Landlords are seeking to block Santa Rosa’s controversial rent control program by forcing a citywide vote on the issue.
Paid signature gatherers have fanned out across the city in recent days, circulating petitions calling on the City Council to either repeal the rent control law it passed Aug. 30 or call a special election.
Signature gatherers contacted by The Press Democrat declined to provide their names or who employed them. But the California Apartment Association, which strongly opposes the city’s ordinance and succeeded last year in blocking rent control in Richmond after a similar petition drive, appears to be behind the effort.
“We want to strip the council of their power and put the decision in the hands of the voters,” said a signature gatherer outside the entrance to the Safeway on Mendocino Avenue on Wednesday afternoon.
The man declined to give his name or say who employed him. He described himself as a “very concerned citizen” but would not say whether he lived in Santa Rosa.
The campaign has surfaced after an official with the California Apartment Association Issues Committee contacted the city last week to start the process of establishing a local independent expenditure committee, City Clerk Daisy Gomez said.
The official, reached by phone Wednesday, said he was an accountant serving as the treasurer for the committee and was unable to comment. He directed inquiries to Shant Apekian, the association’s vice president of public affairs. Neither Apekian nor its local government affairs director, Mallori Spilker, returned repeated requests for comment.
“At this point, the California Apartment Association is not answering questions related to the petition drive,” Mike Nemeth, the organization’s communications director, said in a statement.
City Councilman Chris Coursey said he spoke with one of the signature gatherers who confirmed he traveled all over the country participating in petition drives and was being paid $5 per signature.
“I’ve known all along that there are people who don’t like rent control and there are powerful forces lined up against it,” said Coursey, who was one of the four to vote in favor of rent control. “We’ll see if they can get the support they are looking for.”
Coursey said the young man he spoke with “wasn’t the best-informed person I’ve ever come across,” but he didn’t feel like he was intentionally misrepresenting the issue.
He said he’s aware, however, largely through social media, that some people have felt duped into signing petitions they were led to believe would enact rent control, not repeal it.
Housing activist Niqueollette McGowan said she obtained an audio recording of a woman gathering petitions on the Santa Rosa Junior College campus and claiming that those supporting rent control should sign it. The recording reviewed by The Press Democrat does contain McGowan speaking to a woman making a variety of inaccurate claims.
The North Bay Organizing Project, which supports rent control, is working to counter misinformation from signature gatherers and make sure people know that the petition seeks to block rent control, said Sybil Day, the group’s vice president.
“The rent control ordinance and just-cause eviction policies have not even gone into effect yet and the real estate interests and property managers are working hard to undermine the vote of the Santa Rosa City Council,” Day said.