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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.

Claudine Gans-Gugebregt of Santa Rosa said she was asked to sign the petition as she exited the Safeway on Fourth Street on Wednesday. She supports rent control, and the way the signature gatherer initially characterized the petition made her think it supported rent control, she said. She began to sign her name, but as her husband asked additional questions, she wasn’t keen on the answers, she said.

“He was pretty evasive,” Gans-Gugebregt said.

Finally, when pressed about who was behind the effort, the man acknowledged the real estate community was backing it, she said. That’s when she stopped signing and scratched out her name, she said.

“The petition is not in favor of rent control, it’s against it,” she said. “If I had known that, I never would have begun to sign my name.”

Others who signed the petition knew exactly what they were doing. Kirstin Merrihew said she’s a renter who would benefit from the protections it offers against steep increases, but is against the policy because it’s an “artificial way of solving a problem” and “not very effective.”

“I just don’t think this is something the City Council should decide by itself,” Merrihew said.

The City Council on Aug. 30, passed, on a 4-2 vote, the final version of its rent control ordinance, which is set to go into effect Sept. 30.

The law will restrict rent increases for certain units to 3 percent per year, more if the landlord performs documented capital improvements. It also requires landlords to have a valid reason to evict residents. Single-family homes, condominiums, duplexes, owner-occupied triplexes and apartments built after Feb. 1, 1995, are exempt.

Those who sign the referendum petition are affirming that they are registered voters in Santa Rosa and that they “protest” the City Council’s Aug. 30 vote and request that the law “be reconsidered and repealed by the City Council or that it be submitted to a vote of the People.”

Gomez, the city clerk, said to prevail proponents will need to submit 8,450 valid signatures, which is 10 percent of the registered voters in the city as last reported to the state.

Typically, before such an effort gets underway, a group pursuing such a referendum will contact the city clerk to find out how many signatures are required and review the petitions before they are circulated to flag any problems that might invalidate the signatures, she said.

That did not happen in this case, she said. She learned about the petition drive anecdotally and does not know who is behind it, she said.

The petition circulators have until Sept. 29 to gather and submit signatures. Only when they submit them to the city will the identities of those behind the effort be officially known, Gomez said.

The paperwork filed by the California Apartment Association last week could be a related or separate effort. Their action was a first step in setting up a campaign that would allow the group to spend money on political activities in the city.

A spokesman for another key opponent of Santa Rosa’s rent control program — the North Bay Association of Realtors — could not be reached for comment.

The group and the California Apartment Association have previously acknowledged raising money for mailers urging residents to oppose rent control through a group called Santa Rosans for Real Housing Solutions.

If the backers are paying $5 per signature, they’ll shell out $42,250 for the required signatures. It’s unclear if referendum proponents are using volunteers or other methods to gather signatures.

If the petitioners submit the required number of signatures, any part of the rent control law subject to the referendum will immediately be stayed, or prevented from going into effect, said Teresa Stricker, interim city attorney.

The city will then begin verifying the signatures, a 30-day process that involves staff at the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Office checking the petition information against voter rolls. If enough signatures are validated, and the petition meets all other legal requirements, the council will face a choice by the end of October.

It can repeal the ordinance. It can call a special election at least 88 days later, or it can place the issue on the ballot during the next general election, which in this case is June 6, Gomez said.

A special election would cost taxpayers about $360,000, Gomez said. The cost of a general election would be far less, about $130,000, Gomez said.

If the law is suspended, it won’t go into effect unless the petition is determined to be invalid, or the voters approve rent control at the ballot box, Stricker said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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