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Sonoma County, Santa Rosa gear up for action on poor housing conditions, evictions

Guadalupe Vargas with her daughter Jaylani, 1, outside their mold covered bedroom window at the Walnut Creek Apartments on Jennings Ave. in Santa Rosa. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

ANGELA HART,

Elected officials representing Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa are facing a pair of key discussions next month that could determine how the county and its largest city respond to a host of issues tied to the torrid local housing market, including soaring rents and substandard rentals that jeopardize the health and safety of tenants.

At stake are steps and votes that could move the pair of governments closer to enacting a range of enhanced protections for tenants, including limits on rent increases, new rules governing eviction proceedings and mandatory rental inspections.

The movement, which could lead to action in other local cities, comes amid a housing crunch that some officials have called a crisis. Elected officials for the county, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Petaluma and Sonoma have discussed the issue in recent months, but little has been done in response.

“We need to address this. … It’s getting worse,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo. “Right now we don’t have enough resources or staffing to do consistent inspections, or the ability to ensure people have quality housing. It’s a problem.”

Supervisors are expected to launch a broad effort in April that will seek various ways to alleviate the county’s housing crunch. In addition to policies covering rent control, just-cause eviction and mandatory rental inspections, the board is set to consider beefing up code enforcement to reduce health and safety violations linked to substandard housing.

Carrillo said the initiative is driven, in part, by a yearlong Press Democrat investigation, published over four days in January, that documented the prevalence of squalid rental housing in cities and communities across the county. The stories explored the effects on tenants living in conditions that in some cases went unfixed for years, resulting in chronic problems with mold, vermin and cockroach infestations, inadequate heating, broken plumbing and other structural problems.

“We’re looking at how to ensure our homes are healthy,” Carrillo said. “We have the ability to do this, we just have not been very successful at enforcing the rules.”

Other supervisors acknowledged shortfalls in the county’s enforcement of state health and safety laws governing housing. More must be done to assist tenants, they said.

“We need to add extra protections for those folks who are vulnerable, given the tight housing market,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said.

Through a series of meetings in The Springs area north of Sonoma, Supervisor Susan Gorin said she has become acutely aware of the problems renters are facing.

“I’m hearing more and more horror stories about how people’s rents are increasing dramatically, yet landlords are unresponsive to their housing concerns,” Gorin said. “We need to do more to help people … especially those who have very little political power.”

The board’s April 5 discussion is scheduled for the same day the Santa Rosa City Council is slated to take up part of its own policy response to substandard housing problems, which city officials acknowledge have been exacerbated by the housing crunch.

“Housing is at such a premium, and people are paying top dollar for rental housing all over the entire county. We need to make sure it’s safe and well-managed,” Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer said. “There’s never any excuse for charging people to live in housing that is unsafe. It’s unacceptable.”

The debate over how to address substandard housing comes amid a heated discussion underway in Santa Rosa about possible city action to curb steep rent increases and in some cases, retaliatory evictions of low-income tenants. Housing rights attorneys and activists say such cases have increased significantly over the past two years.

In response to such reports, the Santa Rosa City Council over the past nine months has staked out policy options to assist renters. A highly anticipated vote on whether to enact rent control or impose new rules for landlords seeking to evict tenants is expected later this year.

Real estate officials and investors, however, are trying to convince the council to reject rent control and just-cause eviction policies, which would require landlords to give tenants a good reason for kicking them out.

“We’re opposed to rent control because we think it will have a detrimental effect for years to come,” said Daniel Sanchez, director of government affairs for the North Bay Association of Realtors. “But we’re open to a rental inspection program. It could send a message to landlords that the city will target properties with habitability issues.”

The City Council on April 5 is also set to weigh in on the city’s troubled code enforcement division.

Santa Rosa, where the majority of the county’s rental stock is concentrated, has the most unresolved substandard housing cases in the county — 150 of the 253 countywide as of late last year. There are four code enforcement officers on staff — one employee less than in January — to carry out the housing investigations, according to Mike Reynolds, the division’s supervisor.

Growing caseloads fueled in part by an increasing number of substandard housing complaints from tenants, among other housing issues, are driving calls for a new approach to code enforcement.

“We need to catch these issues before they get serious,” Sawyer said.

The mayor said he is in favor of creating a mandatory rental inspection program, where a percentage of Santa Rosa’s rental units are inspected annually. The city’s approach could require landlords to pay for the inspections.

“I don’t see a down side,” Sawyer said. “I’m hoping it could be implemented very soon.”

Sawyer said the program also could fund additional code enforcement officers to ensure landlords complete housing repairs ordered by the city.

“Substandard housing is not something we want to tolerate,” Sawyer said.

Santa Rosa Councilwoman Julie Combs said she is strongly in favor of rent control, boosting code enforcement staffing and mandatory rental inspections.

“I’m hoping that we move away from a complaint-based approach to code enforcement because it puts tenants in fear of losing their housing if they do come forward,” Combs said. “And we need more code enforcement staffing. The workloads right now are just too much for one person to handle.”

Meanwhile, real estate groups and landlords on the one side, and housing activists on the other are ratcheting up the debate.

Activists are pushing especially for stricter rules governing evictions. Their campaign comes in the wake of several high-profile mass evictions of tenants in Healdsburg and Petaluma apartment complexes. Those cases represent just one aspect of the fallout on low-income tenants from the county’s resurgent housing market, where investors have been snapping up apartment buildings and raising rents, local real estate agents and housing rights attorneys say.

“Without a good-cause eviction ordinance, rent control becomes meaningless,” said David Grabill, a prominent housing rights attorney and activist. “If landlords are allowed to terminate a tenancy without good cause, and tenancy turns over, the landlord is not bound by the old rent and they can just raise it.”

Real estate officials are pushing back against a strictly regulatory response. Some said they are in favor of proactive rental inspections and a landlord-tenant mediation program to solve housing disputes.

Scott Gerber, who specializes in apartment sales as managing director for a San Rafael-based brokerage, favors a mediation program to assist tenants and landlords in disputes. Gerber has voiced his concerns about a regulatory crackdown at City Council meetings. He said mediation could offer recourse for tenants alleging retaliatory evictions or seeking to fight big rent increases, as well as landlords who want to evict their tenants.

“There are a few bad landlords, but there are also tenants who behave badly,” he said. “Some kind of grievance board, giving landlords and tenants a legitimate outlet where they can have their concerns heard, is the best way to solve these problems.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.