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The new owners of a 21-unit, low-rent apartment complex in Healdsburg are evicting all the mostly Latino tenants with plans to fix it up and in some cases more than double the rents, prompting a community outcry as well as highlighting the challenge of providing affordable housing in a hot real estate market.

The issue burst into full public view this week at a packed City Council meeting, in which speakers complained that families were being put into the street due to skyrocketing rents. Longtime renters despaired that they will be next, priced out of a town where they also can’t afford to buy a home.

But the recent acquisition of the Prentice Apartments off March Avenue and wholesale eviction of the 21 families there by the new landlord was especially disturbing to some residents, who said it smacked of racism and gentrification.

“This town is built on the backs of those people, and those people who trusted me for 30 years to teach their children,” said Judy Sanderson, a retired teacher and self-described “privileged white woman” who said it feels like the new owners are “targeting Hispanic families.”

Sanderson said she has taught many of the children whose families live there. “It’s not that it’s just not fair,” she said. “These are children who have no place to sleep.”

What especially irked some people was a prospectus put out by Drake Property Group, the Larkspur investment firm that purchased the apartment complex, stating it is seeking “a tenant demographic more appropriate to the refined nature of the Healdsburg community, tenants who value good design and beautiful surroundings.”

Laura Arreguin said, “As a Mexican, as a Latina, I love beautiful surroundings. I feel discriminated against.”

Mayor Shaun McCaffery said Drake Property’s language “sounded blatantly racist” considering the overwhelming Latino makeup of the apartment complex. The owners purchased it with a promise that investors would see returns exceeding 30 percent after the property is upgraded and rents likely increased from current levels of $800 to $950, to a market rate of $1,400 to $2,200 per month.

The prospectus said Healdsburg is enjoying continuing high-quality restoration and development, describing it as “the Sausalito of Sonoma County.”

“Who is their PR director? It must be Donald Trump. They need to fire him,” McCaffery said later, in reference to the backlash against the Republican presidential candidate’s comments on Mexican immigrants and crime that drew outrage from Latino groups who said they were demeaning and misleading.

On Wednesday, Peter Supino, the head of Drake Property Group, said when his company issued the statement last year “we had no idea who was in that building.”

“It was a general statement before I knew Healdsburg and knew those people. I would not repeat it,” he said.

Supino said the apartment complex, built in 1974, has been totally neglected by a number of previous owners.

“All 21 dishwashers haven’t worked for years,” he said, adding that the roofs are falling in, the ceilings have asbestos and balconies are falling apart. It is a huge health and safety hazard and the complex will need an estimated $1.5 million in renovations, according to Supino, who added “we probably saved tenants’ lives.”

He said the residents were treated fairly, given a legal, 60-day notification to be out by the end of this month and in some instances were paid $500 to leave sooner. All will be given a right to return, he said, and “hopefully we can bring back a couple that were there.”

He expects the modernized units will appeal to school employees and workers from nearby Healdsburg District Hospital.

Jose Herrera, whose family is being evicted from Prentice Apartments after living there 13 years, said Thursday it is unrealistic for the new owners to say the tenants can move back in a few months after renovations, because they have to find a place to live immediately and landlords typically want a one-year commitment.

“It’s like playing with you, giving you false hopes for something that may not happen,” he said.

Herrera, a 2013 Healdsburg High graduate and Santa Rosa Junior College student, lives with his younger sister, his father, a restaurant dishwasher, and his mother, a vineyard worker.

They have been anxiously searching for a new place but haven’t had any luck yet.

“Everyone is looking in the same places that are available,” he said of the competition with other renters.

The mass evictions revived the perennial concern among locals that Healdsburg is getting too pricey and hard for longtime residents to afford, especially for the restaurant employees, cleaning staff and vineyard workers who keep the tourist and wine-based economy humming.

On Monday, more than 30 people addressed the City Council on the topic of affordable housing, also mentioning other recent evictions in Healdsburg by landlords seeking to maximize profits.

Some said soaring housing prices aren’t confined to Healdsburg, but are more acute in a town that had the highest real estate prices in the county last year. The problem has spread across Sonoma County, where rents have escalated 30 percent over three years with a vacancy rate hovering around 3 percent.

The meeting prompted calls for immediate rent control, as well as the need for the city to create more worker housing and come up with creative solutions, such as relaxing zoning restrictions that prevent work-live units in commercial zones. Other suggestions included expediting the permit process and cutting housing fees.

The City Council will take up the housing topic at its July 20 meeting under an agenda item headlined “landlord-tenant relations,” but there isn’t any expectation of immediate solutions.

“There was a lot of emotion, a lot of comments about what we should do and shouldn’t do,” Councilman Gary Plass said. “It’s a problem that isn’t going to be solved immediately.”

“It’s really tough,” McCaffery said, explaining that cities are restricted by state law, for example, on where they can impose rent control, limiting it to multifamily dwellings and mobile home parks.

“The larger discussion in the next few years is what are we going to do about the housing issue?” he said, adding that it needs to be considered in context of relaxing the city’s voter-approved growth control ordinance, which limits the average number of new dwellings to 30 per year, something planners say is an impediment to creating less-expensive housing.

Sheila Gallagher, a longtime renter, noted that affordable housing is a complicated and multisided issue, “but classism and racism will continue to creep through our community if we don’t do something about it.”

Some speakers at the council meeting cautioned against misplacing blame on “greedy” landlords. And one longtime landlord, Jack Mallinson, whose family has owned apartments in Healdsburg for 55 years, said he offers below-market rents and rent control “would be punishing us for keeping our rents low.”

Pam Tauffer, a Healdsburg property manager, said that not long ago vacancies were surging and landlords sometimes offered free rent as an incentive to obtain tenants.

She said it was wrong “to call people greedy because they’re finally able to take a profit.”

Gail Jonas, an estate planning lawyer, said trustees of rental properties have a fiduciary duty to make sure they are getting a fair return and that can lead to rents increasing.

She said some have suggested a class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination against the new owners of the Prentice Apartments, but there does not appear to be grounds for one.

A tearful Dolores Rodriguez, a house cleaner who has lived in the Prentice Apartments for 13 years, said her 3-year-old daughter doesn’t understand why they have to move and asks “why, don’t they love us?” She tells her, “I don’t know. They want their property and we need to leave.”

But she said rents are much higher in other places and landlords want to see tenant income levels that are three times higher than the rent.

Erika Gonzalez, a 26-year-old mother who lives at Prentice Apartments with her parents and two brothers, stood in the doorway of their two-bedroom apartment Wednesday, holding her 9-month-old baby boy on one arm. She said they are looking every day for another place to live, but it’s hard to find anything affordable.

“It’s stressful. We have to find a place,” she said, adding that she has an uncle in Napa. “If we don’t find anything, we will move to Napa where he lives for a few months.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @clarkmas.