Fate of rent control could be decided in Santa Rosa City Council election
Four seats are opening up on the Santa Rosa City Council this year, and with two incumbents bowing out, voters soon will have a significant say in the political priorities for the North Coast’s largest city.
Housing, homelessness, roads and cannabis regulation are all on voters’ minds this year, but one issue is dominating the city’s political discourse: rent control.
The controversial policy, passed Aug. 29 and set to go into effect Friday, has not only split the City Council down the middle, but it has sharply divided the six candidates, as well.
Three candidates - Councilwoman Julie Combs, Jack Tibbetts and Chris Rogers - support, to varying degrees, the city’s new rent control law, which calls for a 3 percent cap on rent increases for many older rental properties.
The other three - Councilman Ernesto Olivares, Don Taylor and Brandi Asker - all oppose the idea, and say they would vote to overturn the law if the opportunity arose.
That makes this year’s election somewhat unusual in that it has clear policy consequences for tens of thousands of city residents.
“I’m not sure that voters have really zeroed in yet on just how important this election is,” said Terry Price, a retired Santa Rosa political consultant who once worked for Combs. “This will decide the direction of rent control for the next 20 years.”
Riveted, and in many cases mortified, by one of the most unusual and polarizing presidential election years in memory, many Sonoma County voters have yet to turn their attention to local races. But with vote-by-mail ballots going out on Oct. 10, voters will soon be deluged with mailers, television ads and candidate forums seeking to influence races for city, county and state offices as well as ballot measures and initiatives. A key candidates’ forum for the City Council race is set for this Thursday at the council chambers.
The two council incumbents stepping down, Gary Wysocky and Erin Carlstrom, both voted to support rent control and an accompanying policy to protect renters from unfair evictions.
Much of the attention on the rent control fight in Santa Rosa has focused on the petition drive underway to overturn the policy, a push that appears to be backed by the California Apartment Association, a trade group which represents landlords.
If the drive succeeds in gathering signatures from 8,450 registered voters, the council will decide whether to repeal the law or send it to a vote of the people, which would suspend the implementation of the law until voters decide its fate. But anti-rent control forces aren’t putting all their eggs in the referendum basket. They’re also pouring loads of money into the Nov. 8 election, hoping to tip the tenuous 4-3 balance on the council favoring rent control back in their favor.
“This is the referendum before the referendum,” said Combs, the council’s strongest supporter of rent control. “I believe this is a referendum on rent stabilization and just-cause for eviction and whether we’re going to allow the apartment association to buy an election.”
Combs was referring to the independent expenditure committee recently established by a group called the Citizens for Economic and Affordable Housing Solutions, which is backed by the California Apartment Association.
The organization has received $50,000 to date, which it says is to support Taylor, the owner of two Omelette Express restaurants in Sonoma County.
Taylor says he’s against rent control because he’s a longtime pro-business candidate and landlord who believes the way to control rents is to increase the supply of housing. Taylor served on the city’s Planning Commission in the early 2000s and has run for council unsuccessfully four times since.
“I am who I am, and I’m not for rent control,” Taylor said.
The committee supporting Taylor has received $25,000 from the California Apartment Association, $15,000 from the California Association of Realtors and $10,000 from the Sonoma County Alliance, a local business group.
Brian Ling, executive director of the alliance, said the group is supporting Taylor not because of his position on rent control but because he’s the “most business- and economic development-friendly candidate on the ballot.”
Both Taylor and his political consultant, Herb Williams, said they were unaware of how much money the committee had raised or how it planned to support Taylor’s candidacy. Its officers were listed in regulatory filings as Daniel Sanchez, director of government affairs for the North Bay Association of Realtors, and Mallori Spilker, executive director of the North Coast office of the statewide apartment association. Neither responded to requests for comment Friday.