Dennis McGovern was stunned when he and 16 neighbors received eviction notices this month following the sale of their west Santa Rosa apartments.
“When we got the notices, we were so confused,” said McGovern, who has lived in his apartment for three years with his cocker spaniel Duke. “The new owners, when they purchased the buildings, they said nothing would change and that we would be allowed to stay. Then boom, we get eviction notices. It doesn’t make sense. We’re all good tenants — where are we going to be able to find another place that we can afford?”
The cluster of seven apartments on a secluded side street off Todd Road has become the latest focal point in a legal — and increasingly political — battle over the rights of tenants and landlords in Sonoma County’s tight housing market.
A Sonoma County supervisor who recently intervened in a dispute between the Todd Road tenants and their landlord is now vowing to press for more tenant protections at the county level.
Tenants rights’ attorneys, meanwhile, are ratcheting up their fight against landlords who evict tenants without a reason. The practice, which is legal in Sonoma County, has spiked over the past year, they say.
Attorneys are vying to convince landlords in three high-profile eviction cases — in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Sonoma — to give residents more time in their apartments while they search for a new place to live. Apartments are difficult to find in Sonoma County, where more than 98 percent of the rental units are occupied at any given time, according to county and real estate industry reports.
“Thirty or 60 days is not nearly enough time to locate to a new rental with the current 1 percent vacancy rates,” said Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Sonoma County Legal Aid, a nonprofit agency that assists tenants facing eviction. “What we are seeing is unprecedented. We are witnessing rapid, widespread displacement of working-class and low-income people from this community.”
Rubinoff recently slowed the eviction of a group of Petaluma tenants, winning them an additional 60 days in their apartments. She has done the same for a group of residents in Sonoma who are being evicted by the Ledson family, which owns Ledson Winery in Kenwood, and she is now seeking to help the Todd Road residents. In some cases, eviction notices are not valid, she argues.
When McGovern and his neighbors were served eviction notices on April 5, he first sought help from Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes the Todd Road properties.
“I decided to try and do something to stand up for us,” said McGovern, 65, a drug and alcohol treatment counselor. “I’m worried about where I’m going to go, sure, but also I’m concerned about my neighbors. What’s going to happen to them?”
In a rare move, Carrillo quickly convened a meeting with the tenants and Rubinoff.
Carrillo acknowledged that he does not typically get involved in eviction proceedings, especially this early in the process, but he said the Board of Supervisors must do more to stem the loss of housing units to large investors seeking to purchase properties, then evict the tenants and raise rents.
“These people here reflect our community — they are seniors, they’re students, they’re working-class people trying to make a living,” Carrillo said after meeting with the Todd Road tenants. “We have been so focused on building more units, but we need to seriously look at what we as elected officials can do to help create stability for renters. We have to protect renters from being taken advantage of. We need to start investigating policies that can help keep people in their homes.”