When Matt Haney entered the California Parliament, he discovered that he was part of a small minority: a legislator who rents.
Mr. Haney has never owned property and, at 41, has spent his adult life as a renter. His primary residence is a one-bedroom apartment near downtown San Francisco. The rent is $3,258 per month. (He also paid a $300 deposit for Eddy and Ellis, two orange cats he adopted from a shelter during the pandemic.)
“When I got there last year, it seemed like there were only three of us out of 120,” Mr. Haney said of the tenants in the Legislature. “That’s a very small number.”
Seeking to highlight their renter status and the 17 million California households who are renters – just under half of the state – last year, Mr. Haney and two Assembly colleagues, Isaac Bryan and Alex Lee, founded the California Renters. A fourth assemblywoman, Tasha Boerner, joined after the caucus was formed. The group added a state senator, Aisha Wahab, after she took office this year.
Mr. Haney said there was briefly a sixth, more politically conservative member who attended one meeting but never returned. It’s possible they have other colleagues who are tenants and haven’t moved out yet.
“Being a tenant is not necessarily something that people design or put on their website,” Mr. Haney said.
That much seems to be changing. From cities and statehouses to the US Congress, elected officials are increasingly raising their status as renters and forming groups to advance renter policies.
Politics is about being relatable. Candidates pet dogs and hold babies and talk about their children. Considering how many families are struggling with the cost of housing and have lost hope that they could ever buy, it makes sense that elected officials should now start talking about being renters.
London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, talks often about her wolf-controlled residence in the Haight-Ashbury district of the city. Lindsey Horvathmember of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — the powerful body that oversees a $43 billion budget and more than 100,000 employees — preaches discussions about housing policy with her status as a tenant.
In June, federal lawmakers followed California with a tenant caucus of its own, although this one has looser criteria. Representative Jimmy Gomez, who is president of the Congress Tenants as well as a Democrat from Los Angelessaid instead of actual renters his group targeted members of renter-heavy districts, even if they own a home, as he does.
“Good elected officials will fight for their constituents no matter what,” Mr. Gomez said.
In addition, he added, the strictest definition of “tenant” can obscure economic insecurity. His parents, for example, were homeowners who never made more than $40,000 combined and lived in inland California without air conditioning. Other people own nothing but rent a $7,000-a-month penthouse.
“Are they considered the same?” he said.
Asked how many of his colleagues don’t own a home, Mr. Gomez said, “My gut is that it’s less than 10.”
In addition to advancing Democratic priorities such as subsidized housing and tenant protections, these lawmakers are making a bet that being perceived as pro-tenant is politically advantageous in an era in which a growing number of Americans rent for longer periods, and often for life. Mr. Haney and Mr. Gomez both describe their parties — subsets of lawmakers organized around a common goal — as first for their bodies. Which is easy to believe.
Home ownership is synonymous with the American dream. It is supported by various federal and state tax credits and so encoded in the American mythology and financial system that historians and anthropologists claim that it symbolized a permanent participation in society. The underlying message is that tenancy is temporary, or should be.
“There’s a pretty fundamental bias against renters in American sociological and political life,” said Jamila Michener, a professor of government and public policy at Cornell. “So when policymakers say, ‘Hey, this is an important identity, and one we’re willing to own and lean on,’ that’s significant.”
About two-thirds of Americans owns their residences, and survey after survey shows that the aspiration to own a home is no less powerful today than it was for previous generations. But the number of renters has steadily grown over the past decade to about 44 million homes nationwide, while punishing housing costs have migrated from coastal enclaves to metropolitan areas around the nation.
More salient to policymakers, perhaps, is that renters are increasingly affluent — households earning more than $75,000 have accounted for a large majority of renter growth over the past decade, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. At the same time, the struggle to find something affordable has escalated from low-income renters to middle-income families who in past generations would very likely have owned their homes.
In other words, renter households are now composed of families much more likely to vote. And after a pandemic in which homeowners made trillions in home-equity wealth while renters had to be propped up by eviction moratoriums and tens of billions in aid, the precariousness of their position became clearer.
“As cost burdens appear in places where we don’t expect it, there seems to be more political momentum in addressing these problems,” said Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Organizing around an economic condition, legislators embrace a concept that tenants call “tenants as a class.”
The idea is that while renters are a large and politically diverse group — poor families on the brink of eviction, high-income professionals renting by choice, couples whose desire for suburban living but inability to pay a down payment has made single-family homes one of the hottest corners of real estate — they still have common interests. These include the rising cost of housing and the instability of being on a lease.
“It’s a lens that I don’t think has been captured in the same way as race, gender, age, ability, etc.,” said Mr. Bryan, the member of the California Assembly and member of the tenants’ meeting whose district is in Los Angeles. “I am pleased to be among the first five legislators in the history of California to develop what is the political awareness around this status.”
That the ranks of tenants also include legislators, although not many of them, is one of the points that California legislators said they wanted to make by forming the tenants. It also plunged them into the surprisingly thorny question of who is and is not a tenant.
Does the list include legislators who rent an apartment in Sacramento but own a house or condominium in their district, a criteria that would qualify a good portion of the Legislature? The group decided not to. What about Mr. Lee, the assemblyman and tenant party member whose district residence is his childhood bedroom, in a home his mother owns? He doesn’t own property, so sure.
Despite having only five members, the California Renters Caucus, like the state it represents, is racially diverse but dominated by Democrats (there are no Republicans in the caucus). Its members are white, black and Asian. Mr. Lee is a member of Parliament LGBTQ meeting. Mrs. Wahab is the first a muslim american elected to the California Senate.
Politically speaking, the outlier is Tasha Boerner, who lives in the San Diego suburb of Encinitas and is the more conservative member of the caucus (as California Democrats go). Despite being the longest-serving member of the group in parliament, Mrs Boerner, 50, was not initially identified as a tenant by her colleagues in the tenants’ caucus.
“No one has ever called my office because I’m a white mom living in Encinitas,” she said. “They thought, ‘She must be a homeowner.’
Ms. Boerner often disagrees with her colleagues on the effectiveness of policies such as a rent freeze, she said, although she voted for a statewide rent freeze several years ago. She is also more skeptical of the state’s efforts to boost construction by taking land use control from cities, and she voted against a bill that effectively ended single-family zoning in the state.
And yet Ms. Boerner is also a lifelong tenant who has moved three times since taking office. Her current home is a three-bedroom apartment that she shares with her two children and her ex-husband, in part because it’s cheaper than if the parents had separate places.
“Families renting come in all shapes and sizes, and what I hope to bring is some diversity,” she said. “We have disagreements, like any party, but coming together and saying, ‘Hey, this is a demographic that matters’ – that’s the importance.”