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In moves aimed at blunting the impacts of Santa Rosa’s housing crunch, the City Council took steps Tuesday to both preserve the supply of affordable housing and to expand services to the homeless, including on city properties.

The council opted to stand by the rent control ordinance it passed in August but which has been blocked by a petition drive. Instead of repealing the law, which seeks to cap many rent increases at 3 percent per year and provide other renter protections, the council opted for a special election June 6 to let the people decide the matter.

Councilwoman Julie Combs said the previous council passed rent control to help renters, but “outside money” from the California Apartment Association, which represents property owners, “froze our ordinance.”

“I am looking forward to moving to ask our voters to defrost that ordinance so we can move forward and have the fair and affordable rental housing that our residents deserve,” Combs said.

The move came following the urging of a number of rent control supporters, including Santa Rosa Junior College student Courtney Cox, 22.

“We fought very hard, but all we got in return because of the (California) Apartment Association, was landlord retaliation in the form of rent increases, evictions, harassment and intimidation,” Cox said.

The measure will likely be on the same ballot as a proposal to tax cannabis on which the council has yet to act. Special election is expected to cost the city about $493,515.

The second step the council took was to broaden efforts to help create more places to shelter the homeless, especially during the winter.

The council agreed to several changes to improve the effectiveness of the Community Housing Assistance Program, which allows groups with properties zoned as “meeting facilities” to let people sleep overnight in their cars or camp on their properties under organized programs

One key change was to add commercial properties to that list. Another was to have the city assist applicants in reaching out to neighborhoods. This was an acknowledgment that the first applicant seeking to establish such a legal encampment, the First United Methodist Church, ran into strong opposition from neighbors of its Stony Point Road campus, in part because its outreach was ineffective.

The other steps the council took, which could prove most costly and controversial, were to instruct staff to explore expanding homeless services in several ways, including adding five portable classrooms to its Sam Jones Hall shelter in the city’s southwest area.

Doing so was expected to have startup costs of up to $50,000 and house an additional 100 people during the winter months. It was unclear how quickly this could be accomplished, but city officials said they’ve already identified the classrooms the school district wants moved.

Another measure the council endorsed was increasing the amount the city spends on rapid rehousing efforts. An additional $125,000 could temporarily house an additional 25 to 30 people, said Dave Gouin, the city’s director of Housing and Community Services.

Jennielynn Holmes, Catholic Charities’ director of shelter and housing, said the city’s rapid-rehousing program, which her organization runs, is very successful, resulting in 96 percent of the people who are placed in permanent housing remaining there after a year.

What's Available Right Now?

The PD's real estate blogger has created a gallery of the 18 least expensive homes available right now in Sonoma County. See them here.

“When people get housed, they stay housed,” Holmes said.

Those two measures were given top priority and were seen by city staff as likely to have the fastest results.

The council also instructed staff to explore the feasibility of several other options, though all had potential challenges.

These included using the National Guard Armory near Santa Rosa Junior College, which requires people to leave by 7 a.m., the Veterans Memorial Building on Maple Avenue, which county officials say is not available, and former Fire Station 5 on Parker Hill Road, which has some accessibility issues.

Councilman Chris Rogers said he was pleased the city was willing to use its own properties to house more people because one of the critiques of the city he heard from neighbors of the First United Methodist Church’s proposed encampment was that “the city didn’t have enough skin in the game.”

Homeless advocate Adrienne Lauby urged the council to add a parking lot on Stony Point Road to the list of city properties being evaluated.

Lauby said her organization, Homeless Action, is ready to install a number of small portable huts that volunteers have been building for months. The council didn’t take her up on the offer.

Mikeal O’Toole, a founder of the Roseland homeless encampment Camp Michela, said he was astounded to see the council continuing to study the issue instead of taking decisive action.

“Six months ago you declared a homeless emergency. What has happened in that six months? Nothing!”’ O’Toole said.

He said he marveled that the city was debating spending such large sums of money when Camp Michela got started with little more than the cost of two portable toilets and some garbage cleanup.

“How much can that cost a month? I mean come on!” O’Toole said.

The council voted 7-0 in favor of the special election on rent control, and 6-0 in favor of expanding homeless services. Councilman Jack Tibbetts recused himself from the latter vote because he is the executive director of the St. Vincent De Paul Society, which may opt to offer new services to the homeless under the expanded city program.

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