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A divided Santa Rosa City Council took a tentative step toward tackling the affordable housing crisis Tuesday, but it rejected for a second time a moratorium on rent increases that was strongly opposed by local landlords.

On a 4-3 vote, the council agreed to discuss a number of options to address the city’s rapidly rising rents, which have soared 30 percent in three years as the economy has rebounded while construction of new units has lagged.

But it rejected, also on a 4-3 vote, a proposal to temporarily bar landlords from increasing rents by more than 3 percent per year while the City Council discusses the larger issues of affordable housing at future meetings.

The close votes mirrored a deep division in the community about whether the city should address the issue through more regulation or less.

Housing advocates called for regulatory solutions such as rent control and additional fees to fund the construction of affordable housing, while landlords argued that the city should slash permit fees and other restrictions on development, allowing market forces to meet the surge in demand.

Vice Mayor Chris Coursey said he wanted staff to return to the council with a wide range of options.

“I don’t want to do this in a vacuum,” Coursey said. “I want to do it in a comprehensive way so we can have a strategy going forward.”

Councilmembers, led by Julie Combs, proposed a number of ideas for the council to consider in the future. These included fast-tracking multifamily housing projects; reducing permit fees for affordable housing developments; changing and expanding the affordable housing requirements on market-rate developers; imposing a fee on businesses of more than 10 employees to fund housing; and enacting rent control.

But that final measure, which Combs referred to as “rent stabilization,” was a bridge too far for Mayor John Sawyer, who called rent control “a very divisive issue” that would take significant staff time.

“I feel that that’s going to pull us away from some very important discussions about affordable housing that don’t necessarily entail rent control,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer asked Combs to remove that piece from her motion so it could be voted on separately, but she declined. Ernesto Olivares and Tom Schwedhelm joined Sawyer in voting against the measure.

The meeting was well attended by affordable-housing advocates, who urged the council to take aggressive action.

David Grabill, an attorney with the Housing Advocacy Group, said the impact on working families from rising rents and predatory landlords was severe, as evidenced by some renters in a substandard apartment complex on Hoen Avenue whose rents shot up 50 percent.

“We’ve got to do something to stop that kind of capitalism,” Grabill said. “Please move quickly because time is running out.”

He said he didn’t see why rent control and additional housing construction couldn’t happen simultaneously.

Davin Cardenas, a project leader with the North Bay Organizing Project, called rent control the least the city could do to protect renters. He stressed that rent control won’t address homes built after 1995, single-family homes or condominiums.

“In moments of crisis, local government actually has a role in protecting the most vulnerable working-class, middle-class people,” Cardenas said.

Others, however, decried rent control as a failed approach that can actually make situations worse by changing the way landlords select tenants. Real estate agent Anita Anderson argued that availability of units actually decreases because people stay in rent-controlled units longer.

She disputed the very concept of affordable housing.

“All housing is affordable, or else it would be vacant,” Anderson said.

Regarding the moratorium, Combs stressed that she was only proposing the ideas to protect renters from landlords seeking to impose sharp hikes before rent control could be implemented. But a majority of council members felt that talking about rent control would spook landlords, exacerbating the very problem the council was trying to solve.

Councilman Gary Wysocky joined Sawyer, Olivares, and Schwedhelm in voting against the proposal to consider a moratorium.

City staff will present options for the council to discuss on July 21.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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