California Has Most Rent-Burdened Tenants in US. We Need Rent Control.

Housing Is A Human Right
3 min readJan 7, 2023

California has more rent-burdened tenants than anywhere in the United States, according to a new report by the O.C. Register. It’s more proof that California desperately needs to end statewide rent control restrictions — and allow localities to create new or expanded rent control policies.

This week, the O.C. Register reported dreadful statistics about the plight of California tenants. The most worrying one is that 3.2 million tenants in California are rent burdened, which means people are spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs. No other state in the nation has more rent-burdened residents.

In addition, the O.C. Register reported, “California tenants suffered the sixth-biggest rent-cost inflation [in the U.S.] in 2016–21 — up 27 percent.” Only Idaho, Washington state, Nevada, and Arizona saw a bigger increase.

One result of sky-high rents is overcrowding: more tenants are now jamming themselves into a single apartment in California than any other state.

“In 2021,” the O.C. Register noted, “the typical California rental unit has 2.73 people — the highest in the nation. №2 was Hawaii at 2.67, then Utah at 2.51, Nevada at 2.49, and Mississippi at 2.45.”

Shocking numbers, but not surprising.

Not long ago, Zillow, the real estate site, found that tenants in numerous California cities paid landlords staggering sums in rent in 2019. In Los Angeles, renters shelled out $39.1 billion to landlords — only New York City tenants paid more. San Francisco renters paid $16.4 billion; San Diego tenants shelled out $10.3 billion; Riverside renters handed over $7.4 billion; San Jose tenants paid $6.5 billion; and Sacramento tenants delivered $4.8 billion to landlords.

Overall, Zillow reported, U.S. renters paid landlords a massive $4.5 trillion in rent during the 2010s.

At the same time, homelessness has skyrocketed in Los Angeles and throughout California, which also isn’t surprising. According to another Zillow report, in U.S. cities where people spend more than 32 percent of their take-home pay on rent, a spike in homelessness will follow. As one example of the devastation that’s caused, LA School Report found last year that more than 51,000 students in L.A. public schools are homeless.

In response, more and more Californians support the need to pass rent control. In Pomona, rent control was approved last August by the City Council after activists pushed for the policy, and Pasadena advocates convinced voters to pass rent control through a ballot measure this past November.

But because of statewide rent control restrictions in California, those policies are handcuffed, only applying to a limited number of people. Housing justice organizations, social justice groups, and labor unions have recently tried to change those restrictions through statewide ballot measures, but Big Real Estate spent a total of $175.4 million to successfully kill both initiatives.

Updated rent control policies will undoubtedly help the millions of California tenants who are rent burdened. Prominent studies released by USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley found that rent control will quickly stabilize the housing affordability crisis and prevent people from falling into homelessness.

Rent control is just one tool to address the housing affordability and homelessness crises.

Housing Is A Human Right has long been advocating for the “3 Ps”: protect tenants through rent control and other protections; preserve existing affordable housing, not demolish it to make way for luxury housing; and produce new affordable housing through the adaptive reuse of existing buildings and pre-fab modular housing.

It’s a multi-pronged strategy that directly, and urgently, helps the poor and middle- and working-class residents, who are getting hit hardest by the housing affordability and homelessness crises.

Numerous studies over the years point to one thing: California needs rent control, where predatory landlords, especially corporate landlords, continue to squeeze every last penny out of renters, with disastrous results.

Patrick Range McDonald, the author of this article, is the award-winning advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right.

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Housing Is A Human Right

Housing Is A Human Right is the housing advocacy division of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. We fight for what’s right.