Money pouring in to fight rent control in Santa Rosa

Groups representing landlords have reported raising nearly $400,000 to block Measure C, a June ballot measure that would implement Santa Rosa’s suspended rent control law.|

The June referendum vote on Santa Rosa’s rent control ordinance is shaping up to be an expensive - and likely lopsided - brawl.

Landlords and groups representing them, mostly from outside Santa Rosa, have donated at least $390,000 to date for a political committee opposing the city’s law.

That’s compared to about $68,000 raised by supporters of the city’s rent control law, which seeks to cap rent increases on older apartments at 3 percent annually and protect renters against unfair evictions.

That law, passed by the City Council in August, hasn’t gone into effect yet because petition gatherers - also paid for by groups representing landlords - submitted enough signatures to suspend the law’s implementation pending a citywide vote.

Mayor Chris Coursey called the real estate industry contributions “a big number” and “as a first salvo, a bit of a surprise.” But given the $1.2 million pumped into Bay Area elections last November by real estate groups, mostly from Sacramento and Los Angeles, Coursey said he was not surprised.

“The people of this community are going to be the ones voting, and we know that money doesn’t always win elections in Santa Rosa,” Coursey said.

The rent control ordinance, Measure C, goes before voters on June 6 in a special election. The city’s proposed tax on cannabis businesses, Measure D, will be on the same ballot.

The largest contribution reported to date to the landlord committee, called “Citizens for Fair and Equitable Housing - No on C,” was $280,000 from the political action committee of the California Association of Realtors. A treasurer for the committee referred questions to the spokesman for the California Apartment Association, who did not return a call for comment.

Two other big contributions came from apartment complex owners with large properties in Santa Rosa.

Belmont-based Woodmont Real Estate Services, which owns eight large complexes in the city, contributed $75,400. The apartments are located throughout the city, including The Boulders at Fountaingrove, The Villages off Piner Road in northwest Santa Rosa, Oak Creek Apartments off Highway 12 in east Santa Rosa, and the Park Lake Villas in southwest Santa Rosa.

A spokesperson said the company would have no comment.

Another large apartment owner in the city, Santa Rosa-based Pine Creek Properties, contributed $20,000 to the effort to block rent control. Pine Creek owns five major complexes in the city, including the Coddingtown Mall Apartments, consisting of 470 apartments and condominiums. No one from the company returned a call for comment.

Other contributors included $2,500 from Sonoma County Alliance, a local business group, and $1,160 from Marlow Apartments LP of San Francisco, which owns a 116-unit complex on Marlow Road.

By comparison, a group called “Fair and Affordable Santa Rosa - Yes on C” has reported just $1,000 in contributions to date, from Rick Theis, a local environmental activist.

But that masks the true donations, which include a $65,000 contribution from labor union SEIU, explained Terry Price, chairman of the pro-rent control committee. The deadline to report the entire $68,000 the group has received to date is next month, Price said.

Price, a veteran political consultant, said the election is shaping up to be a “David versus Goliath” battle that will be fierce. He estimated that real estate interests probably have already raised more than $500,000, and are planning to pump $1 million into the race. Unlike the November elections, when the industry spent $1.2 million to fight five rent control measures in the Bay Area, the Santa Rosa ordinance is the only rent control measure on the ballot in June.

“This will, in essence, be a battleground state to them,” Price said.

Despite the influx of money, Price predicted that renters will respond to a grassroots campaign in support of Measure C because they are riled up.

“People are extremely disgusted and angry at what is happening in Washington, D.C., and the situation that we have here - where a local jurisdiction passes a rent control measure and outside special interests and corporate interests come in with massive amounts of money to overturn what the democratically-elected officials have put in place - has hit a nerve,” Price said.

Councilwoman Julie Combs said the city’s measure won’t affect good landlords. She said the law is full of mechanisms to make sure landlords earn a profit, can make and pass on the cost of needed repairs and get rid of problem tenants. But the rules are designed to block the kind of blatant “profiteering” that some landlords have engaged in, she said, citing one in Healdsburg who evicted everyone and bragged about getting a 30 percent return on his money.

“That’s price-gouging. That’s taking advantage of a crisis,” Combs said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207.

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