Santa Rosans begin voting next week to determine whether the city should implement rent control in a special election that is shaping up to be the most divisive and expensive in the city’s history.
A sharply split City Council passed the controversial policy last fall, seeking to address soaring rents and a spike in evictions. In response, local landlords and the statewide organizations that support them funded a petition drive that suspended the law and forced a referendum on the issue.
Now voters will decide the fate of Measure C in a citywide special election that is shattering all spending records and putting Santa Rosa on the front lines of a statewide debate over how cities can best address the housing crisis.
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.
Voting by mail begins Monday, and residents go to the polls on June 6.
Councilwoman Julie Combs, a staunch advocate of rent control and just-cause eviction rules, said Measure C has an excellent chance of passing because voters are turned off by the influx of outside cash, much of which has come from outside real estate groups.
“I am really proud of our residents. They get we have a housing crisis,” Combs said. “Neighborhood stability is important to people in Santa Rosa and I trust them to make the right choice.”
She thinks the housing crisis is so pervasive that even people who wouldn’t be directly affected by rent control, such as owners or renters of single-family homes, have seen its disruptive effects on adult children, friends or coworkers.
“We are bleeding out our seniors, families, teachers, nurses, students, hotel and restaurant workers, and your employees,” Combs said recently in remarks to the Sonoma County Alliance, a local business group. “They deserve to live here as much as anyone.”
But rent control foes are making a forceful case against the controversial policy.
Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, a steady critic of rent control, argues that it could actually exacerbate the housing shortage, create unnecessary additional bureaucracy and distract the city from the real solution of increasing housing inventory.
“Government does not need to artificially manipulate the system, it needs to get out of the way and encourage more housing development,” Schwedhelm said.
The city’s former police chief said he thinks rent control will scare off potential developers and investors at the precise time the city needs to be partnering with them, and will discourage existing property owners from maintaining their buildings if the city makes it harder to recoup their investment.
He also says the policy will affect “very few” Santa Rosa residents, doesn’t ensure those who would benefit from rent control really need the help, and may make it harder to convince existing landlords to rent to a formerly homeless person or tenants whose rent payments are federally subsidized.
“Those who are seeking affordable housing or are experiencing homelessness are on the outside looking in,” Schwedhelm said.