For years, no matter who’s suffering, the California Apartment Association, the most powerful landlord lobbying group in the state, has vigorously opposed tenant protections. Even during the global pandemic, the organization fought temporary safeguards for renters. That take-no-prisoners approach is largely due to one man: Tom Bannon, the longtime chief executive officer of the CAA.
Whether it’s opposing a city ordinance or supporting controversial state legislation, Tom Bannon (pictured above) has instituted a way of operating at the CAA that utilizes deceit, strong-arm tactics, and campaign cash to smackdown housing activists and curry favor with politicians. Millions of Californians’ lives have been negatively impacted by the housing affordability crisis, and many face the prospect of homelessness because of unfair, sky-high rents, but Bannon sees CAA’s battles as merely a game, telling the Real Deal that “politics in California is a full-contact sport.”
El Cerrito housing activist Karina Ioffee, who’s battled the CAA, told me last year: “They send people into any locality when they get a whiff of rent control. They’re an organization that has massive resources. They’re a force to be reckoned with.”
Tom Bannon and the CAA have a shocking track record.
In 2019, the California Apartment Association killed watered-down tenant protections that were initially passed by the El Cerrito City Council. The CAA started up a petition drive to repeal the protections through a local ballot measure. According to Ioffee, CAA’s signature gatherers misleadingly told residents that they should sign the petition if they wanted rent control — a complete lie. Other signature gatherers said that if residents didn’t want criminals to move into El Cerrito, they should sign.
“They engaged in a total misinformation campaign,” Ioffee explained.
El Cerrito residents weren’t experienced in the dishonest ways of the California Apartment Association. The lobbying powerhouse got the signatures it needed, forcing the City Council’s hand. The politicians folded, and repealed renter protections in August 2019.
“It was another example of CAA’s power,” Ioffee said.
A year earlier, in 2018, Tom Bannon and the California Apartment Association tried a similar campaign in Mountain View, where the landlord lobbying group also tried to repeal renter protections through a ballot measure. The CAA and others brazenly framed it as a good thing for tenants, but the disingenuous effort failed to get enough signatures. Mayor Lenny Siegel said in a strongly worded statement: “Mountain View voters were not fooled by the apartment owners’ deceptive campaign to place the sneaky repeal on the ballot.”
In 2018, the California Apartment Association sponsored a political committee to oppose Proposition 10, the California ballot measure that would have repealed statewide restrictions on rent control. That committee, funded by such corporate landlords as Equity Residential, Essex Property Trust, and AvalonBay Communities, raised $53 million to trick voters with deceitful campaign ads. Despite the fact that more than 525 housing and social injustice organizations, civic groups, and elected leaders endorsed Prop 10, voters were sufficiently scared and confused — and the initiative, which was largely funded by AIDS Healthcare Foundation, lost at the polls.
These are just some of the underhanded methods Tom Bannon and the California Apartment Association have used over the years. During the coronavirus pandemic, the CAA tried to repeal a temporary rent freeze in Santa Ana.
“I call on you to continue standing up for working-class and immigrant residents in the city that have been economically impacted,” Santa Ana resident Carlos Perea told city politicians. “I understand landlords who shamelessly want to continue to raise rents during this global crisis have been putting pressure on you. That is not just disappointing but morally wrong.”
The Santa Ana City Council listened to Perea — and maintained the freeze. But many activists believed that CAA’s hard push in Santa Ana was another disturbing example of its extremist ways: even during a global pandemic, Tom Bannon and the CAA were still trying to scrap a temporary measure that kept people in their homes and safe.
Recently, the Tom Bannon and the California Apartment Association tried to stop AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s crucial work to protect vulnerable Californians, including seniors, families, teachers, the unhoused, and people living with chronic diseases. Around the world, activists and experts agree that access to stable, affordable housing is essential for maintaining good health.
AHF and its housing advocacy division, Housing Is A Human Right, are spearheading Proposition 21, the November ballot measure expands rent control in California. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, among others, have endorsed the initiative.
To silence AHF, Tom Bannon and the CAA stooped to a new low and led the charge to pass AB 1938, a dangerous state bill that would have stopped the HIV/AIDS organization from using certain monies to carry out its housing advocacy work through litigation and ballot measures.
The CAA-backed bill not only singled out AHF in a way that appeared to be unlawful, but was also a clear threat to the organization’s First Amendment rights. Unsurprisingly, the legalities of AB 1938 didn’t concern Tom Bannon and the California Apartment Association — it was hard-ball politics at its worst. Fortunately, the draconian bill was stopped in a state assembly committee.
With millions of California renters in dire straits, top experts at USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley agree that rent control is a crucial tool to stabilize California’s housing affordability crisis.
“The housing crisis requires a range of strategies,” explained University of Southern California Professor Manuel Pastor, co-author of the USC Dornsife’s Rent Matters report, “[and] moderate rent regulation is a useful tool to be nested in broader strategy. It has fewer damaging effects than are often imagined, it can address economic pain, and it can promote housing stability. And housing stability matters because it is associated with physical, social, and psychological well-being; higher educational achievement by the young; and benefits for people of color.”
Those words hold even more true in this age of the coronavirus pandemic, which has slammed people of color and middle- and working-class Californians. What’s Tom Bannon and CAA’s approach to the worsening plight of the state’s most vulnerable? The landlord lobbying group is sponsoring the main political committee to oppose Proposition 21.
Bannon and his organization have so far raised $11.9 million from such corporate landlords as Essex Property Trust, Equity Residential, and AvalonBay Communities to oppose the initiative. Housing activists expect Tom Bannon and the CAA to use that money to lie and confuse voters once again. For Bannon and the California Apartment Association, anything that even slightly threatens the real estate industry’s out-sized profits must be stopped — no matter the consequences to middle- and working-class Californians.