Special Investigation: California Apartment Association’s Deep-Pocketed Campaign To Kill Tenant Protections
The California Apartment Association, the landlord lobbying group, is one of the most powerful organizations in California. It shapes, and stops, housing policies in the back rooms of the State Capitol Building in Sacramento, and fights to kill local tenant protections in city halls throughout the state. The CAA’s influence on California politicians has been enormous, but not deeply examined. Until now.
For this special investigation, Housing Is A Human Right pored over state campaign contribution filings of the California Apartment Association’s four political committees. We reveal, perhaps for the first time, the true extent of the California Apartment Association’s deep-pocketed reach to influence city, county, and state politicians through campaign cash — and the corporate landlords and major real estate companies who bankroll it. California’s 17 millions renters, who desperately need protection against the runaway greed of Big Real Estate, are suffering the bad consequences.
The California Apartment Association, based in Sacramento, is helmed by longtime chief executive officer Tom Bannon. Under his leadership, the CAA has become known for hard-ball tactics and an aggressive dislike for tenant protections, especially rent control — the CAA will show up anywhere in California to quash a budding rent control movement. On the statewide level, the CAA led campaigns, which were heavily funded by corporate landlords, that defeated rent control ballot measures in 2018 and 2020. (Those initiatives, Prop 10 in 2018 and Prop 21 in 2020, were sponsored by AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the parent organization of Housing Is A Human Right.)
The California Apartment Association also backed state legislation that aimed to deregulate land-use protections in cities and allow developers to build more luxury housing in middle- and working-class neighborhoods — wide-reaching policies that activists said would generate massive profits for the real estate industry, but would fuel gentrification and higher rents, the displacement of middle- and working-class residents who can’t afford rising rents and new luxury housing, and more evictions and homelessness.
The California Apartment Association’s harmful impact on renters cannot be overstated. As California’s housing affordability crisis worsened, and corporate landlords and predatory landlords kept charging higher and higher rents, housing justice activists, on the state and local levels, sought to pass stronger protections for tenants. But what stood in their way, time and again, was the California Apartment Association.
In 2019, for example, the CAA threatened to repeal newly passed tenant protections in El Cerrito through a ballot measure. Once the organization got enough signatures through a misleading petition drive, El Cerrito City Council members folded — and repealed the protections themselves.
“It was another example of CAA’s power,” El Cerrito activist Karina Ioffee told Housing Is A Human Right. “It was a joke. At that moment, it became clear to me that getting anything through the City Council was going to be next to impossible.”
The City Council’s shocking reversal took place in late July 2019. Perhaps by coincidence, or perhaps not, the California Apartment Association Issues Committee delivered campaign contributions, in October 2019, totaling $3,200 to El Cerrito’s “Yes on H” campaign, which sought funding for the city’s parks and pools. Who placed Measure H on the local ballot? The El Cerrito City Council.
That’s just one of the disturbing findings in this report.
For our investigation, we examined the state filings of campaign contributions made by the California Apartment Association’s political committees in 2019 and 2020, a crucial period when many state and local politicians were running for election. We also looked at who funded the CAA’s committees in 2019 and 2020, and essentially used the California Apartment Association as a middle man to deliver campaign cash to politicians at every level of government in California — from cities to counties to state.
The California Apartment Association operates four political committees: the California Apartment Association Housing Solutions Committee, the California Apartment Association Issues Committee, the California Apartment Association Independent Expenditure Committee, and the California Apartment Association Political Action Committee. Each of these committees raised and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, in 2019 and 2020, according to state filings.
The CAA Political Action Committee, for example, contributed $2.4 million to city, county, and state politicians and political committees in 2019 and 2020. That includes $50,000 to the Fresno Chamber of Commerce Independent Expenditure Committee; a $5,000 contribution to Nate Miley for Alameda County Supervisor; $4,700 to Evan Low for State Assembly and $5,000 to Evan Low Ballot Measure: Committee to Innovate for California’s Future; two contributions of $2,200 each to Scott Wiener for State Senate; and contributions of $2,700 and $300 to Toni Atkins for State Senate and contributions of $10,000 and $5,000 to Assembly Speaker Emeritus Toni Atkins Ballot Measure Committee: California Works.
The funding for the California Apartment Association Political Action Committee came from hundreds of small contributors who were LLCs or property owners or property managers, among others. But a group of corporate landlords and major real estate companies shelled out many of the largest contributions to the CAA PAC. Irvine Company Apartment Communities, led by billionaire Donald Bren, delivered $125,510. Multi-millionaire Tod Spieker, a major landlord in Northern California, gave $51,700. Equity Residential, one of the largest corporate landlords in the nation and led by billionaire Sam Zell, shelled out $7,012. And, among many other heavyweights, Woodmont Real Estate Services, a major real estate company in Northern California, handed over $45,291.
That money from corporate landlords and prominent real estate companies was then sent, through the California Apartment Association Political Action Committee, to political committees and city, county, and state politicians, such as state senators Scott Wiener and Toni Atkins.
The CAA PAC, in other words, was used as a kind of shell committee by corporate landlords and real estate companies to make campaign contributions under the radar — and to help them to stay out of the spotlight.
Big Real Estate, in fact, fully embraced the misdirection of funding, sending huge contributions to one CAA political committee that would ultimately end up in the account of a different CAA committee. A prime example is the California Apartment Association Independent Expenditure Committee.
In 2019 and 2020, Equity Residential sent contributions totaling $125,000 to the CAA Independent Expenditure Committee, according to state filings. Avalon Bay Communities, another corporate landlord that’s one of the biggest in the U.S., gave $55,515. Woodmont Real Estate Services shelled out $118,919. Essex Property Trust, a corporate landlord that’s also one of the largest in the country, handed over $465,682. Camden Property Trust, another corporate landlord, delivered $21,200. Prometheus Real Estate Group, a major landlord in the Bay Area, shelled out $54,190. And Sares Regis Operating Company, a corporate landlord, gave $124,825.
The CAA Independent Expenditure Committee then pulled off two moves for Equity Residential, Essex Property Trust, and the other big-time landlords.
First, the CAA Independent Expenditure Committee delivered the corporate landlords’ cash to numerous political committees, such as Supporting Ardy Kassakhian for Glendale City Council 2020 ($25,000), Taxpayers Supporting (Jim) Ridenour for State Senate 2020 ($92,295), Silicon Valley Jobs PAC ($125,000), and Equality California PAC ($117,500), among others.
Second, the CAA Independent Expenditure Committee sent $35,000 to the California Apartment Association Housing Solutions Committee. The California Apartment Association PAC, another committee funded by corporate landlords and major real estate companies, contributed $260,000 to the CAA’s Housing Solutions Committee.
The CAA’s Housing Solutions Committee then made contributions that supported politicians running for local office in San Jose, Culver City, San Bruno, Glendale, Burbank, San Mateo, Millbrae, and Pasadena. In many of these cities, housing justice activists had been pushing for rent control or other tenant protections. Big Real Estate and the California Apartment Association countered that with campaign cash.
Influencing politicians with campaign contributions has been a key strategy for the California Apartment Association and the real estate industry. So much so, the CAA delivered campaign cash, in 2019 and 2020, to state assembly and state senate members or candidates and related political committees in nearly every county in California — 51 counties out of 58. The only counties that weren’t touched by the CAA and corporate landlords were in the northeast section of California: Lassen, Modoc, Nevada, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, and Siskiyou. Operating in one of the largest states in the U.S., the length and breadth of CAA’s campaign financing effort is astounding.
The California Apartment Association, and the real estate industry that funds the CAA’s political committees, didn’t only curry favor with state politicians. Leaving no stone unturned, they contributed, with gusto, to city and county politicians and related political committees throughout California in 2019 and 2020. The list is long, but worth reporting in full.
In addition to the cities mentioned previously, CAA and Big Real Estate shelled out campaign cash to local politicians or local political committees in Sacramento, Sacramento County, San Mateo County, Orange County, Davis, Elk Grove, Santa Ana, Laguna Niguel, Fresno, San Diego, San Diego County, San Francisco, Long Beach, Santa Clara, Santa Clara County, San Joaquin County, Alameda County, Los Angeles County, the city of Los Angeles, Riverside County, Fresno County, Placer County, San Bernardino, Costa Mesa, Stockton, Concord, Riverside, Richmond, Anaheim, Rialto, Menifee, San Leandro, Burlingame, La Quinta, Downey, Pomona, Orange, Fullerton, Tustin, Lodi, Rancho Cucamonga, Victorville, Murrieta, Palm Desert, Jurupa Valley, Moreno Valley, El Cerrito, South San Francisco, Temecula, Indio, Daly City, Mountain View, Pleasanton, Hemet, Corona, Lake Elsinore, Union City, Fremont, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Yorba Linda, Redwood City, Belmont, San Carlos, Pacifica, Newark, Campbell, Foster City, Bell Gardens, El Monte, Rancho Cordova, Roseville, Cupertino, Dublin, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Antioch, Hesperia, Rocklin, Milpitas, Alhambra, Walnut Creek, and Folsom.
No wonder housing justice activists had trouble getting politicians to pass tenant protections in California’s cities and counties, and renters kept paying outrageous sums to landlords. In 2019 alone, Los Angeles tenants shelled out a total of $39.1 billion in rent to landlords — only New York City renters paid more. That same year, San Francisco renters paid $16.4 billion; San Diego tenants forked over $10.3 billion; and Riverside renters paid $7.4 billion. Renters in San Jose and Sacramento shelled out $6.5 billion and $4.8 billion, respectively. All of these cities landed on Zillow’s list of top 35 U.S. metro areas that paid the most rent to landlords in 2019.
All in all, the California Apartment Association Issues Committee made campaign contributions of $534,091 in 2019 and 2020. The California Apartment Association Independent Expenditure Committee handed out $1,299,795. The California Apartment Association Housing Solutions Committee delivered $261,675. And the California Apartment Association Political Action Committee gave $2,409,976. That’s a grand total of $4,505,537 in campaign cash shelled out all over California by the CAA and real estate industry in 2019 and 2020.
Politicians like to say that campaign contributions don’t influence their decisions. If that was true, the California Apartment Association and its funders in Big Real Estate wouldn’t deliver, year after year, vast amounts of campaign money to local and state politicians — it would be a horrible return on investment.
The reality is that money talks, and the CAA and the real estate industry know it. Unless new campaign finance reform comes along or elected officials start refusing to take campaign cash from the real estate industry, the California Apartment Association and Big Real Estate will keep sending major bucks to local and state politicians — and millions of California renters will continue to suffer through the state’s longtime housing affordability crisis.
Patrick Range McDonald, the author of this report, is the advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right. For his work, he won the “Best Activism Journalism” award from the Los Angeles Press Club.