By Agnes Constante

LOS ANGELES — Organizers in communities of color are split over a California ballot initiative that would repeal restrictions on rent control amid the state’s affordable housing crisis.

The measure, known as Proposition 10, would repeal an existing state law that excludes single-family homes and any housing built on or after Feb. 1, 1995 from rent-control ordinances and prohibits local governments from dictating what landlords can charge new renters.

If the proposition passes, cities would have the ability to regulate rent for any housing and limit how much landlords can increase rent for new tenants.

The most rent burdened Californians are blacks and Latinos, according to data analysis published in a 2018 report by the state of California. But groups that serve communities of color are split on whether Proposition 10 would do more good or harm. Advocates argue that it could offer relief for those who are struggling to cope with rising rent, but opponents say it would exacerbate the state's housing crisis.

Joan Ling, a lecturer in urban planning at UCLA and proponent of the measure, said California's housing crisis is the worst it's ever been and Proposition 10 would offer protection for renters.

More than 53 percent of all renter households in California spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent with nearly 29 percent spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent, according to the state report. Nearly all Californians who are extremely-low income or below the poverty line are rent burdened.

“These people are one paycheck from being homeless, as well as one major rent increase, from being homeless,” Ling said. “And because low-income renters and low-income communities, as well as communities of color, are more likely to be renters, Prop 10 will open local cities' ability to protect these communities of renters if the city chooses to do that.”

Critics say the measure does not address the state's housing shortage, which is the reason for California's high rent, according to the California Legislative Analyst's Office, the state legislature's nonpartisan fiscal and policy adviser.

“It is not at all solving our problem of getting more housing, and instead it’s this very misguided attempt to unnaturally put a cap on rental prices potentially,” said Jamarah Hayner, vice chair of the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce and an opponent of Proposition 10.

A House Divided

Opponents and proponents of the initiative agree that something must be done to tackle the housing crisis, but disagree over the potential effects of the proposition.

“While rent control is not perfect, it has been successful at preserving some socioeconomic diversity in very expensive areas,” California state Assemblymember David Chiu, whose district includes part of San Francisco, said in an email. “Proposition 10 will give communities of color a chance to remain in the neighborhoods they have called home for decades."

Aarti Kohli — executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, a civil rights advocacy group — said in an email that many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders depend on rent control to live and work in their neighborhoods.

She added that the existing law has made it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing and that residents who live in these units are often forced out of their homes by economic pressures or by landlords who know they can raise rent prices between tenants.

“Proposition 10 represents a meaningful opportunity to act on this injustice by repealing a law that harms renters and incentivizes the harassment of tenants by landlords eager to profit from California’s skyrocketing housing costs,” Kohli said.

Image: The San Francisco skyline in May 2015
The San Francisco skyline in May 2015.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Opponents argue that it's not about earning excessive profits for people of color who own rental properties and houses. For some, investing in real estate serves as a pension plan that could be jeopardized if a city decides to cap what property owners can charge, Hayner said.

“We’re not just talking about putting rent control in big apartment buildings,” she said. “It’s for people like my mother who from time to time need to rent a room in their house to be able to make ends meet.”

Opponents also worry that if Proposition 10 passes, new rent regulations could further stifle California's already sluggish housing production.

If that happens, black business owners who provide services that are crucial in the home building process – such as construction and plumbing – would be affected, Hayner said. She added that she's noticed a growing number of members in her organization getting involved in construction trades.

“The young African-American contractor who’s just getting a start, he or she is probably going to be the first one pushed out if there’s less housing production,” she said.

According to the California Department of Housing and Community Development, approximately 1.8 million new housing units need to be built between 2015 and 2025 to meet California's projected population and household growth. Over the last decade, the state has produced an average of less than 80,000 homes per year, according to the state report.

Studies on the impact of rent control are mixed.

One by Stanford University's Graduate School of Business found that landlords in San Francisco responded to rent control by redeveloping rental units or converting them into condos exempt from rent regulations, resulting in a 15 percent reduction in available rental housing supply and likely causing higher rents over the long term, authors wrote.

In a report from the University of Southern California, researchers noted that tenants living in rent controlled units in the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica pay lower rent compared to non-rent controlled units. They also wrote that rent regulation offers housing stability and can be particularly beneficial for low-income individuals and people of color.

Despite a sharp contrast in views, advocates for communities of color on both sides of the issue agree that the long-term solution to California's housing crisis is to build more housing that caters to multiple income levels.

Steven Maviglio, spokesperson for the No on Prop 10 campaign, said in an email that the group supports two other California ballot measures – Propositions 1 and 2 – which would fund veterans and affordable housing, and housing for individuals with mental illness.

“Rent control is not the panacea,” Ling, the UCLA lecturer, said. “It’s really a short term solution to help with stabilizing renters’ ability to stay in their homes while the state and local cities sort out the longer term land use policies that need to be in place to create and produce more housing for people in every category on the income spectrum.”

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