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Thousands of Santa Rosa renters will be protected temporarily from sharply rising rents under a controversial rent increase moratorium approved Tuesday by a split City Council.

Following a more subdued debate than the one that gripped the council last week, the panel voted 4-2 to bar landlords for 45 days from raising rents more than 3 percent on apartments built before February 1995. It could be in place by mid-June.

The move was aimed at preventing landlords from hiking rents while the city designs the rent control program narrowly endorsed last week by the council. That process that is expected to take several months.

“I think it’s very important for us to push the pause button right now,” Councilwoman Julie Combs said. “I think a lot of people are afraid of a thing that maybe they shouldn’t be afraid of.”

The moratorium applies to a “cumulative 12-month period,” meaning landlords who already have imposed increases of 3 percent or more in the past year would be prevented from raising rents at all during the period.

If the vote is repeated next week as expected, the prohibition would go into effect 31 days later, or June 18. It’s not entirely clear how it would be enforced.

Like the proposed rent control ordinance under consideration, single-family homes, condominiums, duplexes and owner-occupied triplexes would be exempt. About 12,000 apartments, or 18 percent of the city’s 67,934 housing units, would be affected by the measure.

It was the council’s second stab at preventing what many landlords and housing advocates have warned could be an unintended consequence of landlords preemptively hiking rents before rent control restrictions can be put in place.

Last Tuesday the council failed to pass a moratorium that would have gone into effect immediately, known as an urgency ordinance. That measure needed five votes to pass, but only got four.

The issue returned this week as a non-urgent measure, and those same four votes were sufficient to advance it.

Voting in favor were Combs, Erin Carlstrom, Chris Coursey and Gary Wysocky. Mayor John Sawyer and Vice Mayor Tom Schwedhelm voted no. Ernesto Olivares was absent.

While there was no overflow crowd like last week, there still was a handful of housing advocates in favor of the moratorium and a few members of the real estate community seeking to block it.

KaLane Raposa, a 50-year-old resident of a homeless encampment in Roseland, predicted a “second wave of homeless people” if the council didn’t approve the moratorium.

“It is like the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ out there,” Raposa said. “It’s getting violent. It’s getting ugly. It’s getting terribly difficult.”

Santa Rosa Junior College student Courtney Cox, 21, said opposition to the temporary measure was merely a “knee-jerk reaction.” She said the pause was needed to help set the stage for rent control.

“It’s the foot in the door we need to start making radical change,” Cox said.

Some members of the real estate community argued that rent control was a failed policy that the council should reject in favor of focusing on increasing housing supply and improving the quality of existing housing.

Mallori Spilker, executive director of the North Coast branch of the California Apartment Association, called the moratorium “a distraction from the core issue” — boosting the supply of housing in the city.

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“Please don’t drive our housing providers out of Santa Rosa,” she said.

Keith Becker, president of DeDe’s Rentals, said “making such a dramatic and severe change to our housing ecosystem” would likely trigger “an entire series of unintended consequences.”

Becker said he believed landlords theoretically had the right to increase rents however high they wanted between now and June 18.

The rent control ordinance under review, however, may contain a “rollback” provision that could reset rents to Jan. 1 levels. How that would work and whether it’s even legal has not been determined.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to reflect that Keith Becker was not advocating landlords increase rents before June 18, merely that they retained that right.

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