The Santa Rosa City Council’s closely watched decision Tuesday to pursue rent control came in a contested vote on a complex issue.
Following a lengthy, passionate debate, the council voted 4-3 to instruct city staff begin drafting rules that cap rent increases for older apartments at 3 percent annually and protect tenants from unfair evictions.
The council has been studying the issue for more than a year. But public understanding of the pending moves and the city’s motives remains shaky, as evidenced by some of the comments from the dozens of speakers who addressed the council.
The council will return to the issue Tuesday for another discussion about a related, temporary moratorium on rent increases — a proposal that failed to advance last week.
Here’s a rundown on the rent-control vote and debate playing out at City Hall:
What types of units would be covered by Santa Rosa’s rent control?
It would apply only to multifamily apartments built before February 1995 due to a state law that exempts apartments built thereafter from rent control measures.
Are other types of units exempt?
State law specifically exempts all single-family homes and condominiums, no matter when they were built, from local rent control laws. The City Council is proposing two additional exemptions: duplexes and owner-occupied triplexes, reasoning that a higher percentage of those units are locally owned.
How many units will be affected?
The city estimated that as many as 13,386 of the city’s nearly 70,000 housing units could be subject to rent control. The exclusion of duplexes and triplexes could exempt up 500 to 2,100 additional units.
How did the council settle on 3 percent for the annual cap?
The council rejected an annual increase tied to the inflation rate in favor of one that members viewed as more predictable. Councilman Chris Coursey proposed a 4 percent cap, but council members Gary Wysocky and Erin Carlstrom sought a smaller increase. Carlstrom said she wanted to make the ordinance “as strong as possible.”
What does the cap mean for an average rent?
The average rent in Sonoma County is about $1,652 per month, according to RealFacts. A 3 percent increase would equate to about $50 more per month.
Can rent increases be higher than the cap?
Landlords who want to raise rent higher than 3 percent annually would need city permission. The council asked staff to return with a list of situations under which a rent board might approve higher increases, such as if a landlord has made significant upgrades to the property or if a landlord had a history of below-market rents.
What happened to the moratorium?
Advocates of rent control argued it was crucial the council pass a moratorium on rent increases to prevent landlords from hiking rents before the new rules can take effect. But the council failed to muster the 5 votes needed to pass an immediate freeze. The issue returns Tuesday when a simple majority will suffice to advance a moratorium. When it would go into effect remains unclear.
What would the rent board look like?
The city has a Housing Authority Board that oversees affordable housing programs. The council asked staff to explore having the board handle rent control and just-cause eviction issues as well.
How they voted and what they said
Councilmembers voted Tuesday on three issues: rent control and just-cause eviction laws, and a moratorium on rent increases.
“This is just one imperfect tool that I am willing to cast a vote for tonight, because it will help 10,000 people in this city of Santa Rosa.”
“I don’t think this is a Band-Aid, I think this is a tourniquet. I think it’s an emergency action to prevent us from bleeding out our working families, our seniors and our students -- the people who are here now.”
“I’m asking my colleagues, my community, to put aside some of that individual discomfort and adopt a complete strategy that provides and preserves housing for all.”
Mayor John Sawyer
“This is a very difficult discussion to have because I have grave concerns about the ultimate impact. I think it’s creating a problem in the effort to try to solve another one.”
Vice Mayor Tom Schwedhelm
“If you think this is going to help the low income folks, it’s not. It’s going to help (what economist Christopher Thornberg) called middle-aged hippies.”
“I feel like a year ago we sat in this chamber and yelled fire in a crowded theater, and a year later we’re still trying to put this fire out.”
“That fact that rent control does not increase the current housing supply is true. But it also preserves what we have for our most vulnerable.”