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Real estate interests upped the ante in their already high-stakes fight against Santa Rosa’s rent control law, pumping another $334,000 last week into the record-breaking campaign against Measure C.

Opponents of the city’s rent control law ordinance, which is suspended until voters weigh in during the June 6 referendum, have now blown away all political fundraising records for a city race, raising $815,791 to date.

“This is the largest spending campaign in the history Santa Rosa by far,” said Terry Price, chairman of the Yes on C campaign and a veteran political consultant. “There is nothing that even comes close to this type of massive amounts of spending.”

Supporters of rent control, by comparison, have raised just $123,460, giving the No campaign a nearly 7-to-1 fundraising advantage to date and a huge war chest heading into the final three weeks of the campaign.

The total of the two campaigns combined is now exceeds $939,000, though definitive campaign finance filings aren’t due until May 25.

The latest blast of cash came primarily from a $300,000 donation from the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors.

The two campaigns immediately sparred over whether that donation could be characterized as out-of-area money or not.

Political consultant Rob Muelrath is running the campaign officially known as Citizens for Fair and Equitable Housing: Rental Housing Providers and Real Estate Professionals Opposing Measure C. He said the money is local because it originated from the dues of the thousands of North Bay real estate agents and Realtors.

When members of the North Bay Association of Realtors pay professional dues, a portion of that money gets earmarked for the national group’s political action committee, including efforts in their local area, Muelrath said.

“The money is really coming from your local Realtors,” Muelrath said. “It’s coming out of the North Bay.”

The same is true when donations come from groups like the California Association of Realtors, he said.

But Mayor Chris Coursey said Santa Rosa voters can use common sense and the black-and-white on the campaign finance forms to figure out where the cash really came from.

“On its face, when a check has a return address of Chicago or Los Angeles or Sacramento, don’t tell me that money is coming from Santa Rosa,” Coursey said.

Coursey is not directly involved in the Fair and Affordable Housing — Yes on C committee, but is a strong supporter and was part of the narrow council majority that voted in favor of rent control in August. The law was suspended after petition gatherers paid for by real estate interests gathered enough signatures to force a citywide vote.

If approved, rent increases would be capped at 3 percent annually for about 11,100 apartments built in Santa Rosa before Feb. 1, 1995. Measure C would also require landlords to give a reason for evicting tenants, and in some cases require them to pay relocation expenses.

The law exempts anyone living in single-family homes, duplexes, owner-occupied triplexes and condominiums. The $1.4 million program cost would be paid for by a landlords and renters of covered units.

Coursey said he always knew the real estate industry would oppose the law, but didn’t realized it would go to these lengths to block it, he said. Still, Coursey said he likes Measure C’s chances.

“The phrase David and Goliath comes to mind,” Coursey said. “And Goliath doesn’t always win because David is pure of heart.”

Price said the campaign against Measure C has been full of dirty tricks, from the signature gatherers who used what he called deceitful tactics to the ballot arguments he called misleading to the push polling he called unethical.

“If they truly want to help out with housing, why don’t they take that $1 million and invest it in affordable housing rather than filling our mailboxes full of lies,” Price said.

Muelrath denied the campaign has used “push polling,” generally understood to be a tactic attempting to influence voters’ opinions under the guise of an opinion poll. Muelrath said they have conducted “voter education” efforts by phone but not push polling.

Muelrath declined to detail how the campaign plans to spend the additional funds in the remaining weeks.

To date, at least nine separate mailers have been produced by the opposition campaign, compared to two by supporters. Sometimes campaigns can reach a saturation point, but Muelrath said he didn’t think this one had yet.

Price disagreed. He said voters are sick of the avalanche of mailers and it’s making people take a closer look at the motives behind the opponents.

“They wonder what the objective is, and the objective is they want to continue to rent gouge our citizens,” Price said.

The key challenge for both sides, Muelrath said, will be voter turnout. This being a special election, voters might not have much motivation to make that special trip to their polling place, especially those whom rent control doesn’t affect, Muelrath said.

The city has estimated that rent control only covers 18 percent of the city’s housing stock.

Price believes up to 90 percent of the votes cast in the election will be by mail, so the challenge is reminding people to get the ballots in the mail. There is a march beginning Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. at Santa Rosa Junior College and ending at the Registrar of Voters Office to do just that, he said.

Price said the real estate industry wants to prevent Santa Rosa from becoming the latest example of rent control’s expansion in the state because they fear it will spread to other communities where people suffer similar increases.

Rents in the city have gone up 50 percent in five years and its vacancy rate hovers around 1 percent.

Veteran campaign consultant Herb Williams isn’t involved in either campaign, but sympathizes with the business community’s concern that such artificial government price control will have a negative effect on the local economy.

If he were running the opposition campaign, however, he said he’d be worried about spending more money on mailers in this key three-week push, and would ensure the effort was a diverse one. He said the campaign surely exceeded any City Council campaign and likely any countywide campaign.

“To my knowledge, I’ve never seen a campaign spend this kind of money in Sonoma County — ever,” said Williams, who has worked in the county for 25 years.

Price said he fully expected the total spending on Measure C to exceed $1 million, and more surprises from the opposition.

“At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent up a plane and dropped leaflets,” he said.

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

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