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‘Limited’ rent control plan backed by Santa Rosa council committee

Rent control in Santa Rosa now looks much more likely following a key vote Thursday that revealed a majority of City Council members appear to back the controversial housing policy.

A three-member subcommittee charged with exploring various options to rein in rising rents voted 2-1 in favor of recommending the full council adopt a modern form of rent control known as rent stabilization.

As described during the meeting, such a program would establish an annual cap on how much rents of certain units could increase. The panel supported a “limited” version of the policy, which they said would not require an expensive government bureaucracy to manage and enforce.

The recommendation is potentially pivotal because it signals that at least four of the seven City Council members are now inclined to support a form of rent control in Sonoma County’s largest city.

Council member Chris Coursey, seen by many as the swing vote on the issue, said he’s been struggling with the question for a long time, but had concluded that rent control is necessary to protect the city’s dwindling stock of affordable housing.

“I don’t know that rent stabilization is the solution to the problem we have with affordable housing right now, but it can be part of a solution and needs to be part of a solution,” Coursey said.

He was joined by Councilwoman Julie Combs, who has been one of the council’s most vocal supporters of rent control as part of a broader strategy to address what advocates have termed a housing crisis.

Vice Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said he could not support rent control because it doesn’t actually help low-income people, and instead effectively creates a “black market” for rent-stabilized apartments.

The vote immediately drew fire from real estate interests, who have made it clear for months they would fight any attempt to impose a public policy they view as misguided, unfair and counterproductive.

“There will be significant organized opposition to any form of rent control,” said Daniel Sanchez, director of government affairs for the North Bay Association of Realtors, who watched the meeting with a grim expression.

Several renters attended the meeting and expressed anxiety that rising rents would put them out on the street.

Richard Smith, 78, said he’s been a renter in Santa Rosa for 24 years and has endured 14 percent annual rent increases for each of the past four years. He said he’s now paying 72 percent of his fixed monthly income on rent and has nowhere to go if the rent goes up again.

“If you don’t act on our pleas now, we’re going to have people in the street such as myself,” Smith said.

Coursey hinted at his position early in the sparsely attended afternoon meeting when he objected to staff and Combs using the term “soft” rent stabilization. He suggested the phrase “limited” and added that “I’m not sure it’s any less effective” than full rent control.

He explained that he preferred a limited form of rent control because it wouldn’t involve a large multimillion-dollar bureaucracy, as exists in some cities. He noted that a report by a city consultant estimated the city could implement such a program for a mere $28,000 per year.

“I’m not sure that’s a realistic figure, but that’s the one I’d like to be closer to,” he said.

A report by Management Partners said such “soft” rent stabilization involves limited city staff because the rents of individual units aren’t tracked. Instead, annual rent increases could be capped by the city and landlords would have to abide by the limit and inform their tenants of the rule. Disagreements would be mediated by a rent control board or a nonprofit organization.

Combs suggested that the annual increase be pegged to inflation through the Consumer Price Index, but Coursey suggested a more stable figure might make more sense, such as 4 percent per year. In addition, he said he supported a provision to automatically suspend the program if vacancy rates loosen up.

Anticipating criticism that the city should focus on helping the building industry create the necessary housing, Coursey stressed that the city is doing that as well. But he noted that with rents rising an average of 10 percent annually, the city’s stock of affordable housing is shrinking far more quickly than it could ever be replenished by building new units.

“The real estate industry has convinced me that we have a supply problem,” Coursey said. “We need to increase the supply of housing of all types, especially affordable housing. … But at the same time we’ve got to preserve the supply that we’ve got.”

In January, the last time the council took up the issue, it was split on the subject. Three members - Schwedhelm, Councilman Ernesto Olivares and Mayor John Sawyer - were strongly against it. Two members - Combs and Erin Carlstrom - were strongly in favor. Coursey and Gary Wysocky said they needed more information before making a decision.

Now Coursey has staked out a position. That leaves Wysocky still unaccounted for, although the second-term councilman seems likely to join his progressive colleagues. He has of late expressed concern that some landlords are greedy, decried economic policies that erode the middle class, and expressed a belief that government needs to protect its weakest citizens.

The group agreed that all seven options before the subcommittee would be forwarded to the full council for consideration, but only three would get its recommendation: limited rent stabilization, a rental unit inspection program and a tenant-landlord education program.

City staff said they’d try to get the rent stabilization issue before the full council by May 10.

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

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