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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.

Erin Carlstrom

Yes

“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.”

Julie Combs

Yes

“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.”

Chris Coursey

Yes

“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

No

“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

No

“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.”

Ernesto Olivares

No

“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.”

Gary Wysocky

Yes

“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.”


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.

Erin Carlstrom

Yes

“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.”

Julie Combs

Yes

“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.”

Chris Coursey

Yes

“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

No

“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

No

“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.”

Ernesto Olivares

No

“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.”

Gary Wysocky

Yes

“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.”

When would all this go into effect?

The proposed rules need to come back to the council for approval over two weeks, likely sometime this summer. They would go into effect 31 days after the second vote.

Would the rent control cap be retroactive?

The council proposed making the 3 percent cap retroactive to Jan. 1, 2016. That means rents could be rolled back to the level they were at that date. Alternately, that date could be the point from which annual increases are calculated. The issue remains undecided.

When would rent control sunset?

The council proposed the rent control ordinance would sunset if the city’s rental vacancy rate grew to more than 5 percent. Currently the city has about a 1 percent vacancy rate. Councilwoman Julie Combs said she proposed 5 percent because a real estate industry professional had told her that was a healthy vacancy rate.

What tenant protections is the council considering?

As a companion to rent control, the council ordered up a just-cause eviction ordinance. Generally, such ordinances are designed to protect tenants from being evicted by landlords merely trying to get new renters into units at higher rates. The council asked staff to draft a list of potential circumstances under which eviction would be justified, including non-payment or habitually late payment of rent, breach of a rental agreement, or creating a nuisance or disturbance. Landlords would be allowed to temporarily relocate residents for capital improvements that make the unit uninhabitable, to withdraw units from the rental market in order to go out of business, or to clear out units for self-occupation or residence by relatives.

Who would enforce the eviction rules?

It remains unclear. Coursey indicated a preference for alleged violations to be handled by the courts. Carlstrom called the courts “overtaxed” and favored having the city or a nonprofit entity set up a separate administrative process. Combs said she hoped the city could set up a process that was “kinder and gentler” than the courts.

What will it cost?

A consultant’s early estimate pegged the annual cost of a “limited” rent control program at $27,000 or less, but that figure has been called low by city staff. The provisions outlined by the council almost certainly would add costs to the program, but how much is unclear. The intent is to have the program paid for by per-unit fees, with renters and landlords splitting the costs evenly.

Will voters get a say?

Opponents, including the North Bay Association of Realtors, have vowed to overturn at the ballot box any rent control laws passed by the city. In order to qualify for the Nov. 8 general election, opponents would need to submit signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in the city. The council would have until Aug. 12 to put a proposed measure on the November ballot. If a special election is needed, signatures from 15 percent of voters would be required. A special election for a ballot measure would cost the city $200,000 to $360,000, while adding a ballot measure to the general election would cost $131,250, according to Santa Rosa Interim City Clerk Stephanie Williams.

Will this be an election issue?

Three of the four council members up for re-election in November, Wysocky, Carlstrom and Combs, voted in favor of rent control. Councilman Ernesto Olivares voted against it. Carlstrom alluded to the potential effect her vote might have on her bid for a second term, expressing concern about “my ability to serve my community after casting my vote.” At least one council candidate, Jack Tibbetts, who serves on the city’s Board of Public Utilities, has said he supports temporary rent control but thinks the conversation should focus on housing production.