of the vote.
Though the suburb 15 minutes north of Oakland has thus far evaded the staggering rents found in much of the Bay Area, Richmond could become the epicenter of a legal battle that could see rent control overturned nationwide, according to Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, who has opposed rent-control measures in the city.
If the association loses its lawsuit, Butt said, it could appeal to the state and ultimately, to a U.S. Supreme Court shaped by President-elect Donald Trump that will be friendly toward landlords, he said.
"If it does in fact make it to the Supreme Court, it will most likely see a court that has new members appointed by Trump, so it's liable to be a conservative-oriented court," he said. "So it may be that this lawsuit has the best chance to prevail at the Supreme Court level."
Unless Craddick grants the association’s restraining order, however, rent control will move forward in Richmond while the case potentially winds its way up, a process that could take half a decade, Butt said.
Tenants' rights attorney Joseph Tobener of Tobener Ravenscroft in San Francisco said the lawsuit will more likely be thrown out of state court, as courts have routinely held local governments have a strong interest in protecting residents, such as the elderly, from being displaced.
Nor does Tobener believe the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear the case, which he said has repeatedly upheld the legitimacy of rent control.
"I don't see rent control being overturned," he said. "It's already well settled."