Response to Dick Spotswood’s Opinion Column in the Marin IJ

Dick Spotswood has lowered the bar for local journalism with his December 17th, 2022 opinion piece in the Marin IJ covering Fairfax’s new rent stabilization and just cause eviction ordinances. The column is rife with sensationalist claims, arrogant remarks, and arguments made either in bad faith or ignorance, all while attempting to revive a kind of red scare McCarthyism in Marin. County residents should demand far more from its local paper of record than poorly-researched fear-mongering dressed up as reasonable journalism. 

The article begins: “​​Just when local candidates promoted by the right-leaning anti-vaccine promoting Marin Freedom Rising were crushed at the ballot box, along came the Marin chapter of the far-left Democratic Socialists of America.”

Implying a false equivalency between a conspiratorial, anti-vax, and anti-LGBTQ organization and one that is fighting to keep working people in their homes is morally reprehensible and deeply misleading. One can’t help but remember the corporate media pieces that compared democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, who campaigned on healthcare for all, living wages, and a Green New Deal with Donald Trump, who campaigned on building a border wall, creating a Muslim registry, and shredding environmental regulations. The idea was that because Sanders and Trump were both challenging the political establishment with populist appeals, they somehow had a great deal in common. Comparing Marin DSA to Marin Freedom Rising is equally absurd and offensive.

The next paragraph reads: “The latter [Marin DSA] is pushing a draconian version of rent control across Marin. DSA scored its first victory when Fairfax by unanimous council vote adopted their suggested rent control ordinance and, with only Councilmember Barbara Coler dissenting, a punishing (to landlords) “just cause” eviction law.”

Characterizing Fairfax’s rent control and just cause eviction ordinances as “draconian” and “punishing” is ridiculous and quickly reveals the class sympathies of the author. In reality, Fairfax’s ordinances were modeled after provisions that already exist across the state, many of which have been in effect for decades. These ordinances bring Fairfax up to speed with the dozens of other cities and towns across California that have seen their housing costs skyrocket and have taken action to keep ordinary people in their homes, rather than getting forced out.

Let’s briefly review what these ordinances actually do:

  1. They place an annual cap on how much landlords can raise the rent, pegged to 60% of the change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or 5%, whichever is lower.
  2. They prevent arbitrary evictions by requiring landlords to have a just cause in order to evict or displace their tenant.
  3. They provide support and protections for tenants who face eviction due to no fault of their own, with additional protections granted to teachers, students, children, seniors, people with disabilities, and people who are terminally-ill. 

The idea that requiring such basic tenant protections amounts to punishing landlords reveals an enormous bias in favor of landlords being able to do whatever they’d like with their rental units, regardless of the suffering, stress, and insecurity that may be endured by tenants as a consequence of their actions. If critics like Spotswood want to argue that landlords’ ability to maximize profits and maintain total control over their units is more important that granting the one-third of Fairfax residents who are renters the safety and security of knowing they won’t get thrown out of their homes at a moment’s notice, they should go ahead and say so. Hiding behind sensationalist terms like, “draconian” simply avoids the moral stakes and obscures the divergent class interests at play. 

Skipping ahead, Spotswoods, referencing the radical idea that housing is a first and foremost a human right and not an investment vehicle, knowingly proclaims: “This isn’t the social democracy as practiced in Scandinavian nations. The last time I was in Norway, I asked a museum lecturer about capitalism versus socialism in his land. His reply, “Norway is a capitalist country. That’s how we pay for our (social) benefits.” Social democracy is a combination of relatively high taxes, and a broad social safety net based on private enterprise and capitalism.”

While we’re glad Spotswood took the time to ask a single Norwegian museum employee about his country’s political economy, citing this conversation as an authoritative summary of why capitalism is good and necessary for social democracy is patently absurd. The robust social benefits enjoyed in western Europe and Scandinavia were the result of decades of class struggle between organized labor and associated labor/left political parties on the one hand and economic and political elites on the other. Wealthy capitalists did not voluntarily sign up to pay high taxes for universal high-quality healthcare, education, childcare, etc. They were forced to make these concessions by a powerful labor movement and a robust political left that included both socialists and social democrats. Social democracy was the compromise hammered out between capital and labor, not an enlightened feature of capitalism itself.

It’s also important to note that the vast majority of western European countries have some form of national rent control, with countries like France, Germany, Ireland and Sweden not only limiting how much rents can be raised over time, but also limiting how much can be charged in the first place. State law prohibits those kinds of limitations in California, meaning landlords are able to charge as much as they’d like at the beginning of each new tenancy. Thus, suggesting that Fairfax’s rent control law—or any California rent control law—is somehow radical or extreme by European or international standards is simply nonsensical.

Spotswood continues, “Fairfax’s version of rent control and “just eviction” ordinances was a step too far. Why would anyone create so much as a second unit if their investment violated the nonexistent “right” of a tenant to live there indefinitely at a rent less than the cost of providing the space.”

First of all, the policy is called “just cause eviction,” not “just eviction.” Second, the hypothetical question posed here is not a relevant one. In California, landlords are guaranteed a reasonable return on their investment. Fairfax’s rent stabilization ordinance provides a mechanism for this by enabling landlords to petition for a higher annual rent increase in order to ensure that they receive a reasonable return. The claim that rent control will force landlords to rent their units at a financial loss makes no sense, as they are permitted to raise rents enough to ensure that this doesn’t happen, provided that they can document and demonstrate that they actually qualify for this provision. 

Third, the rejection of housing as a human right is truly baffling and grotesque. The United Nations codified the right to adequate housing in 1948 as part of the right to an adequate standard of living. But it shouldn’t take a UN declaration to prove what common sense already makes obvious: that housing is a basic human necessity. It provides us with shelter from the elements and a safe and secure place to rest, prepare meals, raise our families, and simply live our lives. Our housing also embeds us in our community, which we all need as inherently social creatures. In other words, we all require housing to lead decent and dignified lives. 

Do critics like Spotswood who say the right to housing is “nonexistent” actually believe otherwise? What do they believe? That the abstract demands of a mythical free market are more important than satisfying basic human needs? That profits are more important than people? We hope not, but if so, we reject this kind of reasoning utterly and entirely. As democratic socialists, we believe that our economy should work to deliver a decent standard of living for all people and that includes, fundamentally, the right to decent housing. 

Fairfax, like all of Marin County, has some of the highest housing costs in the entire country. Single-family homes routinely sell for over a million dollars (often far more) and modest one- or two-bedroom apartments can easily cost two-three thousand dollars per month. Ordinary working people and seniors on fixed incomes cannot afford a house and their wages and social security benefits are not even close to keeping up with the dramatic rent increases.

The struggle to stabilize rents and prevent displacement in Fairfax and throughout Marin is not a hypothetical one. In Fairfax, a third of renters pay more than half of their income on rent. And nearly half of all renters spend at least a third of their income paying the landlord. Working families are struggling simply to keep a roof over their heads and stay in our communities. 

Critics like Spotswood will inevitably continue to spread hysteria as Fairfax’s ordinances are fully implemented and as other cities and towns across Marin follow their lead and adopt their own laws to stabilize rents and prevent arbitrary evictions. We will not let their smears keep us from winning real housing security for Marin’s working-class renters.

The Marin DSA Coordinating Committee
– Maegan Mattock, Fairfax 
– Christopher Perrando, Fairfax
– Kyle Amsler, San Anselmo
– Curt Ries, San Anselmo
– Sonia Parecadan, San Rafael